James Bloodworth, Islamism, and a fallacy to watch out for

March 30, 2016

Every now and then someone desperate to 'prove' that X is not causally responsible for Y - e.g poverty is not a cause of crime, will commit the following fallacy. They will argue that as X has occurred without Y following, therefore X was not the cause of Y in this case.

Back in 2011 many right-wingers were desperate to show that poverty was not the, or even a, cause of the London riots. In order to try to show that, they pointed to poor people and areas where no rioting occurred. UK Prime Minister David Cameron said: "These riots were not about poverty. That insults the millions of people who, whatever the hardship, would never dream of making others suffer like this." A letter to Newseek magazine argued: "Saskia Sassen blames conditions in disadvantaged areas for the UK riots, ignoring urban areas for the UK riots, ignoring that other deprived regions - Glasgow, Tyneside, South Wales - didn't riot." That was fallacious reasoning. Compare.

Bert smoked 40 a day for 40 years and didn't get lung cancer. Joe smoked 40 a day for 40 years and didn't get lung cancer. Therefore Jim's smoking 40 a day for 40 years did not cause his lung cancer.

Clearly, Jim's smoking could very easily be a - indeed the cause - of his lung cancer. True enough, smoking that much is not causally sufficient to produce lung cancer. Various other factors have to be in play too, including genetic factors, etc. However, the fact that only a minority of those who smoke 40 a day for 40 years end up with lung cancer does not show that smoking does not play a - perhapseven the - key role in producing the lung cancer of those who do smoke that much.

Now journalist James Bloodworth makes the same mistake, arguing 'The West is not responsible for Jihadist violence, Islamist ideology is.' His argument? It's as follows:

"Yet if, as some suggest, American imperialism really is the "root cause" of modern anti-Western terrorism; if the West really has brought terrorism on itself, there are several questions that urgently require an answer. First of all, where are the Cuban, the Argentinian and the Chilean suicide bombers? Where are the Guatemalans and the Brazilians intent on the random slaughter of "unpure" populations and the mass capture of sexual slaves ? If fanatical religious ideology isn't the main driver of the spate of recent attacks, where are the masked Latinos rampaging through parks and shopping centres with Kalashnikovs?

As any good anti-imperialist ought to know, outside of South East Asia there is arguably no part of the world that has suffered more under the heel of American imperialism than its own supposed back yard. The Middle East certainly hasn't. Where, then, is the supposedly inevitable blow back ." Source.

Now, as a matter of fact, I don't doubt for a moment that Islamist ideology is a root cause of Jihadist terror attacks on the West. But that doesn't mean the West is not causally or morally to blame. The West may still be a, perhaps even the - root cause, as the smoking example illustrates.

In my view, the causal and moral responsibility for the recent jihadist attacks is complex, and cannot be boiled down to a simple formula: "It's all the fault of so-and-so". Such simple-minded explanations are attractive because they can create the illusion of there being a comparatively simple solutions. But they are rarely correct.


#1 Martin Freedman (Guest) on Thursday March 31, 2016 at 1:06am

Whilst I agree with your intent, I find your lung cancer analogy inadequate.

In the case of lung cancer, the argument for X likely causing Y was some of best and original epidemiological analysis of health and smoking data.

You have presented nor given no indication as to what the equivalent argument is with regard to Islam

Further the supporting argument over the London riots is also dubious on the same grounds, since you again give no positive argument or link to support your implied conclusion.

When criticising someone over the abuse of rhetoric it is wise not to leave yourself open to the same criticism.

#2 Stephen Law (Guest) on Thursday March 31, 2016 at 12:23pm

Hi Martin - you seem to have got the wrong end of the stick. I am criticising an argument for poverty not being a (or the) cause of the London riots and an argument for The West not being a (or the) cause of jihadist terrorism. In so far as that’s my aim, the analogy is bang on.

Of course you could argue for Islam being a root cause. Bloodworth draws that conclusion but his aergument is just that that’s the key difference between the South American examples and the Middle Eastern. Even if he is right that it is an important causal factor (and he may be), he is wrong to draw the conclusion that jihadism has nothing to do with the West. That’s the point I am making.

#3 The Rationalizer on Thursday March 31, 2016 at 12:35pm

Using your analogy, perhaps foreign policy (the cigarettes) being introduced to those already having a genetic predisposition (Islam) is the cause?

Not that I am saying Muslims are more likely to stand up for themselves than anyone else when invaded - which I think is basically what Bloodworth was arguing against - but because an aggressive imperialist theocracy is more likely to resort to violence.

#4 Stephen Law (Guest) on Thursday March 31, 2016 at 12:37pm

“Using your analogy, perhaps foreign policy (the cigarettes) being introduced to those already having a genetic predisposition (Islam) is the cause?”

Yes, exactly. Bloodworth hasn’t ruled that out.

#5 The Rationalizer on Thursday March 31, 2016 at 12:39pm

I think we should also ask, what did Spain do wrong in order to be invaded by Muslims and run as a Caliphate?

The answer, I suspect, is nothing at all. The political side of Islam wants to spread by beating its enemies into submission through physical force (see Quran 9.29 http://quranx.com/9.29). I think that is the most significant factor, especially when you look at attacks such as Belgium.

#6 Stephen Law (Guest) on Thursday March 31, 2016 at 12:53pm

Yes sure - I am entirely convinced Islam plays a very significant role. I just disapprove of Bllodworth’s argument and the conclusion that jihadism has nothing to do with Western actions - it clearly does (see e.g. statement by chief architect of 9/11 attack, who said the motivation was US policy re Israel/Palestine).

#7 Mario (Guest) on Thursday March 31, 2016 at 1:24pm

Has Bloodworth considered the simple possibility that different cultures respond differently to imperialist bullying?  Which is clearly the case?

#8 Al (Guest) on Thursday March 31, 2016 at 3:45pm

Is Bloodworth aware that Muslims live in Latin America?

#9 Philip Rand (Guest) on Saturday April 09, 2016 at 6:57am

Actually, the most likely reason violence has sprung up in the Middle East is because the percentage of 15-23 year old males is way over 20% of the total population of these countries, i.e.Syria…

It is a well known SCIENTIFIC fact that civil disturbance, i.e. civil war is correlated to this type of population distribution in a country…

Same goes for the London riots… the answer is in the average age of the rioters… not poverty…

Humans behave a bit like locust…

Here Dr Law is not alone… even the great sage Steven Pinker has missed this population distribution correlation link to civil disturbance…

An egregious error on Pinker’s part that totally defeats his “violence is decreasing in the human world” rhetoric (on account we humans are becoming “more” rational)...

Center for Inquiry… perhaps… but where the hell is the reasoning?

#10 Philip Rand (Guest) on Saturday April 09, 2016 at 7:51am

Before you catch me out Dr Law… you write:

“I am entirely convinced Islam plays a very significant role.”

This is wrong… Islam plays no role whatsoever with the violence… nor does “imperialism”...

Your commitment to the statement that Islam plays a significant role is caused by your commitment to your world-view… nothing else…

#11 Nathan (Guest) on Thursday April 28, 2016 at 5:34am


The point of the article as I understand it is that there are many factors which come together to cause an outcome, but due to the complexity, it’s not possible to reduce this to one and claim that that is the cause. Your reply does just that.

The point you raise about the age demographics is interesting, and it is likely to be another factor influencing the outcome, but to claim that it’s the sole cause is seriously misguided. Interestingly as well, the people of that age group have been suffering through many years of war and violence around them due in large part to Western interventions, so there’s actually another factor on top of simply their age that is influencing their actions.

Your claim that Islam plays no role is also somewhat silly. Islam is being widely used to bring people together, radicalise them, and to justify atrocities. Those things are not necessarily an inherent part of Islam and most Muslims would reasonably argue that their religion is being misused, but one cannot reasonably claim that Islam is playing no part in the current events in the region.

The rise of violent jihadism in the Middle East is a result of a mixture of Western Imperialism, extremist Islamic teachings, age demographics, and many more factors that come together to create violence.

As a side note, correlation is not causation, and so the correlation of civil war and this particular age distribution does not mean that there is a causal relationship here. Indeed, you are falling into the very trap that this article describes.

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.