Dealing with Islamism: Trust, Costly Signaling, and Forming Moral Teams

By Boghossian, Peter; Lindsay, James A. | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Spring 2016 | Go to article overview

Dealing with Islamism: Trust, Costly Signaling, and Forming Moral Teams


Boghossian, Peter, Lindsay, James A., Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


AS REFUGEES FLOOD TO THE WEST IN UNPRECEDENTED numbers, and in the wake of a series of terrorist acts directly linked to Islamism, the chorus asking Muslims to explicitly denounce the violence of Islamism is growing ever louder. Others decry this request as inappropriate, unnecessary, patronizing, or even racist (Muslims are not a race, but this goes under the banner of "Islamophobia"). Mainstream Muslims should denounce Islamism and violence, but not because of the reasons many take as obvious.

First, however, we must define Islamism as a fundamentalist and militant religious and political ideology that drives for global conquest of an extreme Islamic theocracy and the application of strict Sharia law under its dominion. That Islamism is inspired by Islam through certain literal readings of the Quran is unambiguous, yet it remains just one draconian and acutely regressive interpretation of the religion. Islamism is dangerous and often deadly, and its broad conflation with Islam--and thus association with all Muslims--is deeply unfair. The violence that is associated with Islamism, then, is best understood as Islamist terrorism, not Islamic terrorism. Islam may be adhered to by Muslims who embrace nonviolent secularism. Islamism does not.

The reason Muslims need to condemn Islamism and Islamist terrorism is due to what social scientists call costly signaling--the performance of a symbolic act to indicate to other members of a social group that one is playing for their team and doing so at a price. It evokes trust--an indispensible commodity currently in short supply. Costly signaling taps into fundamental aspects of human psychology. Many Westerners--those on both sides of the political spectrum, from liberals who accuse critics of Islamophobia to conservatives who lump all Muslims into one category--do not appear to distinguish between Muslims and Islamists. Yet this distinction is critical to Western acceptance of progressive Muslims--those who do not embrace the violence of Islamism. The condemnation of Islamism and Islamist terrorism is an important, if not crucial, costly signal by which progressive Muslims can demarcate Islamism from Islam and simultaneously generate trust.

Human beings are groupish animals. We organize ourselves into groups, teams, tribes, cultures, and, ultimately, societies. The factors that go into separating human groups are many, and one of those is moral. Specifically, human beings form groups of "moral communities" around particular moral codes. Once these communities are defined, there's often a fierce adherence to the norms of the group.

This groupishness evokes a trait known as parochial altruism, which means in-group prosocial behaviors coupled with out-group distrust and even hostility--displays of which we have unfortunately had little shortage. In other words, we are nicer, kinder, more trusting, more welcoming, and more generous with people we perceive as being on our team and sharing our values than we are others we deem to be outsiders; and we find it all too easy to mistrust and be callous, mean, or even vicious to those outside of our group. (Think of the famous image of the Hungarian reporter who tripped Syrian refugees.) Groupish behavior of this sort is a fundamental facet of human social interaction, whether or not the team designations are arbitrary, unfair, or nonsensical.

Moral communities, be those groups of friends, political parties, religions, or any sense of shared cultural values, are a kind of team. Whatever in-group squabbling occurs, we are likely to unite against the perception of a common enemy (even though such things as "friends" and "enemies" tend to grossly oversimplify human interactions, both within and between groups). Religions, especially tightly knit ones such as Islam, are particularly adept at forming strong moral communities with high levels of internal cohesion. …

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