Julia Ioffe is a Russian-born American journalist who’s had a good career for someone so young (she’s only 34). She was a Russian correspondent for both The New Yorker and Foreign Policy, and then moved on to The New Republic where she became a senior editor. Because I also wrote for TNR, I read some of her stuff, which I found pretty good. She resigned when the magazine changed owners, and is now a writer for The New York Times Magazine as well as Politico.
And she still writes for Foreign Policy as well, though I was appalled to see her latest piece at that site, “If Islam is a religion of violence, so is Christianity.” The title pretty much gives the thesis: that although many religious scriptures are violent, including the Bible and Qur’an, no religion is inherently violent. In fact, they all promote roughly equal amounts of violence, which is due not to the religion itself but how its scriptures are misused by those who have other grievances. And so we shouldn’t demonize Islam more than any other faith—and among those she includes Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and, I suppose, Jainism, Quakerism, and every other one of the thousands of religions on this planet. And so we have her last paragraph, which, if I didn’t know better, I would have attributed to the Great Apologist, Reza Aslan:
No religion is inherently violent. No religion is inherently peaceful. Religion, any religion, is a matter of interpretation, and it is often in that interpretation that we see either beauty or ugliness — or, more often, if we are mature enough to think nuanced thoughts, something in between.
But Ioffe’s journalism is dreadful and her argument is weak. First, the argument.
All religions inspired violence sometime during their history, ergo all are violent. Christians had the Crusades and the Inquisition, as well as wars between Protestants and Catholics and a vicious history of violent anti-Semitism. And much homophobia today is inspired by Christianity.
Even the Jews, which Ioffe calls her “co-religionists” (implying she’s a believer) practice violence. She refers to Hanukah as a celebration of violence, although the holiday isn’t a celebration of violence per se but of the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after a struggle between two sects of Jews. But let’s grant her that thesis, and and admit that, according to the Old Testament, the Jews engaged in a frenzy of genocide on Yahweh’s orders.
To further prove that Judaism promotes violence, she mentions Yishai Schlissel, who stabbed six people at a gay pride parade in Jerusalem in 2005, serving ten years for his crime. Baruch Goldstein, who killed 29 Palestinian worshipers and wounded more than 125 in 1994, and was beaten to death on the spot, is also an exemplar of Jewish violence. These are indeed examples of religiously inspired murders.
Finally, Ioffe indicts Buddhists, too, citing the persecution of the Rohingyas in Myanmar.
There’s no doubt that, with very few exceptions, you can find members of any faith who have done bad deeds, and done them in the name of their religion. But does that mean that they’re all equally violent, as Ioffe claims?
You’d have to be blind to think that. We don’t see mass Buddhist, Jewish, or even Christian terrorism inflicted on the scale of what radical Islam is doing. We don’t see members of these religions blowing up airplanes or flying planes into buildings. Has a Quaker stabbed anybody lately in the name of Quakerism, or a Yazidi attacked innocent civilians in the name of their faith? Where are the Christian, Jewish, and Buddhist suicide bombers attacking cafes and nightclubs, citing the Bible or the teachings of the Buddha?
What Iofee is doing is using cherry-picked anecdotes to support a general thesis about the world today. This is not good journalism. Nor does she note that most of the anecdotes, at least about Christianity, are from the distant past, while what we’re concerned with is what’s happening in the world today. While Christian homophobes and anti-abortionists exist, there is no Christian church I know of, or any Jewish synagogue, for that matter, that dictates explicitly to its followers to kill nonbelievers, apostates, gays, and adulterers—as sharia law dictates in several Muslim countries.
By and large, the non-Islamic Abrahamic religions have been defanged by the Enlightenment. But that process is only beginning with Islam, and mostly among Muslims who have moved to the West. We can indeed make the argument that both the Qur’an and the the Bible are violent scriptures (though, on a word-for-word basis, the Qur’an is twice as violent), but what matters is how the scriptures are interpreted today, and how they inspire people to do bad things. Ioffe more or less admits this, but won’t go so far as to say that Qur’anic scripture is more often used to justify bad deeds than is the Bible or the teachings of Buddhism. In fact, she claims that even scripture itself isn’t to blame: that’s just a convenient excuse people use to justify their inherent violence—which brings us to her second argument:
People simply use religion as an excuse to act on their inherently violent tendencies. As she writes:
No religion is inherently peaceful or violent, nor is it inherently anything other than what its followers make it out to be. People are violent, and people can dress their violence up in any number of justifying causes that seek to relieve people of their personal responsibility because the cause or religion, be it Communism or Catholicism or Islam, is simply bigger than themselves. It’s very convenient for both the perpetrator of violence and his accuser, and yet totally useless: Something can be done with a person who has transgressed, but what can you do with an amorphous concept?
“Dress up their violence in justifying causes”? Doesn’t she believe what terrorists say about their motivations? Perhaps not, for she knows better. And does she not realize that what Muslims make of their doctrine leads to more violence in today’s world than what Christians make of their doctrine? Why is that, if people are all equally violent for other reasons, and use their faith to justify what they do? As for “what can be done with an amorpous concept” (religion), is Ioffe not aware of antitheism and secularism, which argue explicitly against “amorphous concepts”. Is she ignorant of how for years people have called out Christianity and Judaism for their misogyny, homophobia, and, in the case of Catholicism, for enabling child rape? The statement “what can you do with an amorphous concept” is simply silly for a political journalist to make. Christianity and Islam are no more amorphous than Communism or the Republican party.
And yet when discussing specific cases, Iofee seems to accept that religion can indeed inspire violence. To make that point, she dwells at length on Dylann Roof, who killed 9 African-Americans at a church in South Carolina exactly a year ago today. Everything I’ve ever read about that case implicates racial bigotry as Roof’s motivation rather than religion (he was brought up Christian). But Ioffe tries to get around that:
Friday will mark the one-year anniversary of Dylann Roof killing nine people in the middle of a Bible study in Charleston, S.C. Before his rampage, he wrote a manifesto declaring his allegiance to the white supremacist cause and pointing to the Council of Conservative Citizens, which claims to adhere to “Christian beliefs and values,” as a major source of information and inspiration. By some accounts, Roof came from a church-going family and attended Christian summer camp. Did Roof kill his fellow Christians because he was deranged or because Christianity is violent?”
The answer is neither. They are not exceptions, nor do they speak to a violence inherent in Christianity. Because my point is not that Christianity is evil. It isn’t. But neither is it inherently peaceful and loving. And neither is Islam. Nor Judaism nor Hinduism nor Buddhism.
Yes, Roof came from a churchgoing family, but there’s simply no indication that religion sparked his killing spree, nor did he say so, for he wrote a manifesto. As the Christian Post noted (my emphasis):
There was no mention of religion in Roof’s alleged 2,400-word screed explaining why he had “no choice” but to take action after finding “pages upon pages of these brutal black on white murders” on the Council of Conservative Citizens’ website.
The Council of Conservative Citizens, which calls for the U.S. to adhere to “Christian beliefs and values,” explains in its “Statement of Principles” that it “oppose(s) all efforts to mix the races of mankind, to promote non-white races over the European-American people through so-called ‘affirmative action’ and similar measures, to destroy or denigrate the European-American heritage, including the heritage of the Southern people, and to force the integration of the races.”
By pointing to the Counsel of Conservative Citizens as having some connection to Christianity, Ioffe is simply grasping at straws, trying desperately to find some connection between Roof’s killings and his faith, even though she refuses to blame his faith. But there is no evidence for that connection. On the other hand, it’s not hard to name the mass killings by Muslims, including the latest one in Orlando, where the killers explicitly mention their faith as a reason.
Ioffe does the same guilt-by-association tactic when she drags Laura Ingraham, a conservative talk-show host, into her argument about why Islam isn’t any more violent than other faiths. Ioffe:
I am tired of hearing, from Bill Maher and from Donald Trump, that Islam is inherently violent. I am even more tired of hearing that Christianity is inherently peaceful. I have witnessed this debate play out many times over, including at one dinner party when Laura Ingraham turned to the other guests and took a poll: Raise your hands if you think Islam is a death cult. Most of the (politically conservative) guests raised their hands and then took pains to explain to me how, unlike Islam, Christianity is inherently a religion of love.
With all due respect to my many Christian friends, I seriously beg to differ.
I am not sure what point she is trying to make here, other than that some Conservative Christians, as polled by Laura Ingraham, think that their Christianity is more tolerant and loving than is Islam. In fact, I doubt that many of those present even know what the notion of Islam as a “death cult” really means. The term, by the way, may have been coined by Sam Harris (I found a reference to it from 2006).
In the end, this is abysmal journalism fueled by the author’s prejudice, which she tries to justify by stringing together anecdotes, including mentions of Christian violence from hundreds of years ago. She gives no figures nor displays any knowledge of the Qur’an or of Islam itself, but simply declares that it’s no more violent than any other faith. Above all, she doesn’t seem to recognize that when we argue that Islam is the most dangerous religion on the planet, we aren’t saying that it’s scriptures are inherently more odious than other scriptures, but that the religion is interpreted in such a way that makes it more dangerous. This is not rocket science. It’s the height ot inanity to make the claim that, in terms of how their scriptures are promulgated and interpreted, all religions are equally malicious, down to the fifth decimal point.
I am not sure why Ioffe, who has a history of good journalism behind her, wrote such a shoddy piece. One can speculate that this is an extended example of virtue-signaling, or of Regressive Leftism. Or maybe she’s trying to distance herself from the outrageous anti-Muslim statements of Donald Trump. But I’m not a psychologist, and so will leave her piece as an dangerous example of fuzzy, Aslan-ian style apologetics, and hope that Ioffe will get off this horse and resume her usual good reportage.