This is a transcript of a recorded podcast.
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Well, it’s been a month since Hamas attacked Israel, killing around 1500 people and taking over 200 hostages. And it’s been a week since Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza began. Like many people, I’m concerned that the extensive bombing (and now invasion) of Gaza could be a mistake. I’m not saying Israel doesn’t have to retaliate and destroy Hamas, they clearly do. And I would say that they have to destroy Hezbollah too—and ultimately, they and we have to dismantle every jihadist organization that could impact our security in the future. But there may have been other ways to have gone about destroying Hamas that would better serve Israel’s interests and produced fewer casualties on the Palestinian side.
As everyone expected, collateral damage in Gaza has convinced much of the world that Israel is the real aggressor here. Of course, many on the Left began saying this before Israel had dropped a single bomb, at a moment when it was clear that Hamas had committed atrocities of a sort that one scarcely imagines possible in the modern world. The fact that millions of people can’t do the moral arithmetic here, or have confidently produced the wrong answer, is itself an enormous problem for open societies everywhere—because this should not have been confusing. Hamas took a sadistic pleasure in torturing and killing noncombatants that should have made it instantly clear, to everyone, certainly everyone on a college campus, that jihadist groups like Hamas are the permanent enemies of civilization.
So, Israel really does have a war to fight, but I worry that the ground invasion of Gaza could be a mistake. A different approach has been discussed in a few contexts: I believe Jocko Willink suggested something like this on his podcast (as many of you know Jocko is a Navy Seal who led the Seals in the battle of Ramadi. So he knows a lot about urban warfare and counterinsurgency). A similar idea was recently described in an article by Bret Stephens in the New York Times, recommending that Israel provide humanitarian corridors for civilians to leave northern Gaza, and safe zones in the South and perhaps in Israel itself where people can be protected. And then the IDF could simply starve Hamas in their tunnels, without much more extensive bombing, much less a full ground invasion. Perhaps there are reasons why this just wouldn’t work—that’s totally possible. It would certainly take a long time, because Hamas has spent most of Gaza’s resources—billions of dollars in humanitarian aid meant for the Palestinians—building hundreds of miles of tunnels and fortifying them with food, water, and fuel so that they could wage jihad, all the while the world holds Israel responsible for the deprivations of the Palestinian people. The Palestinians of Gaza have been deprived of food, water, and fuel—and most other good things—by Hamas.
So, I can’t say whether this siege idea really is a good one. But if a siege of this sort were possible, it would have obvious advantages. It would signal a clear commitment to not harming innocent civilians—though some would inevitably be harmed, because Hamas is using their entire society as human shields—and there is no question that some not-so-innocent civilians would arrive at humanitarian checkpoints as suicide bombers, and there would an infuriating loss of civilian life there, even as Israel took great pains to protect it. But an approach like this would have denied Hamas a long series of propaganda victories, based on the terrible imagery that has been coming out of Gaza. However, all of this may just be moot, in the end. Because, as I said, much of the world took Hamas’s side before a single Israeli bomb fell. And that is what is so astonishing and so dangerous and so in need of criticism.
As the war continues, I’m sure I’ll do podcasts that attempt to understand how we got here and where all this is heading. There is a lot to talk about: including the bewildering failure of the IDF that left Israel so unprotected, and the commensurate failures of the Netanyahu government. There’s the pressing question of how America and our allies can support Israel while avoiding WW3. I certainly wonder whether a war with Iran is now more or less inevitable—and, of course, Iran is directly allied with Russia. And there are longer-term questions about whether peace between Israel and the Palestinians is even conceivable: Is a 2-state solution possible? Is a 1-state solution possible? I really have no idea what one could rationally hope for at this point.
However, I want to say something about the extreme moral confusion we have witnessed in recent weeks. Some of it has been just frank anti-Semitism, which I’ll also talk about, but much is actual confusion. Most people in the West still don’t understand the problem of jihadism. We often speak about “terrorism” and “violent extremism” generically. And we are told that any linkage between these evils and the doctrine of Islam is spurious, and nothing more than an expression “Islamophobia.” Incidentally, the term “Islamophobia” was invented in the 1970s by Iranian theocrats, to do just this: prevent any criticism of Islam and to cast secularism itself as a form of bigotry. Islam is a system of ideas, subscribed to by people of every race and ethnicity. It’s just like Christianity in that regard. Unlike Judaism, Christianity and Islam are both aggressively missionary faiths, and they win converts from everywhere. People criticize the doctrines of the Christianity all the time and worry about their political and social influences—but no one confuses this for bigotry against Christians as people, much less racism. There’s no such thing as “Christophobia.” As someone once said (it was not Christopher Hitchens, but it sure sounds like him): “Islamophobia is a term created by fascists, and used by cowards, to manipulate morons.”
In any case, fundamentalist Christians and Orthodox Jews don’t tend to be confused about the problem of jihadism because they understand the power of religious beliefs, however secular people generally are. We imagine that people everywhere, at bottom, want the same things: They want to live safe and prosperous lives. They want clean drinking water and good schools for their kids. And we imagine that if whole groups of people start behaving in extraordinarily destructive ways—practicing suicidal terrorism against noncombatants, for instance—they must have been pushed into extremis by others. What could turn ordinary human beings into suicide bombers, and what could get vast numbers of their neighbors to celebrate them as martyrs, other than their entire society being oppressed and humiliated to the point of madness by some malign power? So, in the case of Israel, many people imagine that the ghoulish history Palestinian terrorism simply indicates how profound the injustice has been on the Israeli side.
Now, there are many things to be said in criticism of Israel, in particular its expansion of settlements on contested land. But Israel’s behavior is not what explains the suicidal and genocidal inclinations of a group like Hamas. The Islamic doctrines of martyrdom and jihad do.
These are religious beliefs, sincerely held. They are beliefs about the moral structure of the universe. And they explain how normal people—even good ones—can commit horrific acts of violence against innocent civilians—on purpose, not as collateral damage—and still consider themselves good. When you believe that life in this world has no value, apart from deciding who goes to hell and who goes to Paradise, it becomes possible to feel perfectly at ease killing noncombatants, or even using your own women and children as human shields, because you know that any Muslims who get killed will go to Paradise for eternity.
If you don’t understand that jihadists sincerely believe these things, you don’t understand the problem Israel faces. The problem isn’t merely Palestinian nationalism, or resource competition, or any other normal terrestrial grievance. In fact, the problem isn’t even hatred, though there is enough of that to go around. The problem is religious certainty.
It really is possible to be critical of Israel, and to be committed to the political rights of the Palestinian people, without being confused about the reality of Islamic religious fanaticism—or the threat that it poses not just to Israel, but to open societies everywhere. My friend Christopher Hitchens was extremely critical of Israel, and openly supportive of Palestinian statehood. But he wasn’t even slightly confused about the problem of jihad.
There have been nearly 50,000 acts of Islamic terrorism in the last 40 years—and the French group that maintains a database of these attacks [https://www.fondapol.org/en/study/islamist-terrorist-attacks-in-the-world-1979-2021/] considers that to be an undercount. Ninety percent of them have occurred in Muslim countries. Most have nothing to do with Israel or the Jews. There have been 82 attacks in France and over 2000 in Pakistan during this period. You want France to be more like Pakistan? You just need more jihadists. You just need more people susceptible to becoming jihadists, which is a transformation that can happen very quickly—just as quickly as new beliefs can take root in a person’s mind. You just need a wider Muslim community that doesn’t condemn jihadism, but tacitly admits that the theology that inspires it will be true and perfect until the end of the world. You just need millions of people who will protest Israel for defending itself, or call for the deaths of cartoonists for depicting the prophet Muhammad, and yet not make a peep about the jihadist atrocities that occur daily, all over the world, in the name of their religion.
In the West, there is now a large industry of apology and obfuscation designed to protect Muslims from having to grapple with these facts. The humanities and social science departments of every university are filled with scholars and pseudo-scholars—deemed to be experts in terrorism, religion, Islamic jurisprudence, anthropology, political science, and other fields—who claim that Muslim extremism is never what it seems. These experts insist that we can never take jihadists at their word and that none of their declarations about God, paradise, martyrdom, and the evils of apostasy have anything to do with their real motivations.
When one asks what the motivations of jihadists actually are, one encounters a tsunami of liberal delusion. Needless to say, the West is to blame for all the mayhem we see in Muslim societies. After all, how would we feel if outside powers and their mapmakers had divided our lands and stolen our oil? These beleaguered people just want what everyone else wants out of life. They want economic and political security. They want to be free to flourish in ways that would be fully compatible with a global civil society, if only they were given the chance. Secular liberals imagine that jihadists are acting as anyone else would given a similar history of unhappy encounters with the West. And they totally discount the role that religious beliefs play in inspiring groups like Hamas and al-Qaeda, or even the Islamic State—to the point where it would be impossible for a jihadist to prove that he was doing anything for religious reasons.
Apparently, it’s not enough for an educated person with economic opportunities to devote himself to the most extreme and austere version of Islam, to articulate his religious reasons for doing so ad nauseam, and even to go so far as to confess his certainty about martyrdom on video before blowing himself up in a crowd. Such demonstrations of religious fanaticism are somehow considered rhetorically insufficient to prove that he really believed what he said he believed. Of course, if a white supremacist goes on a killing spree in a black church, and says he did this because he hates black people and thinks the white race is under attack, this motive is accepted at face value without the slightest hesitation. This double standard is guaranteed to exonerate Islam every time. The game is rigged.
Do not mistake what I’m saying now for anti-Muslim bigotry. I’m talking about the consequences of ideas, not the ethnic origins of people. Not a word I’ve said, or will ever say on this topic has anything to do with race. And, the truth is, I’m not remotely xenophobic. I’m a xenophile. The Middle East has produced some of my favorite parts of culture—some of my favorite foods, and music, and architecture. Despite my better judgment, I absolutely love the sound of the Muslim call to prayer. Everything I’m saying about the problem of jihadism is about the problem of jihadism—the triumphal belief by some percentage of the world’s Muslims that they must conquer the world for the one true faith through force, and that Paradise awaits anyone who would sacrifice his or her life to that end.
Of course, many religions produce a fair amount of needless suffering. Consider the pedophile-priest scandal in the Catholic Church, which is something I’ve written and spoken about before, I hope with sufficient outrage. One can certainly argue, as I have, that Catholic teaching is partly to blame for these crimes against children. By making contraception and abortion taboo, the Church ensured that there would be many out-of-wedlock births among its faithful; and by stigmatizing unwed mothers, it further guaranteed that many children would be abandoned to Church-run orphanages where they could be preyed upon by sexually unhealthy men. I don’t think any of this was consciously planned—it’s just a grotesque consequence of some very bad ideas. And yet the truth is that there is no direct link between Christian scripture and child rape. However, imagine if there were. Just imagine if the New Testament contained multiple passages promising heaven to any priest who raped a child. And then imagine that in the aftermath of an endless series of child rapes within the Church, more or less every journalist and politician and academic denied that they had anything whatsoever to do with the “true” teachings of Catholicism. That is the uncanny situation we find ourselves in with respect to Islam.
The problem that we have to grapple with—and by “we” I mean Muslims and non-Muslims alike—is that the doctrines that directly support jihadist violence are very easy to find in the Quran, and the hadith, and in the biography of Muhammad. For Muslims, Muhammad is the greatest person who has ever lived. Unfortunately, he did not behave like Jesus or Buddha—at all. It sort of matters that he tortured people and cut their heads off and took sex slaves, because his example is meant to inspire his followers for all time.
There are many, many verses in the Quran that urge Muslims to wage jihad—jihad as holy war against apostates and unbelievers—and the most violent of these are thought to supersede any that seem more benign. But the truth is, there isn’t much that is benign in the Quran—there is certainly no Jesus as we find him in Matthew urging people to love their enemies and turn the other cheek. All the decapitation we see being practiced by jihadists isn’t an accident—it’s in the Quran and in the larger record of the life of the Prophet.
Worse, in my view, is the moral logic one gets from the doctrine of martyrdom and Paradise. If you take martyrdom and Paradise seriously, it becomes impossible to make moral errors. As I said, if you blow yourself up in a crowd, your fellow Muslims will go straight to Paradise. You’ve actually done them a favor. Unbelievers will go to hell, where they belong. However many lives you destroy, it’s all good.
Again, most of this horror has nothing to do with Israel or the West. In 2014, six jihadis affiliated with the Pakistani Taliban attacked a school in Peshawar. These jihadis came from outside of Pakistan—there was a Chechen, two Afghans, and three Arabs. They murdered 145 people, 132 of whom were children. They burned a teacher alive in front of her students, and then killed all the children they could get their hands on. They didn’t take any hostages. They had no list of demands. They intended to die to achieve martyrdom. And they did die, so they got at least half of what they wanted. It is very difficult for secular people to understand how this behavior could be possible. They assume only madmen would do this sort of thing.
But that’s the horror of it—you don’t have to be mad to be a jihadist. You don’t even have to be a bad person. You just have to be a true believer. You just have to know, for sure, that you and all the good people will get everything you want after you die, and that the Creator of the Universe wants nothing more than for you to kill unbelievers. Here is what a supporter of the Pakistani Taliban said when interviewed about the school massacre:
Human life only has value among you worldly materialist thinkers. For us, this human life is only a tiny, meaningless fragment of our existence. Our real destination is the Hereafter. We don’t just believe it exists, we know it does.
Death is not the end of life. It is the beginning of existence in a world much more beautiful than this. As you know, the [Urdu] word for death is “intiqaal.” It means “transfer,” not “end.”
Paradise is for those of pure hearts. All children have pure hearts. They have not sinned yet… They have not yet been corrupted by [their kafir parents]. We did not end their lives. We gave them new ones in Paradise, where they will be loved more than you can imagine.
They will be rewarded for their martyrdom. After all, we also martyr ourselves with them. The last words they heard were the slogan of Takbeer [“Allah u Akbar”].
Allah Almighty says Himself in Surhah Al-Imran [3:169-170] that they are not dead.
You will never understand this. If your faith is pure, you will not mourn them, but celebrate their birth into Paradise.
My point is that we have to take declarations of this kind at face value, because they are honest confessions of a worldview—and it is a worldview that is totally antithetical to everything that civilized people value in the 21st century. This problem is much bigger than the ongoing crisis between Israel and the Palestinians.
As many of you know, I’ve always had a paradoxical position on Israel. I’ve said that I don’t think it should exist as a Jewish state—because, in my view, organizing a state around a religion is irrational and divisive. This follows directly from my views about organized religion in general. So, obviously, I don’t think there should be Muslim states either—or Christian ones, for that matter. However, there are over 20 countries in which Islam is the official state religion, and over 50 in which Muslims are the majority—and there is exactly one Jewish state. Given the history of genocidal anti-Semitism, which persists even now, mostly in the Muslim world, given that the Jews have been run out of every other country in the Middle East and North Africa where they lived for centuries, if any people deserve a state of their own, organized on any premise they want, it’s the Jews.
In 1939, the SS St. Louis, a ship carrying over 900 Jews seeking to escape the Holocaust was denied entry into Cuba, and the United States, and Canada, and then forced to return to Europe, where many of those Jews ended up in the ovens of Auschwitz. In my view, that’s all the justification for Israel one needs. Never again should Jews have to beg to stand on some dry patch of earth, only to be denied one, and then systematically murdered.
As I’ve said before on this podcast, I’ve never taken modern anti-Semitism very seriously. I think I’ve done exactly one episode on the topic. I’ve studied it. I understand its roots in Christian theology—despite the fact that Jesus, and his apostles, and the Virgin Mary were all Jews. I’m a student of the Holocaust. And I’m well aware of the anti-Semitism that existed in Europe and the U.S. at the time. Read David Wyman’s book “The Abandonment of the Jews” to understand how widespread anti-Semitism was in America, even as Jews were being killed by the millions in Europe. And, of course, I’m all too aware of the anti-Semitism that is endemic to Islam—and of the way it has been compressed into a diamond of intolerance and hatred throughout the Muslim world by the modern influence of Nazism. There’s some very depressing history there, for anyone who wants to read it.
And I’ve been aware that year after year in the United States, no group has been targeted with more hate, and hate crime, than Jews. This is something that many Americans aren’t aware of. As I said, the American Left would have you believe that “Islamophobia” is a major concern. Vice President Kamala Harris is now heading a commission on “Islamophobia” in America, as though that’s the problem we’ve been seeing in recent weeks—just a massive outpouring of hatred for Muslims in America by non-Muslims. Has that ever happened?
Even in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Jews were targeted far more than Muslims. And that has been true every year since. According to FBI statistics, though Jews are just over 2 percent of the population, they receive over half the hate in America, and five times the level that Muslims do (and I think it’s safe to say that much of this hate comes from Muslims themselves). Jewish schools and synagogues have always incurred greater security costs than non-Jewish institutions, and for good reason, because the threat to them is greatest.
Now, while this status quo has been despicable, I have always believed that it was tolerable. And I say this as someone who has received death threats for two decades, and many of these threats are often explicitly anti-Semitic. Even given all of this, I have felt that anti-Semitism, as a real threat to Jews, certainly in the West, was behind us. I can’t say that now. In the last few weeks, with Jews being openly reviled and threatened all over the world, in the immediate aftermath of the most shocking atrocities committed against them since the Holocaust, I’ve begun to think that anything is possible.
Incidentally, if you ever wondered how you might have behaved had you been a German on the morning after Kristallnacht—if you’ve ever wondered whether you would have just gone about your business or done something to resist the slide of your society into absolute depravity—more or less everyone on Earth is now getting the chance to see just that. There was a mob chanting “Gas the Jews” in front of the Sydney Opera House. We have Jewish students in Ivy League universities cowering behind locked doors in fear for their physical safety. All university administrators, and Diversity Equity and Inclusion geniuses, and Hollywood celebrities who rushed to sign open letters in support of the Palestinian cause, without taking a moment to understand what actually happened on October 7th, or understanding it and not caring, you are all now part of history.
The outpouring of anti-Semitism that we have witnessed since October 7th, really seems to mark a new moment, both in the US and globally. And for the first time, I now worry that my daughters will live in a world where their Jewishness will matter to people who do not wish them well, and they will be forced to make certain life choices on that basis, choices that I never had to make. Apart from being a public figure, and having to deal with disordered people of every description, I have never been concerned about anti-Semitism for even 5 minutes in my life. I now feel that I have been quite naïve. That’s putting it charitably. I’ve been utterly ignorant of what has been going on beneath the surface.
I guess there were some recent intimations of this that caught my attention: I did criticize Elon Musk for how he handled the deluge of anti-Semitism that came onto Twitter, once he started randomly turning knobs and flipping switches over there like a villain in a James Bond movie. Is he still threatening to sue the Anti-Defamation League? That would be prudent use of resources, wouldn’t it, right about now? Let’s sue the Jews for complaining about murderous anti-Semitism on the platform that I own. Why are the Jews so worried about conspiracy theories that make people want to kill them? Can’t they take a joke? I thought Jews were funny. I also criticized Lex Friedman for platforming Kanye. How does that decision look now? Anyone in alternative media want to stick a microphone in front of Kanye so he can tell us more about how much he hates Jews? Or what about RFK Jr.? Can we get a tech-bro interview with RFK Jr. where he just asks some more questions about Covid being engineered not to infect Ashkenazi Jews? I mean, we’re in the free-speech business, right? What’s wrong with just asking questions? Surely Alex Jones has got some questions he’d like to ask about whether any of the murdered Jews in Israel were really lizard people. I mean, anything less than a full airing of these profundities would amount to censorship, right?
Do I sound snide? Ok, I’ll let that go. To be clear, I don’t think Elon, and Lex, and RFK Jr. are anti-Semites. I just think they have been reckless and morally unserious and unwise.
Of course, the boundary between Anti-Semitism and generic moral stupidity is a little hard to discern—and I’m not sure that it is always important to find it. I’m not sure it matters why a person can’t distinguish between collateral damage in a necessary war and conscious acts of genocidal sadism that are celebrated as a religious sacrament by a death cult. Our streets have been filled with people, literally tripping over themselves in their eagerness to demonstrate that they cannot distinguish between those who intentionally kill babies, and those who inadvertently kill them, having taken great pains to avoid killing them, while defending themselves against the very people who have just intentionally tortured and killed innocent men, women, and yes… babies. And who are committed to doing this again at any opportunity, and who are using their own innocent noncombatants as human shields. If you’re both sides-ing this situation—or worse, if you are supporting the wrong side: if you are waving the flag of people who murder noncombatants intentionally, killing parents in front of their children and children in front of their parents, burning people alive at a music festival devoted to “peace”, and decapitating others, and dragging their dismembered bodies through the streets, all to shouts of “God is Great.” If you are recognizing the humanity of actual barbarians, while demonizing the people who actually worry about war crimes and who drop leaflets and call cell phones for days, in an effort to get noncombatants to leave specific buildings before they are bombed, because those buildings sit on top of tunnels filled with genocidal lunatics—who again, have just sedulously tortured and murdered families as though it were a religious sacrament, because for them it is a religious sacrament. If you have landed, proudly and sanctimoniously, on the wrong side of this asymmetry—this vast gulf between savagery and civilization—while marching through the quad of an Ivy League institution wearing yoga pants, I’m not sure it matters that your moral confusion is due to the fact that you just happen to hate Jews. Whether you’re an anti-Semite or just an apologist for atrocity is probably immaterial. The crucial point is that you are dangerously confused about the moral norms and political sympathies that make life in this world worth living.
What is more, you don’t even care about what you think you care about, because you have failed to see that Hamas, and jihadists generally, are the principal cause of all the misery and dysfunction we see, not just in Gaza, but throughout the Muslim world. Gaza is only an “open air prison” because its democratically elected government is a jihadist organization that is eager to martyr all Palestinians for the pleasure of killing Jews. A rational government in Gaza that cared about the fate of its citizens could have made something beautiful out of that strip of land on the Mediterranean—or at least not awful. But Hamas has spent billions of dollars on terrorism. The suffering of Gaza is due to the fact that it has been run by a death cult, against which Israel has had to defend itself continuously. The line you keep hearing from defenders of Israel—that “if the Palestinians put down their weapons, there would be peace; if the Israelis put down their weapons, there would be a genocide”—happens to be true.
But now we have college students at our best universities, tearing down posters of hostages held by Hamas—some of whom are Americans, and some of whom are children—imagining that they are supporting the Palestinian cause. It boggles the mind. We have LGBTQ activists supporting Hamas—when they wouldn’t survive a day in Gaza, because Hamas throws anyone suspected of being gay off of rooftops. They’re directly supported by Iran, where gay people are regularly hanged.
We’ve got feminist organizations like CodePink going all in for Hamas and accusing the Israelis of genocide. Do they understand how Hamas treats women? Did CodePink support the women of Iran who were thrown in prison and even killed for daring to show their hair in public? Do they realize that women are treated like property throughout the Muslim world and that this is not an accident? Under Islam, the central message about women is that they are second-class citizens and the property of the men in their lives. Rather than support the rights of women and girls to not live as slaves, Western liberals support the right of theocrats to treat their wives and daughters however they want, as long as these theocrats are Muslim.
If anything good comes from this outpouring of hate and moral confusion, it will be the end of identitarian politics of the Left. A friend of mine was just at an art opening, where they were passing hors d’oeuves, and someone she knew came up to her and asked if she had any food in her teeth. And my friend said, “no, your teeth are perfectly white and beautiful.” Unfortunately, the woman herself was black and considered the association of the terms “white” and “beautiful” to be a microaggression. She got greatly offended and stormed off. What, did she want brown teeth? I know nothing more about this person apart from this anecdote, but I guarantee you that this prodigy of social justice is completely confused about Israel and Hamas and jihadism. This is the sort of person for whom words are violence, but massacring women and children with knives, or burning them alive, is a completely defensible response to “oppression.” Most elite circles in the West—academia, Hollywood, the media, nonprofits—have been poisoned, to one degree or another, by this social justice psychosis—where imaginary harms are seized upon as though they were existential concerns, and pure evil is easily shrugged off, or even celebrated as a moral victory.
In a previous podcast, I argued that the bright line, ethically, between Israel and her enemies can be seen on the question of human shields. There are people who use them, and there are people who are deterred by them, however imperfectly. Hamas put its headquarters in Gaza under a hospital. Let me say that again: Hamas put its headquarters in Gaza under a hospital. Again, imagine the Jews of Israel doing that, and imagine how little it would matter to Hamas if they did. Hamas is telling people to stay in Gaza, and has even physically prevented them from leaving, so that they will be killed by Israeli bombs. They are using their own people as human shields—in addition to more than 200 hostages they took for this purpose. No one cares less about Palestinian women and children than Hamas does. However horrible the images coming out of Gaza, it is Hamas that should be blamed for the loss of life there. You’re calling for a ceasefire now? There was a ceasefire on October 6th. Hamas broke it by deliberately murdering more than 1400 hundred innocent people.
Of course, Israel should hold itself to the highest ethical standards for waging war. For two reasons: One, because it should. It is right for the IDF to do whatever it can to minimize the loss of innocent life. And, two, they should hold themselves to the highest ethical standards because the rest of the world will hold them to impossible ones.
Look at these protests we’re seeing all over the world, which began before Israel had dropped a single bomb. Now that there have been several thousand Palestinian casualties, cities across the globe are seething with rage. But Assad has killed hundreds of thousands of his fellow Muslims in Syria. The Saudis have killed well over a one hundred thousand Muslims in Yemen. Where are the protests? No one cares, least of all Muslims. They only care when non-Muslims produce these casualties—and they especially care when Jews do it. Israel is routinely condemned by the United Nations, and the U.N. could not pass a condemnation of Hamas for the atrocities it committed on October 7th.
As I said, I don’t know whether a ground invasion is the right approach. But there is no question that Israel had to act; they have to destroy Hamas; and, whatever they do, noncombatants will get killed in the process. Again, this is Hamas’ fault.
But the problem is much bigger than Hamas. Civilized people everywhere—both non-Muslim and Muslim—have no choice but to combat jihadism. This has been glaringly obvious since September 11th, 2001, but it should be much more obvious now. For Israel, October 7th was much worse than 9/11 was for America. There’s almost no comparison. The revealed threat to Israel really is existential. However, in the long term, I think the threat of jihadism is existential for the West too.
This demands a much longer conversation about what to do about jihadism. I happen to think that most of our response to it should be covert. I don’t know why the Israelis or the Americans or the British or anyone else has to take credit for anything. However long it takes, members of Hamas, and Hezbollah, and al Qaeda, and the Islamic State, and al Shebab, and Boko Haram, and Pakistani Taliban, and every other jihadist organization on Earth should be made to understand, every day of their lives, that the martyrdom they seek will be granted to them. Jihadism has to be destroyed in every way it can be destroyed—logistically, economically, informationally, but also in the most material sense, which means killing a lot of jihadists. We can argue with their sympathizers. And we can hope to de-radicalize them. But we also have to kill committed jihadists. These are not normal antagonists with rational demands. These are not people who want what we want. This is not politics, and it will never be politics. It is a very long war.
Back in 2016, I released an episode of this podcast titled “What Do Jihadists Really Want?”, based on an issue of the magazine Dabiq, put out by the Islamic State. You can listen to that for more detail. You can also read the book I wrote with Maajid Nawaz, Islam and the Future of Tolerance, to understand more of my thinking on this topic. Jihadist ideology has nothing to do with Israel, or American foreign policy, or colonialism, or any other rational grievance, and there is no concession that any civilized society can make to appease it.
We’ve forgotten about jihadism in recent years. But it hasn’t gone away. Whatever one thinks about our withdrawal from Afghanistan, it was surely perceived as a victory by jihadists everywhere—and the implications of that have yet to be felt. In the West, we tend to remain blissfully unaware of Islamic terrorism (which is just another name for jihadism) unless it happens in the US or Europe. We don’t tend to notice jihadist atrocities committed in Afghanistan or Pakistan or India, much less in the dozen or so countries in Africa that suffer them more or less continuously. And we are totally unaware of foiled plots, of which there have been many.
As I said, we also tend to think in terms of “terrorism” or “violent extremism,” and while I use those words myself, we have to focus on jihadism, because that is the underlying ideological commitment.
Now, jihadists themselves are not a unified front. There is a very deep schism between Sunni and Shia—despite the fact that some groups will collaborate across it, as we see with Hamas and the Iranian regime. And there are internecine divisions even among jihadists of the same faith. The Afghan and Pakistani Taliban don’t even get along at this point. And that’s a very good thing. Hopefully, we have an army of smart people with the necessary language skills, sowing hatred and confusion among jihadist groups 24 hours a day. But jihadists are all united in their hatred of liberal, Western values, and in their certainty of Paradise, and in their willingness to turn this world into an abattoir for the glory of God.
We cannot tolerate jihadists. We cannot let them immigrate into our open societies. And by we, I mean not just non-Muslims, I mean all Muslims who want to live sane lives in the 21st century. In the case of Israel and Palestine, the Palestinians have to rid themselves of their jihadists. And if that’s not possible, a stable peace with the Palestinians is not possible.
But this problem is so much bigger than Israel, or even global anti-Semitism. Spend some time reading about how the Islamic State treats Shiites. Look at the history of terrorism in Pakistan or India. If you want a totally painless way to do this, watch “Hotel Mumbai”—it’s a great film that depicts the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 2008, by the Pakistani group Lashkar-e-Taiba. If you’ve forgotten, around a dozen jihadists killed over 160 people in Mumbai, many at the Taj Hotel, and the film shows this with brutal realism. And while they killed some Jews too, at a Jewish center, this attack had nothing to do with Israel, or America, or race, or so-called “settler colonialism,” or any of the other factors that Leftist fellow travelers have been fixated on since October 7th. Really, this is the least boring piece of homework you will ever be given. Go watch “Hotel Mumbai,” and once the killing starts, ask yourself how anyone, East or West, Muslim or non-Muslim, can live with these people.
There is an intuition out there that in order to solve the problems in the Middle East, we must understand them in all their depth and complexity. And for this, the most important thing to grapple with is the so-called “historical context.” But for the purpose of really understanding this conflict, and why it is so intractable, historical context is a distraction—every moment spent talking about something other than jihadism is a moment when the oxygen of moral sanity is leaving the room.
There’s no sorting this out by reference to history, because any group can arbitrarily decide where to set the dial on its time machine. In any case, the Jews in Israel are “indigenous people.” The British were colonialists. Colonialists have some place to go back to. Where could the Jews go back to? There has been a continuous presence of Jews in what is now Israel for thousands of years. Most of the recent immigrants—Jews from Iraq, and Syria, and Yemen, and Libya, and other Muslim-majority countries were driven from their homes by their Muslim neighbors after 1948, in collective punishment for the founding of Israel. Is anyone talking about their right of return? There are displaced people everywhere on Earth, but only the Palestinians have been turned into a global fetish, for their right of return.
Incidentally, if a history of land theft and oppression were sufficient to produce genocidal terrorism, where are the Native American suicide bombers? Where are the Tibetan Buddhist suicide bombers? Do you realize how much oppression they have experienced at the hands of the Chinese? Where are the Palestinian Christian suicide bombers? (I think there has been one.) The truth is, ideas matter. It absolutely matters what people believe. Certainty about Paradise, and about martyrdom as a way of getting there, is one of the most potent memetic poisons the human mind has ever produced. Whatever historical, or political, or economic context you want to apply to Israel and Palestine, jihadism is real; its intentions toward the Jews, and infidels, and apostates are genocidal; and this is a global problem, because jihadism enjoys an appalling level of support throughout the Muslim world, despite the fact that it is responsible for far more death and destruction among Muslims than Israel’s acts of self-defense have ever been.
Now, obviously, there are whole populations throughout the Muslim world that are effectively hostages to the religious fanatics that control them—and certainly a large percentage of the Palestinians fit that description, as does much of Iran. But it is very easy to underestimate how much sympathy there is for the jihadist project among Muslims who are not themselves actively waging jihad. And this is a terrible thing to contemplate. When one hundred thousand people show up in the center of London in support of Hamas—we have a problem. Of course, it’s an open question how many of those people really support jihad. But imagining that very few of them do is pure delusion. We have to win a war of ideas with these people. Because if the future is going to be remotely tolerable, the vast majority of Muslims have to disavow jihadism and unite with non-Muslims in fighting it. When hundreds of thousands of people show up in London to condemn Hamas, or the Islamic State, or any specific instance of jihadist savagery, without both-sides-ing anything, then we will know that we’ve made a modicum of progress. When Muslims by the millions pour into the streets in protest, not over cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, but over the murder of cartoonists by their own religious fanatics, we will know that an open-ended future of pluralistic tolerance might be possible.
Yes, there are many other problems in the world at the moment: There’s the war in Ukraine and the looming possibility of conflict between the US and China. Some of these problems appear much bigger than jihadism, but they all admit of some rational basis for negotiation and compromise. However bad things get with the Russians or the Chinese, they are not chanting “We love death more than the Americans and the Europeans love life.” Only jihadism has the power to turn our future into a zombie movie. Jihadists are the enemy with whom there is no rational or pragmatic compromise to make—ever.
So, as I’ve said many times before, the Muslim world needs to win a war of ideas with itself, and perhaps several civil wars. It has to de-radicalize itself. It has to transform the doctrine of jihad into something far more benign than it is, and it has to stop supporting its religious fanatics when they come into conflict with non-Muslims. This is what’s so toxic: Muslims supporting other Muslims no matter how sociopathic and insane their behavior. And if the Muslim world and the political Left can’t stand against jihadism, it is only a matter of time before their moral blindness fully empowers rightwing authoritarianism in the West. If secular liberals won’t create secure borders, Christian fascists will.
There may be two sides to the past, but there really aren’t two sides to the present. There are two sides to the story of how the Palestinians and Jews came to fight over land in the Middle East. Understanding all of that is important—and I think it is important to understand the cynical game that the Arab world has played with the plight of the Palestinians for the last 50 years. If there is a stable political settlement to ever be reached between Israel and the Palestinians, it will entail a full untangling of the facts from all the propaganda that obscures them, while keeping the problem of jihadism in view. It will also entail that the religious lunatics on the Jewish side get sidelined. As I said, the building of settlements has been a continuous provocation. But even on the point of religious fanaticism, there really aren’t two sides worth talking about now. Whatever terrible things Israeli settlers occasionally do—and these are crimes for which they should be prosecuted—generally speaking, the world does not have a problem with Jewish religious fanatics targeting Muslims in their mosques and schools. You literally can’t open a Jewish school in Paris because no one will insure it. Yes, there are lunatics on both sides, but the consequences of their lunacy are not equivalent—not even remotely equivalent. We haven’t spent the last 20 years taking our shoes off at the airport because there are so many fanatical Jews eager to blow themselves up on airplanes.
There is a bright line between good and a very specific form of evil that we must keep in view. It is the evil of bad ideas—ideas so bad that they can make even ordinary human beings impossible to live with.
There’s a piece of audio from October 7th that many people have commented on. It’s a recording of a cell phone call that a member of Hamas made to his family, while he was in the process of massacring innocent men, women, and children. The man is ecstatic, telling his father and mother, and I think brother, that he has just killed ten Jews with his own hands. He had just murdered a husband and wife and was now calling his family from the dead woman’s phone.
Here's a partial transcript of what he said:
“Hi dad — Open my WhatsApp now, and you’ll see all those killed. Look how many I killed with my own hands! Your son killed Jews!”
And his dad says “May God protect you.”
“Dad, I’m talking to you from a Jewish woman’s phone. I killed her, and I killed her husband. I killed ten with my own hands! Dad, ten with my own hands! Dad, open WhatsApp and see how many I killed, dad. Open the phone, dad. I’m calling you on WhatsApp. Open the phone, go. Dad, I killed ten. Ten with my own hands. Their blood is on their hands. [I believe that is a reference to the Quran] Put mom on.”
And the father says, “Oh my son. God bless you!”
“I swear ten with my own hands. Mother, I killed ten with my own hands!”
And his father says, “May God bring you home safely.”
“Dad, go back to WhatsApp now. Dad, I want to do a live broadcast.”
And the mother now says, “I wish I was with you.”
“Mom, your son is a hero!”
And then, apparently talking to his comrades he yells, “Kill, kill, kill, kill them.”
And then his brother gets on the line, asking where he is. And he tells his brother the name of the town and then he says “I killed ten! Ten with my own hands! I’m talking to you from a Jew’s phone!”
And the brother says, “You killed ten?”
“Yes, I killed ten. I swear!”
Then he says, “I am the first to enter on the protection and help of Allah! [Surely that’s another scriptural reference] Hold your head up, father. Hold your head up! See on WhatsApp those that I killed. Open my WhatsApp.”
And his brother says, “Come back. Come back.”
And he says, “What do you mean come back? There’s no going back. It is either death or victory! My mother gave birth to me for the religion. What’s with you? How would I return? Open WhatsApp. See the dead. Open it.”
And the mother sounds like she is trying to figure out how to open WhatsApp…
“Open WhatsApp on your phone and see the dead, how I killed them with my own hands.”
And she says, “Well, promise to come back.”
I don’t speak any Arabic, and it seems to me that not every word in the audio that’s being circulated was translated, but I think we get the gist. When I spoke to Graeme Wood about this, he said that to him the mother and father sounded more shocked and worried than anything else, which would be understandable. But I would submit to you that this piece of audio is more than just the worst WhatsApp commercial ever conceived. It is a window onto a culture. As I told Graeme, this is not the type of call that would have been placed from Vietnam, by an American who just participated in the My Lai Massacre. Nor is it the parental reaction one would expect from an American family, had their beloved son just called them from a killing field. I mean, as terrible as Vietnam was, can you imagine a call back to Nebraska, “Mom, I killed ten with my own hands! I killed a woman and her husband, and I’m calling from the dead woman’s phone. Mom, your son is a hero!” Do you see what a total aberration that would have been, even in extremis?
This call wasn’t a total aberration. This wasn’t Ted Bundy calling his mom. This was an ordinary member of Hamas, a group that might still win an election today, especially in the West Bank, calling an ordinary Palestinian family, and the mere existence of that call, to say nothing of its contents, reveals something about the wider culture among the Palestinians.
It’s important to point out that not only members of Hamas, but ordinary Gazans appear to have taken part in the torture and murder of innocent Israelis and the taking of hostages. How many did this? And how many ordinary Gazan’s were dancing in the streets and spitting on the captured women and girls who were paraded before them after having been raped and tortured? What percentage of Palestinians in Gaza, or the West Bank, many of whom are said to hate Hamas for their corruption and incompetence and brutality, nevertheless support what they did on October 7th with a clear conscience, based on what they believe about Jews and the ethics of jihad? I don’t know, but I’m sure that the answers to these questions would be quite alarming. We’re talking about a culture that teaches Jew hatred and the love of martyrdom in its elementary schools, many of which are funded by the UN.
Of course, all of this horror is compounded by the irony that the Jews who were killed on October 7th were, for the most part, committed liberals and peace activists. Hamas killed the sorts of people who volunteer to drive sick Palestinians into Israel for medical treatments. They murdered the most idealistic people in Israel. They raped, tortured, and killed young people at a trance-dance music festival devoted to peace, half of whom were probably on MDMA feeling nothing but love for all humanity when the jihadists arrived. In terms of a cultural and moral distance, it’s like the fucking Vikings showed up at Burning Man and butchered everyone in sight.
Just think about what happened at the Supernova music festival: At least 260 people were murdered in the most sadistically gruesome ways possible. Decapitated, burned alive, blown up with grenades… And from the jihadist side this wasn’t an error. It’s not that if they could have known what was in the hearts of those beautiful young people, they would have thought, “oh my God, we’re killing the wrong people. These people aren’t our enemies. These people are filled with love and compassion and want nothing more than to live in peace with us.” No, the true horror is that, given what jihadists believe, those were precisely the sorts of people any good Muslim should kill and send to hell where they can be tortured in fire for eternity. From the jihadist point of view, there is no mistake here. And there is no basis for remorse. Please absorb this fact: for the jihadist, all of this sadism—the torture and murder of helpless, terrified people—is an act of worship. This is the sacrament. This isn’t some nauseating departure from the path to God. This isn’t stalled spiritual progress, much less sin. This is what you do for the glory of God. This is what Muhammad himself did.
There is no substitute for understanding what our enemies actually want and believe. I’m pretty sure that many of you listening to this aren’t even comfortable with my use of the term “enemy,” because you don’t want to believe that you have any. I understand that. But you have to understand that the people who butchered over 1400 innocent men, women, and children in Israel on October 7th were practicing their religion, sincerely. They were being every bit as spiritual, from their point of view, as the trance dancers at the Supernova festival were being from theirs. They were equally devoted to their highest values. Equally uplifted. Ecstatic. Amazed at their good fortune. They wouldn’t want to trade places with anyone. Let this image land in your brain: They were shouting “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) all day long, as they murdered women and children. And these people are now being celebrated the world over by those who understand exactly what they did. Yes, many of those college kids at Harvard and Stanford and Cornell are just idiots who have a lot to learn about the world. But in the Muslim community, and that includes the crowds in London, and Sydney, and Brooklyn, Hamas is being celebrated by people who understand exactly what motivates them.
Again, watch “Hotel Mumbai” or read a book about the Islamic State so that you can see jihadism in another context—where literally not one of the variables that people imagine to be important here is present. There are no settlers, or blockades, or daily humiliations at check points, or differing interpretations of history—and yet we have same grotesque distortion of the spiritual impulse, the same otherworldliness framed by murder, the same absolute evil that doesn’t require the presence of evil people, just confused ones—just true believers.
Of course, we can do our best to turn the temperature down now. And we can trust that the news cycle will get captured by another story. We can direct our attention again to Russia, or China, or climate change, or AI alignment, and I will do that on this podcast, but the problem of jihadism and the much wider problem of sympathy for it isn’t going away. And civilized people—non-Muslim and Muslim alike—have to deal with it. As I said in a previous podcast on this topic: We all live in Israel now. It’s just that most of us haven’t realized it yet.