February 1, 2006  

Survival strategy

Middle Eastern Islam, Darwin and terrorism

As the Christmas holiday approached, it was time to talk about terrorism. I spent part of a December afternoon in a sterile conference room symbolic of strategic thought in Washington (“Avoid the virus of originality!”). Following a discussion of Middle Eastern Islam’s power to generate suicide bombers, a miffed senior official challenged the notion that religion had anything whatsoever to do with the phenomenon.

As sincere as he was wrong, his view of the world was typical of our intelligence and policy communities. The official insisted that faith wasn’t really a motivating factor because his agency’s compilation of data on suicide bombers revealed that most had either personal grievances — perhaps a relative killed, abused or imprisoned — or simply a sense of humiliation. Mistaking the trigger for the entire gun, he clung to the last century’s rationalist view of the world. The official just could not make the leap of faith required to accept religion as a strategic factor.

He was standing in a downpour, insisting it wasn’t the rain that was making him wet. Suicide bombers had worldly grievances, and that was that. The promise of paradise made no difference. It was typical mirror-imaging, all about the usual-suspect factors dear to the academic world and Washington think tanks. The official refused to reflect on the obvious: A wide variety of populations around the world have grievances, from Chinese peasants to the minority population of New Orleans, from indigenous populations in Latin America to the Africans tormented by Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. Yet, neither the Irish Republican Army nor Sudan’s Christian tribes, not Falun Gong nor Corsican separatists produced suicide bombers. While the world beyond the Muslim heartlands has generated terrorists aplenty, the phenomenon of suicide bombing remains overwhelmingly Islamic and Middle Eastern.

Religion isn’t only a matter of personal faith, but of social and psychological context as well. While we struggle to deny it, the religious environment of today’s Middle East is acutely conducive to violent self-sacrifice, to willing death in violent jihad. Tumbling backward from its bitter confrontation with the modern world, Middle Eastern Islam’s culture makes paradise a given for the believer who sacrifices his life in the struggle against the infidel, the Crusader, the Jew or the apostate. (On the other hand, Western atheist suicide bombers are in notably short supply.) The suicide bomber need not even appear to have been especially religious as remembered by his acquaintances: The Middle Eastern Muslim’s belief in paradise after death is as casual and pervasive as was the medieval European’s faith in the existence of a hell with horned devils. The reward of paradise is assumed.

Suicide bomber X or Y certainly may feel that his people have been shamed or that his sister has been embarrassed, and that he must respond violently to the antagonist in question. Yet, while plenty of other cultures generate hyperviolent behavior under stress, none but Middle Eastern Islam has given rise to the cult of the suicide bomber. The promise of paradise, with its literal treats, is undeniably a crucial determinant, whether at the subconscious or conscious level. The culture of contemporary Middle Eastern Islam makes death an appealing option.

Still, after the Koran and the hadiths have been studied and analyzed, after allowances have been made for the mesmerizing personas of terrorist chieftains and all the practical catalysts for action have been calculated, the question remains: Why has the cult of the suicide bomber developed so swiftly today, and why is it rooted in the Middle East and not elsewhere (from Indonesia to Kosovo, Muslims behave violently but not suicidally)? The answer is timely, given the current fuss about intelligent design versus the theory of evolution in our own country: Suppose that Darwin was right conceptually, but failed to grasp that religion is a highly evolved survival strategy for human collectives?


Once a human collective expands beyond the family, clan and tribe, decisive unity demands a higher organizing principle sufficiently powerful to entice the individual to sacrifice himself for the common good of a group whose identity is no longer defined by blood ties. A man or woman will die for the child of his or her flesh, but how can the broader collective inspire one stranger to volunteer his life to guarantee the survival of a stranger whose only tie is one of abstract identity? No organizing principle, not even nationalism (a secular, debased religion), has proven so reliable and galvanizing as religious faith. Religion not only unites, it unites exclusively. Throughout history, religious wars have proved the cruelest in their execution and the most difficult to end satisfactorily (toss in racial differences and you have a formula for permanent struggle). The paradox is that, in pursuit of a “more godly” way of life, human beings have justified the slaughter of millions of other human beings down the centuries.

Even in adversity or miserable defeat, religious identity has allowed human collectives to survive when linear analysis would foretell their inevitable disintegration. Without their powerful monotheism and the conviction that they are chosen by their god, would any Jews survive today as practitioners of their faith? Even in the Diaspora and in the course of two millennia of pogroms that culminated in a massive, organized genocide, Jews withstood the worst that humankind could direct at them. Their survival and ultimate triumph cannot be explained by the safe, academic (and politically correct) factors beloved of our analysts. Faith provided the unity — even in geographical separation and during immense suffering — to preserve the genetic collective.

Could anything but a powerful new faith have united the backward tribes of Arabia into the conquering armies that exploded out of the desert 13 centuries ago to conquer so much of the world in Allah’s name? From the beginning of the 16th century into the early 20th, European conquerors justified themselves — not always cynically — in terms of the apostolic spread of their redemptive faith. Religious fervor fueled phenomenal courage not only among missionaries, but among the Victorian era’s “martyr officers,” from Gordon in Khartoum to Conolly in Bukhara. In Rome’s centuries of decline, her legions were held together more by the cult of Mithras (and their own self-interest) than by allegiance to any caesar.

And faiths are never more ferocious than when they’re cornered. The responses of the human collective to an external threat can be delayed by various practical factors, from physical weakness to internecine struggles, but when the empire of faith strikes back, it does so ruthlessly. The crusades were, indeed, barbaric acts of aggression, rampaging from the Iberian Peninsula to the banks of the Jordan (and the conquest of the New World may be viewed as the last and grandest Christian crusade). But the crusades did not occur in a strategic vacuum: They were Europe’s response to the Islamic jihad that had taken Muslim warriors to the Marne and dispossessed Christianity of all of its birthright cities — not only Jerusalem, but Alexandria, the cradle of Christian thought and doctrine, Antioch, Damascus, Philadelphia, Ephesus and so on.

It’s often been noted that the First crusade achieved an astonishing military upset by not only reaching the Holy Land but conquering Jerusalem (where the crusaders indulged in a stunning massacre not only of Muslims and Jews, but of eastern-rite Christians, too). The issue raised less frequently is: How were the fragmented European powers — deadly rivals — able to unite long enough to conquer so many of the wealthiest cities of the then-dominant Islamic world? Could any factor other than faith have excited and sustained such unity? Greed might have been satisfied closer to home. Even beyond the historian’s observation that the pope sought to exploit crusading ventures as a means to staunch the endemic bloodletting in Europe itself or Marxist arguments about surplus population, and allowing that there was plenty of disunity and calculation among the crusaders and their various backers during their two centuries in the Levant, the phenomenon of the crusades cannot be explained without the fuel of faith.

However false they judge the tenets of religion to be, even nonbelievers recognize the power of faith to shape (or misshape) individual lives. Cynics may snort at the notion of harp-wielding, nightgowned angels with feathered wings, declaring religion nothing but a con to keep the workers and peasants in line, but they cannot deny the psychological comfort provided by the promise — true or false — of a better life beyond the mortal flesh. Religious conviction is a mighty force in the life of a man or woman of faith, and no scientist would argue against the empirical data to that point. Why is it, then, that we are so anxious to avoid recognizing the far greater impact of religious beliefs shared by an embattled human collective? Threatened faiths lash out. They have done so from 1st-century Palestine through the Albigensian crusades, from Stalinist purges (Marxism was the degenerate religion of Europe’s 20th-century intellectuals) through intercommunal bloodlettings in post-independence Africa and on to the vicious backlash from defeated Islam today.

Even religious wars within faiths reek of biological survival strategies. The oppressive dominance of Latinate Christianity summoned the north-European Reformation as a response (along with no end of massacres over the contents of the Communion cup). The inextinguishable rivalry between Shi’a Islam, with its Persian heart, and the Sunni schools of the Arabs is also about group competition for survival and alpha status. While overarching faiths compete strategically, subordinate branches of any religion function as local survival strategies for their adherents. Despite all the aberrations that can be cited, the development and tenacity of organized religion is evolution at its purest and fiercest.

Beyond blood, nothing binds human beings together more powerfully than a shared religious creed. No heart is mightier or crueler than the one beating in the breast of the holy warrior. And no other factor provides so rich an excuse for mass murder as stern faith.


The executive who argued that faith wasn’t a consequential factor in the making of suicide bombers was an archetype: the well-educated Westerner who, even if he or she engages in perfunctory attendance at church or temple, has been thoroughly secularized in matters of education, intellect and the parameters of permissible thought. Secular, analytical thought in the West today is every bit as close-minded as the worldview of the inquisitors who forced Galileo to recant. Its true believers have simply exchanged one set of rigid doctrines for another.

Without the personal experience of transformative faith, it’s nearly impossible for analysts to comprehend the power of religious belief as a decisive motivating factor. One of the most dangerous asymmetries we face is the mismatch between our just-the-facts-ma’am analysts and the visionary ferocity of our enemies.

Merely recognizing the problem isn’t enough. Overwhelmingly, analysts active in the intelligence community or in Washington think tanks (to say nothing of those bizarre mental prisons, university campuses) face a terrible challenge in adjusting to the intellectual demands posed by Islamist terrorism. Approaching the problem with a maximum of integrity would mean discarding virtually every theory they have been taught. Understanding the rhapsodic violence of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi or even the seductive rhetoric of Osama bin Laden requires us to jettison the crippling heritage of the Enlightenment and much of the rationalist tradition.

Whenever I brief that we are at war with devils, heads nod dully, passing off the terminology as aimed at a theatrical effect. But it isn’t. The devils are real. The Western intellect simply cannot bear to see them.


Religion is, to say the least, a volatile topic. Even those national leaders willing to come to grips with the need for a tough response to Islamist terror take great pains to assure the world that ours is not a religious war and that the Muslim faith is as peaceful as a newborn sheep in a meadow full of wildflowers. Islam is, of course, an umbrella faith, covering forward-looking movements as well as reactionary, violence-prone sects. But we nonetheless must come to grips with the extent to which Middle Eastern Islam itself has become the problem — not only the cause of structural failure, but an impetus for confessional violence (defensive violence, in the Darwinian context, since it seeks to preserve the threatened community — although it’s savagely aggressive from our perspective).

We shy away from a fundamental question of our time: What if Islam is the problem? Some months ago, an Army general made headlines through his politically incorrect remarks about Islam and Christianity. A devout religious believer, he spoke in a church, in uniform. My personal response to the media’s self-righteous, self-important horror was twofold: Yeah, the guy displayed poor judgment by letting loose at a religious event with his fruit salad on his chest. But I also recognized that, as a believer himself, that general was vastly better equipped to grasp the nature of our enemies than our legions of think-tank experts and timid analysts. Put bluntly, it takes one to know one.

If we are serious about understanding our present — and future — enemies, we will have to rid ourselves of both the plague of political correctness (a bipartisan disease so insidious its victims may not recognize the infection debilitating them) and the failed cult of rationalism as the only permissible analytical tool for understanding human affairs. We will need to shift our focus from the individual to the collective and ask forbidden questions, from inquiring about the deeper nature of humankind (which appears to have little to do with our obsession with the individual) to the biological purpose of religion.

The latter issue demands that we set aside our personal beliefs — a very tall order — and attempt to grasp three things: why human beings appear to be hard-wired for faith; the circumstances under which faiths inevitably turn violent; and the functions of religion in a Darwinian system of human ecology.

The answers we are likely to get will satisfy neither secular commissars nor their religious counterparts, neither scientists schooled to the last century’s reductionist thinking nor those who insist on teaching our children that the bogeyman made the dinosaurs. We are at the dawn of a new and deadly age in which entire civilizations are threatened by the dominance of others. They are going to default to collective survival strategies that will transform their individual members into nonautonomous parts of a whole. We are going to find that, after all, we may not be masters of our individual wills, that far greater forces are at work than those the modern age insisted determined the contours of our lives. Those greater forces may be god or biology — or a combination of the two — but they are going to have a strategic impact that dwarfs the rational factors on which our faltering thinking still relies.

Applied to human affairs, rationalist thought too easily becomes just another superstition. Even the unbelievers among us are engaged in religious war.

Ralph Peters is a retired Army intelligence officer and the author of 20 books, including the recent “New Glory: Expanding America’s Global Supremacy.