Intellectual Relativism and the Al Qaida

Published October 2001

THERE is an interesting by-product of the bombings on September 11, 2001 that seems to be sweeping the country. In universities and the media, people are learning about Al-Qaida and their religious philosophy. There is a tendency in our country, particularly among academics, to treat all beliefs as worthy of equal merit. It is a type of intellectual relativism that ignores the obvious in favor of the inquiry.

The sudden interest in the core beliefs of Al-Qaida and similar groups appears entirely due to their success in killing a great number of people. Yet, any mental defective with enough money and maniacs at his disposal can kill large numbers of innocent people. There are no similar symposia looking into other fringe groups with different “causes” who, while equally bizarre, have proven insufficiently lethal to be taken seriously.

It takes something more than blowing up buildings to be taken seriously. If anything, academic panels and television programs may be taking the teachings of Al-Qaida too seriously. Al-Qaida is a serious threat to safety but not a serious intellectual movement. Simply increasing the number of dullards that embrace a view does not suddenly transform those beliefs from the moronic to the meaningful. Intelligence is not cumulative – the net intellectual level remains the same regardless of how many half-wits that you stuff into a room. When one half-wit joins another half-wit, they do not form a “wit’ but a merely the beginning of a crowd of half-wits.

Just as there is a danger of underestimating their desire for mass killings, there is also a danger of over-thinking the significance of this group or similar groups. Rather than justify mass killing for money or thrills, they justify their acts in the name of religion or nationalism. I fail to see the significance. David Berkowitz justified a killing spree because a neighbor’s black Labrador named Sam told him to kill. We didn’t start to hold conferences with the American Kennel Club to better understand the breed or the cause of such a distorted view.

There is a strange need to give substance to a group that caused such great pain to justify their effect on our lives. In reality, a close examination of these individuals hardly inspires awe in their intellectual prowess. Take Zacarias Moussaoui who was caught when he told a flight school that he was not interested in learning how to land a plane – only how to steer. What is amazing is that this is one of their graduates. Reports indicate that Al-Qaida only takes the top ten percent of their terrorist schools. What actually does it take to flunk out of suicide bomber school?

We need to keep perspective in facing this threat. There is a difference between not taking them for granted as a source of global terrorism and taking them seriously as a source of Islamic beliefs. Every assassin or terrorist hopes to elevate his stature through the status of his victim. I see nothing in the Al-Qaida organization but individuals whose morality and intellect have atrophied in the absence of outside knowledge and experience. Confined to subterranean religious schools and cut off from any other source of knowledge, these men have been put through a process of denying the very intellectual and emotional growth that distinguish humans from bacteria.

It is not cultural blindness or intellectual chauvinism to dismiss the views of Al-Qaida. I am not interested, for example, why these individuals believed that 72 virgins would service them in paradise. When I grew up in Chicago, there was always some shark selling “solid gold watches” to dim-witted marks for ten bucks. Obviously, some mullahs sold these men a bill of goods with a promise of paradise. There have been plenty of Christians who have used G-d throughout the ages to justify every sort of brutality and debauchery. They are not examples of the faith but of the faithless. They, like the Al-Qaida, should be taken seriously only as a threat to our safety.

On September 10th, the Al-Qaida was treated as human debris from years of conflict; stereotypes of the fanaticism of ignorance and intolerance. The next day they fulfilled that stereotype; they did not transcend it