The opening of Sam Harris’s End of Faith, like several essays he wrote at HuffPo, focus on suicide bombing. He argues that suicide bombing is absurd, and only exists because of religion. A footnote to EoF acknowledges that suicide bombing was first deployed on a large scale by the Tamil Tigers, who were not fighting a religious war, but rather were part of an ethnic and nationalistic conflict. He waves this objection away at HuffPo by writing: “it is misleading to describe the Tamil Tigers as ‘secular’ … While the motivations of the Tigers are not explicitly religious, they are Hindus who undoubtedly believe many improbable things about the nature of life and death. The cult of martyr-worship that they have nurtured for decades has many of the features of religiosity that one would expect in people who give their lives so easily for a cause.” In other words, they aren’t motivated by religion, but their longstanding ethnic/nationalistic war has produced something just like religion even though it isn’t actually religion. Therefore religion is still the problem. To say this style of argument is exactly what Popper derided as unfalsifiable in communism and Freudianism does Marx and Freud a disservice.
In that same essay, he handwaves away research by University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape, who has maintained a long-term research project on the origins of suicide bombing and the means of preventing it. Harris dismisses that research by arguing: “Pape seems unable to imagine what it would be like to actually believe what millions of Muslims profess to believe.” But Sam Harris apparently does know what it would be like, and he’s appalled enough to consider pre-emptive nuclear strikes against Islamist regimes. This untestable mental model of how Muslims really feel is sufficient evidence to dismiss the results of peer reviewed research.
Alas for Harris, Pape actually takes science seriously, and has continued his work, and here’s the headline (probably not written by Pape himself or by co-author James Feldman, professor emeritus of the Air Force Institute of Technology and the School of Advanced Airpower Studies) for his latest book on the subject: How to end suicide bombings: The problem is not Islam, but lengthy military occupations. The press release about the book explains:
Despite a popular belief that suicide terrorism is the result of religious fanaticism, such bombings are really a calculated response to occupations by outsiders, according to research in a new book, Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It. The book examines exhaustive data on suicide attacks since 1980 in the Middle East, Chechnya, Sri Lanka and around the world.
The data show that the best way to reduce suicide bombings in Afghanistan or Iraq is not to condemn Islamic extremism, but to end foreign occupations as quickly as possible, Pape claims. …
The central problem is that leaders in the United States have constructed a narrative that identified the threat as coming from Islamic extremists who hate the United States. That explanation led to the invasions, occupations and eventual efforts to establish democratic regimes, something that requires a heavy military presence, the authors explained.
“But we now have strong evidence that the narrative — that suicide terrorism is prompted by Islamic fundamentalism — is not true,” Pape said. Despite some military success, suicide terrorism has continued, Pape said.
An excerpt from the book rightly notes that, while suicide bombers come from multiple religions, from both fundamentalist and secularist wings of those religions, the common theme is blindingly obvious:
From Lebanon to Sri Lanka to the West Bank to Chechnya, the central goal of every suicide terrorist campaign has been to resist military occupation by a democracy.
Building on what they claim to be a complete database of suicide bombings since 1980, the researchers show:
The stationing of foreign combat forces (ground and tactical air force units) on territory that terrorists prize accounts for 87% of the over 1,800 suicide terrorist attacks around the world since 2004. The occupation of Pakistan’s western tribal regions by local combat forces allied to American military forces stationed across the border in Afghanistan accounts for another 12%. Further, the timing of the deployment of combat forces threatening territory the terrorists prize accounts for the onset of all eight major suicide terrorist campaigns between 1980 and 2009, which together comprise 96% of the 2,188 attacks during that period. Simply put, military occupation accounts for nearly all suicide terrorism around the world since 1980. For this finding to be wrong, our research team would have had to miss hundreds of suicide attacks during this period, which is unlikely as readers can judge for themselves by reviewing the database of suicide attacks available online at cpost.uchicago.edu.
As further evidence that it is occupation, not simply nationalism or religion, which drives suicide bombing, the authors observe:
as Israel withdrew combat forces from Gaza and large parts of the West Bank and relied on defensive measures such as the “wall” in 2004 and as the United States and its allies drew down the total number of combat forces from Iraq after January 2008, suicide terrorism in both conflicts substantially declined.
In other words, this is a view with substantial empirical support, and well-grounded in the extant theory of political science. Against this, all Harris can offer are a set of remarkably vagile goalposts. As Pape and Feldman write: “when moral posturing comes to replace reasoned assessment of data and dispassionate consideration of the causes of a phenomenon, we may end up with a visceral response rather than an effective plan of action to protect those we care about.”
Harris somehow seems to think that visceral reactions are the same as scientific evidence, and tries to build a science of morality on such gut feelings. This is a bit problematic.