Heather Hastie on why Bin Laden masterminded 9/11: was it Islam?

I’m trying to recuperate and not brain too hard, so I’ll refer you to an article just posted by Heather Hastie, who clearly has brained hard: “It’s 15 years since 9/11—why did Bin-Laden attack.” It’s a long but readable piece, and considers the extent to which Islam played a role in the World Trade Center attacks. She concludes, after looking at the data (including Bin Laden’s own statement) that Islam indeed play a substantial role, something also concluded by Lawrence Wright in his Pulitzer-Prize-winning book: The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. (I always recommend that book to those who say that religion has nothing to do with terrorism committed by Muslims.)

At any rate, there’s a lively discussion going on in Heather’s comments section, and Neil Godfrey has shown up, arguing, as he always does, that the role of Islam in Islamic terrorism is much overrated. I’m just glad he’s inflicted himself on Heather and not me.

It baffles me that nearly every nonreligious ideology—Nazism, Stalinism, racism, and so on—can be seen without opposition as a source of horrible acts, but when you get to religion, well, nope, it never inspires anything bad. (Of course, those same folks will tell you about all the good it inspires.)


  1. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted September 15, 2016 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    And no one disputes that Christianity was a major factor in the Crusades and Inquisition several centuries ago (not even Karen Armstrong). Folks even recognize that Christian thinking is behind anti-gay anti-abortion initiatives from the American right today.

    Bertrand Russell and many others recognize that Christianity has been tempered, chastened, modernized, etc. etc.. (and to a degree internally reformed). So why is it so hard to get that this has NOT happened to Islam??

    • Canoe
      Posted September 15, 2016 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

      I agree fully, BUT this endless quillet as to whether or not religion as such is responsible for reprehensible acts is distracting and gets us nowhere.

      All the major religions come pre-loaded with peculiar and harmful tenets, e.g. kill non-believers, or our god is the only god. One might say that it is precisely those exclusionary tenets that made them as big and successful as they became; I don’t think the Quakers, for example, ever achieved that kind of numbers.

      And it is equally obvious that those factors can be prominent, as in current Islam, or recessive, as in most of current Christianity, depending upon the cultural context at the time. At the time of the Crusades, for example, Christianity was critically different, not in terms of its written texts but in therms of the culture. By the same token, when Islam conquered Spain it was a much more peaceful and culturally rich – and scientifically rich – culture than it is now, yet with essentially the same religious texts.

      So can’t we just acknowledge that it is the wider CULTURE, rather than the religion per se, that determines how much serious evil a people can do at any particular time.

      • Taz
        Posted September 15, 2016 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

        Religion is part of the wider culture – and a huge part in the Islamic world today.

        (Also, it’s a bit absurd to talk about how “peaceful” Islam was while it was conquering Spain.)

      • somer
        Posted September 15, 2016 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

        I don’t think islam was any different in the time of Andalusian Spain, but it has become the humanities orthodoxy to believe so. The Almoravids who conquered Spain were Maliki school Sunni Islam – which takes the bit of the quran that says fight the infidel There are many passages throughout the Qur’an that support jihad and that subjection is warranted (if Jews or Christians are not paying the jizya and made to “feel themselves subdued” by the Muslims Quran 9:29). On paying the special tax for them, the Jews or Christians had to submit to being placed below a muslim official, held by the throat and insulted and jeered at by the Muslim community (re Christians Dario Fernandez-Morera) or else Jews had to sit and utter no protest whilst being struck with the stick on the mandible (Bat Ye’or, who is Jewish). Non Muslims had to wear distinctive clothing, walk at the side of the road (presumably near the gutter), ride only donkeys and only sidesaddle, live in lower buildings, not carry arms, not build new places of worship or do major repairs, could not be witness in Muslim court and not testify against a muslim, (The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise,by Dario Fernandez-Moreira) injury by a Muslim liable to much lesser punishment of the Muslim; injury to Muslim likewise much more punishable. Converts to Islam were not trusted for a number of generations.

        Almoahads who succeeded the Almoravids for the last 200 years actively repressed other religions and instituted kind of totalitarian regime amongst Muslims. The Almoravids and Ummayads enslaved or killed (including crucifying) rebellious Christians. The 10th century ruler al Mansur sacked and burned Barcelona and seven other Spanish towns, enslaving those he did not kill. He used riches taken from Jews and Christians to beautify Cordoba and he got the Islamic clerics to burn all the philosophical works in the Caliphates library. ( Fernandez Moreira chapter on Myth of Ummayad tolerance) The famous jewish doctor and philosopher Maimonedes, used his position as medical doctors to the Islamic rulers to minister free to Jewish poor and try to alleviate their situation. He had to flee pious Islamic reaction several times in his life.
        “Andalusian rulers’ mass use of beheading, crucifixion, impaling and other such hash methods of killing,… Muslim leaders would have been encouraged in their particularly intensive use of beheading and crucifixion to keep under control the boiling cauldron that was “multiethnic and “multi religious” al-Andalus. Otherwise the system operated by divide and rule, a few jews were favoured, but a jewish grand vizier was crucified by an Ummayad ruler in the 11th Century, and a massacre of 2000 jews followed. And p 217 of Fernandez Morera, In Andalusia, the Jewish Sephardic community and the Christian community were allowed to rule themselves through exclusionary laws motivated by fear of the “others”.

        • somer
          Posted September 15, 2016 at 9:56 pm | Permalink

          The quote on crucifixion and beheading is from section on this pp 136-138 in Fernandez Morera. The Maliki school took Quran 9.29 about making the dhimmi “feel themselves subdued” more seriously than the Syafi school (which says don’t humiliate) or the Hanifa school tho the two less conservative (overall) schools still strenuously advocate violent jihad to convert the world as I’ve pointed out elsewhere

    • frednotfaith2
      Posted September 15, 2016 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

      I actually did get into an argument with someone who insisted the Catholic Church did not authorize the execution of anyone through the Inquisition — that it was entirely the state that ordered and carried out the mass murders and the church was squeaky clean. Ugh.

      • JonLynnHarvey
        Posted September 16, 2016 at 1:03 am | Permalink

        On the Spanish Inquisition, your friend is right, but in addition there was earlier medieval inquisition which wiped out the Cathars, and later the Portuguese and Roman Inquisitions, all controlled the Roamin Catholic Church!!!!

        • somer
          Posted September 16, 2016 at 6:24 am | Permalink

          The rulers of Spain and Portugal required the permission of the Pope to set up the inquisitions, and they were designed to enforce orthodoxy. These persecutions carried out in the name of religion were backward and brutal in Spain and Portugal and after peaking in the 16th Century went on until about 1830 – making those countries subject to scorn from the rest of Europe. I suspect that eight continuous centuries of harsh colonisation in the Andalusian period encouraged the entrenchment of a backward mindset – all sanctioned by the Church. Muslim people themselves have only ever been colonised for a much shorter period (with the exception of the Indonesians who were colonised in stages) and the non muslim peoples whom europeans have colonised for longest don’t have the hostile Muslim attitude. I can understand Bin Laden’s anger at the favouritism towards Lebanese Christians but his statements were always mixed with imperialist sentiments (e.g. appropriating the Torah as actually the Quran and claiming the world for islam). That isn’t to say I don’t think some of the resentment is founded in western action or approve of the Christian right wing claiming a right to convert the world or uphold (or even encourage the spread of) christianity by military means.

  2. Hart P
    Posted September 15, 2016 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    The error of neoliberal atheists is to conflate “religion had something to do with it” with “only religion had something to do with it.”

    To put it another way, the inflexibility of those who blame only Islam is just as wrongheaded as the inflexibility of those who blame anything but Islam.

    • Posted September 15, 2016 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

      Excuse me, but could you name any “neolobieral atheist” of note who has asserted that ONLY religion has had something to do with it”? You’re making a huge strawman argument here, tut-tutting about something nobody claims.

      We’re waiting, and please give references.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted September 15, 2016 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

      The wrongheadedness I see is that whenever a new atheist mentions that they consider religion is a MAJOR driver of terrorism there are those who read it as, “religion is the ONLY driver of terrorism.”

      What I focus on in this post isn’t causation but justification, which is a subtle difference. However, anyone who honestly evaluates everything I’ve written on the subject cannot say that I think religion is the only cause.

      • frednotfaith2
        Posted September 15, 2016 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

        Alas, I have a good friend I’ve had to agree to disagree with who insist that George Bush or anyone except Muhammad Atta, Osama bin Laden, and the other “supposed” (as they insist) hi-jackers, was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. This friend, btw, is an atheist and has a PhD in Communications, but he’s entirely bought into the conspiracy myth about 9/11. Of course, it was a conspiracy — by Al Qaeda. And I loathe Bush myself but I’m more convinced that bin Laden orchestrated it than that Bush had anything to do with it, other than taking such a lackadaisical approach to national security as to ignore all the warning signs that an attack was eminent.

      • Alfred Nyby
        Posted September 15, 2016 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

        Could you rank what you believe are the causes of terrorism. Religion, poverty, oppression, subjugation, disenfranchisement, political goals, state sponsorship, or in any manner you’d like to label the causes. My impression is that you and Jerry Coyne would rank religion first.

        • Heather Hastie
          Posted September 16, 2016 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

          No, I couldn’t. I don’t think that can be done. It’s always a combination of factors and the combination will be different for different people too – not all terrorists are the same. Bin Laden, for example, didn’t suffer from poverty, lack of opportunity, oppression, disenfranchisement, need for a leadership figure, or many of the other factors that are often present in radicalization.

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted September 17, 2016 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

          [Rank] the causes of terrorism. Religion, poverty, oppression, subjugation, disenfranchisement, political goals, state sponsorship,

          Your categories overlap, severely. “Religion” is almost inextricably entwined with “oppression” and “subjugation” – what is the point of having a religion if it’s not to give you a tool to oppress “others” (see comments upthread about the poll tax put on non-Muslims by the Andalusan state, for example), and to keep the poor (i.e. non-ruling classes) with their noses down in the dirt (literally for Islam, in the Confessional for the Catholic Xtians.
          Is there any time that a state-level organisation does anything without having some political aims?
          Religion is certainly important, but it is just one of the suite of overlapping tools designed and deployed by oligarchs to further their political and economic aims.

      • W.Benson
        Posted September 15, 2016 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

        I read somewhere that bin Laden became particularly anti-American following the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and American naval intervention (such as shelling of Druze and Shiite militias with warships, including the battleship USS New Jersy).
        Although billed as neutral, Reagan’s intervention consistently sided with actors allied to Israel and Lebanon’s Christian right and against Syrian interests. Fire from these warships was often inaccurate, and many shells fell onto villages killing civilians. As Colin Powell put it, “When the shells started falling on the Shiites, they assumed the American ‘referee’ had taken sides.”
        I don’t deny that bin Laden was inspired by religion, but I also wonder if the Lebanese opposition had been Baptists, Methodists, Catholics and Jews, would Ronald Reagan been so hot on naval bombardment. Wikipedia’s “Mountain War (Lebanon)” page gives what seems to be a balanced view of the conflict.

        • Posted September 16, 2016 at 4:57 am | Permalink

          I do not see any legitimate Syrian interests in Lebanon. Actually, with the Assad clan treating the country as its private property, I do not see any legitimate interests of Syrian government even in Syria.

          The Sunni Muslim majority in Syria has been oppressed by the Assad regime for a long time. However, bin Laden apparently had no issue with this, only with Americans.

          • Posted September 16, 2016 at 11:15 am | Permalink

            Part of the problem with Syria/Lebanon is the division is somewhat artificial relative to the people who live there. For example, large numbers of Lebanese are Marionites, who liturgically still use Syriac. (Which has no native speakers left, needless to say, but …)

          • gravelinspector-Aidan
            Posted September 17, 2016 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

            I do not see any legitimate Syrian interests in Lebanon.

            Does America have legitimate interests in Mexico, despite them sharing a border? There’s a US presidential candidate who would disagree with you. Do Canada and Greenland have mutual interests across the (potentially oil-rich) Davies Strait?

            Actually, with the Assad clan treating the country as its private property, I do not see any legitimate interests of Syrian government even in Syria.

            I think that Trump might disagree with your analysis there too. And the funders of the – what’s it called, “Clinton Fundament”?

            • Posted September 18, 2016 at 1:37 am | Permalink

              I do not know any legitimate interests the USA may have in Mexico, except the obvious interest not to live next to a large failed state. However, I see quite legitimate American interests in the border with Mexico.

              The way I see it, Trump wins votes by talking about future action against entities that may attack the USA (such as ISIS) while portraying as acceptable even the most odious entities that are unlikely to attack the USA (such as Putin and Assad). I think that, if elected, he will be a complete isolationist and will not do anything even against ISIS.

              In the decades that will follow, I expect American isolationism combined with a lot of moral positivism, i.e. bad things happening around the world will be belittled by US politicians and media to justify the non-intervention.

              • gravelinspector-Aidan
                Posted September 19, 2016 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

                I do not know any legitimate interests the USA may have in Mexico, except the obvious interest not to live next to a large failed state.

                Precisely. Being neighbours does give you legitimate interests in the behaviour of the neighbour. (This doesn’t prevent people having illegitimate interests in their neighbours too. Witness, e.g. Homer Simpson and Ned Flanders.)
                Isn’t considering something (in this case, Syria) to be your “private property” one of the fundamental bases of many “legitimate interests”? Or has the “property is theft” concept re-surfaced? Which would get some pushback from currently vociferous political contestants.

                In the decades that will follow, I expect American isolationism combined with a lot of moral positivism, i.e. bad things happening around the world will be belittled by US politicians and media to justify the non-intervention.

                I’ll get my microscope out to try to spot the difference.

              • Posted September 20, 2016 at 8:38 am | Permalink

                “I’ll get my microscope out to try to spot the difference.”
                You are quite right. This is why I am not a fan of Obama. My region is in flames, and nevertheless most commenters here consider me a right-wing nutjob for hating Obama.

                As for Syria being a private property of the Assad clan – you are not disputing that in this case property is theft, are you? Assad Sr. snatched power and his son inherited it. The rule of both is incompetent and unspeakably brutal. They are representatives of a minority ruling over a majority; such regimes can exist only based on oppression. The crimes of ISIS cannot negate those of the Assad regime. I wish NATO to take care of both.

              • gravelinspector-Aidan
                Posted September 22, 2016 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

                I don’t disagree that the Assad clan treat Syria like their private property. But attack that *as such* and you’re attacking the entire concept of private property.
                OTOH, if you concede that with ownership come obligations to the owned (property, goods, whatever), then the ultra-rightwing will protest at the restriction on the rights of property-owners. And a different round of “religious wars” will erupt. And for once I’m not being particularly nasty to the followers of invisible sky fairies.
                All hail the seven meaty balls of the FSM! May she noodle in pieces.

              • Posted September 23, 2016 at 2:13 am | Permalink

                I didn’t mean to attack private property as such; I must have poorly chosen phrases to express my opinion.

                In some cases, there are indeed obligations and restrictions coming together with property – when you own an object of historical and cultural value.
                Some right-wingers want unrestricted “property” rights over their minor children. They are furious when government imposes on them restrictions and tells them to vaccinate their children, to send them to school and not to beat them.

            • Posted September 19, 2016 at 11:27 am | Permalink

              I think the analogy would be USCanada, since the US and Canada are more culturally alike, hence more like SyriaLebanon. Native Americans would also point out that in both cases colonial powers created the borders, too.

  3. Glynn
    Posted September 15, 2016 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    The only thing Islam had to do with 9/11 was the American governments cover story. Anyone with half a brain knows it was bush his government and of cause Mossad .

    • Posted September 15, 2016 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

      Don’t forget the Illuminati. They control everything and cause everything.

      • colnago80
        Posted September 15, 2016 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

        Not a bit of it, it was Skull and Bones.

    • Pliny the in Between
      Posted September 15, 2016 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

      And a mighty convincing cover story it was. I was particularly swayed by the CGI Bin Laden celebrating on tape afterward.

      • Badger3k
        Posted September 16, 2016 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

        CGI? That was a lizard-person actor in a mask. Gee. I thought everyone knew that!

  4. Curt Nelson
    Posted September 15, 2016 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    It seems to me that religion permeates everything, even science. This morning I heard another discussion about animal intelligence (the Science Weekly podcast by The Guardian) in which Frans de Waal was explaining how all the supposed hallmarks of being human end up being found in “animals,” too.

    Why would any scientist, someone who understands evolution, entertain such a premise – that we’re somehow special, separate from other animals? (I don’t mean de Waal here.) Proof shouldn’t be necessary to accept that animals feel pain, have conscious minds, etc., it should be necessary to show the opposite – that other animals are somehow different from us despite our common ancestry.

    This is not actually off topic. Of course Islam is a driver of terrorism.

    • kevin7alexander
      Posted September 16, 2016 at 1:04 am | Permalink

      That’s my take as well. Humans do things for the same reasons that animals do, it worked and we survived the struggle. The thing unique in humans is our astounding story telling ability to rationalize why we do it and god is at the top of the story telling themes.

      • Posted September 16, 2016 at 5:11 am | Permalink

        To me, the entire storytelling ability is unique to humans, and a lot of other important abilities as well.

    • Posted September 16, 2016 at 5:10 am | Permalink

      I disagree. You cannot expect science to treat human like just another animal species, after humans are the only animal species known to have science. And a multitude of much less sophisticated activities, beginning with speech. These unique functions are reflected in the unique structure of human brain. They are not found in non-human animals; it is their traces that are found. Some middle-aged captive gorilla was recently reported to have vestiges of speech – does this mean that we can discard speech as a unique human trait? (And gorillas are at the top of intelligence in the animal world.)

      “Proof shouldn’t be necessary to accept that animals… have conscious minds…”
      It will be difficult for me to accept without proof that a medusa has a conscious mind. And if we put a boundary in the animal world, where should it be?

  5. Posted September 15, 2016 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

    Should I know who Neil Godfrey is? I just quickly googled him and I still have no idea.

    • Posted September 16, 2016 at 2:36 am | Permalink

      He’s a blogger who has posted articles accusing Jerry of “ankle-deep thinking” because Jerry thinks that religion is **part** of the motivation for Islamist terrorism.

      An example would be: “The logical fallacy here is surely obvious (but apparently not to Coyne). If “Islam” is in any way responsible then we have a real problem — How on earth do we explain the millions and millions of Muslims who don’t commit this crime?”

      As I posted to him in reply:

      “Oh come on, there is no logical fallacy there. In the real world causes are always multi-factored. “If smoking causes illness, how on earth do we explain all the smokers who are not ill?””

      But Godfrey persists in thinking that religion must either be 100% of the motivation for Islamist terrorism (a view he falsely attributes to New Atheists) or 0% of the motivation for Islamist terrorism (his own view).

      He seems genuinely to not grasp the fact that it can be somewhere in between those values.

      The sad thing is that on other topics, such as the origins of Christianity, he blogs sensibly and is worth reading.

      • Posted September 16, 2016 at 2:44 am | Permalink

        Oh yeah, Godfrey also accused Jerry of being “embedded in the political right” and “supporting wars of aggression”. (Yes, really, he did! All because Jerry thinks that religion plays some role in Middle-East politics!)

        He (Godfrey) has also taken to supporting and lauding the writings of CJ Werleman. (more here.)

        • Saul Sorrell-Till
          Posted September 16, 2016 at 5:50 am | Permalink

          For my sins I clicked on your link, and read some of the threads…you have the patience of some kind of infinite zen saint.

        • Steve Pollard
          Posted September 16, 2016 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

          We see IS mainly as a threat to us (and of course they are). But the overwhelming majority of their victims are (a) other Moslems; (b) minority faiths (Christians, Yaziris) in Iraq and Syria; and (c) people whose behaviour they regard as sinful (gays etc). Does Godfrey think that in these cases IS are primarily motivated by, say, resentment of Western foreign policy rather than by religion? If so, I’d like to see his evidence. If not, why does he think their motivation changes when it comes to us?

      • TJR
        Posted September 16, 2016 at 4:44 am | Permalink

        The insistence on binary thinking like this is indeed strange.

        Its not fence-sitting to say “on the one hand this, on the other hand that, on the gripping hand the other”, it should just be the normal way of discussing almost anything.

        Its also another example of “I’m going to make the most uncharitable interpretation of what you say, then criticise you for it”.

        • Posted September 16, 2016 at 5:13 am | Permalink

          I think that the idea is to whitewash Islam, so that not to feel worried about its spread.

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted September 17, 2016 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

          on the gripping hand the other”

          I was listening to “the Mote” over most of the last week as an audio-book (have I got “the Moat/ Gripping Hand” as an audio book? Damn, no.)
          It would put a new perspective on the all-to-human propensity to being on the horns of a dilemma, to have three arms. There’s probably an artist who’s done it already.

      • Posted September 16, 2016 at 10:12 am | Permalink


      • frednotfaith2
        Posted September 16, 2016 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

        Godfrey’s own thinking must not even reach up to a tenth of the way up to the the toenail of one of the little toes, assuming he even thinks at all, that is.

  6. Diane G.
    Posted September 15, 2016 at 8:00 pm | Permalink


  7. Posted September 18, 2016 at 2:57 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  8. Posted September 23, 2016 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    Why is it that we see only Islamic Terrorism but not Christian or Jewish Terrorism? I’m starting to think Muslims committed these horrible crimes

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