.:.THE DARK UNDERBELLY WHERE NEW MYTHS ARE MADE.:.
An Interview with Howard Bloom
About half an hour into our stroll through Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, I realize that Howard Bloom’s daily routine includes greeting every dog that crosses his path. Dropping into a crouch to scratch the head of a Labrador Retriever that wags its tail so hard that its body quivers, Bloom takes a moment to chat with the owners before turning back to the conversation we’ve been having. “It is an unspoken rule on the left to be ignorant as shit about Islam and to accept whatever Karen Armstrong has said it is. We don’t know what Islam really is,” he explains, his voice crackling with conviction. Bloom is the author of the 2016 Feral House title The Muhammad Code: How a Desert Prophet Brought You ISIS, al Qaeda, and Boko Haram and our chat is the result of my review of this controversial book.
It’s a title that has lingered with me, and when offered the opportunity to meet the author, I was unsure as to what type of personality I would encounter. The Muhammad Code’s discussion of militant Islam is troubling not just for its contents (the book opens with a graphic examination of sexual assaults perpetrated by ISIS), but for its thesis that this radical strain of Islam is part of an imperialist movement that poses a direct, imminent threat to Western culture. The fact that this work is directed at people like me—people who value a pluralist, tolerant society built on a bedrock of personal freedom—adds to its challenging nature. It’s the work of a writer with a passionate perspective who is compelled to persuade others to his point of view.
All this makes it surprising for me when I realize—sometime between visiting with dogs, dodging puddles of melting slush, and sitting down at an artisanal candy shop—that I enjoy talking to Howard Bloom. His eccentricity is suggested by a scientific resume that begins at age ten, and this impression is further cemented by his winter attire, which includes a fur hat with Soviet insignia and a down jacket, fleece vest, and button down shirt, each embroidered with his full name. In fact, it turns out that I like Howard Bloom The Man a great deal. I’m still grappling, however, with how I react to Howard Bloom The Author of The Muhammad Code.
Bloom dwells in a world of ideas—very big ideas. “I’ve been working on a book since I was ten years old; it’s called the Grand Unified Theory of Everything in the Universe Including the Human Soul,” he tells me. “The table of contents included about 8,200 chapters last time I looked.” His fascination with the dark side of mass human behavior stretches back to his earliest memories and has been a dominant force in his investigations, which combine material from scientific, psychological, sociological, and literary sources. His energetic curiosity is guided by two principles, as he explains: “the truth at any price including the price of your life, and looking at the things right under your nose as if you’ve never seen them before.” He tells me about a pivotal moment in his youth:
“When I was twelve, I realized I was an atheist. I had a bar mitzvah coming up, and I knew that meant there were going to be presents, so to admit to myself I was an atheist at that time was very bad. I held out until I had finished with my thank you notes and then fully admitted I was an atheist. The High Holidays came around in September and when my parents dragged me to synagogue, I refused to go inside. There they were, trying to pull me by my ankles out of the car, and I had a realization. There were no gods up there and no gods down there, but where were the gods? They were right there in my parents who were busy pulling on my shoes and shredding my socks to get me into temple! I had read enough anthropology at that time to know this is true of people all over the world, that they have a link to the gods through the ancestors. I knew about science, too. Galileo’s trick was taking an existing piece of technology, the lens, and turning it in a new direction by looking up. Antonie van Leeuwenhoek turned that lens in an entirely different direction: down, to look at pond water and see the microorganisms living there. My job was to take the lens and turn it inwards to look at the gods inside of us.”
Bloom opted out of advanced academic studies and chose to conduct his own brand of field research. Feeling that his personal obsession with the passions that can be roused into large-scale cultural movements couldn’t be satisfied in a traditional academic setting, he instead embarked on a decades-long career in public relations for pop stars including Prince and Billy Joel. “This would get me closer to what I was interested in: the land of the gods and the dark underbelly where new myths are made,” he tells me. His PR career was interrupted when he was bedridden for fifteen years with a diagnosis of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), during which time he wrote three books: The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History (1995), The Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century (2000), and The Genius of the Beast: A Radical Re-vision of Capitalism (2010). Each of these books delves into his study of human behavior—a study that looks at mass psychology through a curious atheist’s lens. Today, any trace of CFS has disappeared. At age seventy-three, Bloom is vital and energetic with a perspective that is the product of his unique mind. It is a point of view that speaks of the borderline magical force of group behavior while also using statistics in an effort to mathematically prove the excellence of Western culture. It’s a fascinating philosophy, but one that harbors many dark corners.
Bloom’s fascination with radical Islam dates back to the early eighties. He recounts a casual conversation with a colleague in which the topic of Islam was broached. The colleague, a music columnist, claimed that sitting across the table from an imam would be no different from sitting across the table from Bloom. “That was an arrogant, ignorant, asshole statement,” Bloom insists. “It’s based on cultural narcissism. What we know as religion is a uniquely Western concept that we didn’t start developing until 1517, with Martin Luther and the Reformation. Before that, all religions were totalitarian affairs. It took Westerners 300 years of killing each other, but we invented what didn’t exist before: a secular society. This was a new kind of religion: the kind you can put in a shoebox all week long and take out only on Saturday or Sunday, depending on your preference. We don’t understand how artificial a concept of religion this is!” When critics raise the notion that Islam may need time to undergo a similar process of reformation, Bloom is blunt: “Majority-Muslim countries [like Pakistan and Iran] have nuclear capabilities. We don’t have 300 years; too many lives are at stake.”
An element of The Muhammad Code that especially disturbed me was the way in which taqiyya is presented within its pages. Taqiyya is the concept that deception of non-Muslims is permissible within certain schools of Islam. The term is understood by mainstream scholars to mean that a Muslim can deny his faith to avoid persecution in situations where professing belief in Islam will result in punishment and death. In discussing radical Islam, Bloom applies the notion of taqiyya to call into question the truthfulness of statements made by imams to Western audiences. A specific claim Bloom makes is that jihad is portrayed to Westerners as a benign personal struggle when the true intent of the word is a militant—and even murderous—one. When I ask him about this, he explains that the Koran is intended to be a direct set of life instructions to be followed by Muslims and that Mohammed had a career as a military leader. I press further, asking about Muslims both he and I know who don’t hold violent beliefs. Are these people lying to protect a hidden agenda designed to undermine and even kill us? His response is measured: “I know Muslims who don’t believe in the violent Mohammed. I’m sure they learned about his military career when they were children, but they’ve forgotten it, possibly in the same way we forget that there was an American Revolution. Well, we don’t forget it—it’s there as a phrase for us. What we strip the phrase of is the fact that 40,000 people died violently to establish this republic we live in. Between 600,000 and 700,000 more people died to hold it together during the American Civil War. To be in a position similar to militant Islam, we would have to interpret this to mean that since we were born in war, war is our natural lot in life, and we must make war to live. We haven’t interpreted our history that way. We forget about the violence of the phrases ‘Revolutionary War’ and ‘Civil War.’ You are not allowed to forget the violence if you are part of ISIS or Boko Haram and other groups.” The threat posed by these militant groups, Bloom believes, is not being addressed or even explored by mainstream intellectuals.
Bloom sees a need to elevate non-violent voices from within the Muslim community—voices that he calls “reformers,” people seeking to defang the totalitarian strain of Islam that he sees as a threat to the Western way of life. In his view, the problem is that people who speak out for reform within Islam are being silenced. Bloom explains that when claims of Islamophobia are levied against reformers, Western intellec-tuals on the left are taking them at face value without further investigation. “People like [activist and author] Asra Nomani are attempting to preach a reformation, but they are being cut off from support by people like me [Author’s note: Nomani campaigns for women’s rights within Islam and has made controversial remarks about the Muslim community’s responsibility to self-police against violent groups]. She’s branded as an Islamophobe. My side is so blind that all you have to do is put a negative label on somebody and no one looks to see what the facts are. Since Trump was elected, the one thing that seems to hold liberals together is defending Islam without knowing a fucking thing about it. As intellectuals, we’re supposed to know so much, and yet we know so little.”
One of the key aspects of militant Islam on which Bloom focuses is its antisemitism. During our conversation, he quotes a particular passage from the Hadith (a collection of texts recounting episodes from the life of Mohammed) multiple times: “The Day of Judgement will not come about until Muslims fight the Jews, when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say O Muslims, O Abdullah, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.” When asked about similarly genocidal statements in the Torah that are either downplayed within mainstream Judaism or understood for their allegorical value by mainstream Christians, Bloom argues that the allegorical tradition doesn’t exist within Islam due to the Koran’s status as the literal word of God, which infuses these words with a potency that is taken literally by militant Muslims. I ask him whether the threat of these militant Quranic literalists is the result of sheer numbers or of an outsized fear, and he tells me that there’s really no way of knowing, that the statistics don’t really exist and that his own estimates are extrapolations taken from multiple sources. It’s this essential unknowability that seems to gnaw at him, and combined with his interpretation of taqiyya, it paints a deeply disturbing vision of potential danger.
Although he is an atheist, Bloom is an outspoken Zionist. He has appeared on Iranian television representing this point of view on panels with senior officials from Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. “My positions sound so outlandish to people who have been cultivated all their lives to view Zionists the way we view Nazis; I assumed that nothing I was going to say would make a dent,” he explains. However, his belief in the power of debate, in the power of sharing ideas, is unshakeable. He has persisted in participating in programs on these platforms because he believes that the opportunity to persuade, even in the smallest way, must be seized.
When I ask about the sources of his research, Bloom points to his extensive reading. “There are five or more citations to many of the 1,930 footnotes in The Muhammad Code. To say that I’ve been through thousands of documents is an understatement,” he smiles. His is an analysis of printed and publicly available materials, including a years-long chronicling of Osama Bin Laden’s writing. I’m curious to know if militant Islam is something he’s discussed directly with first sources, but this is not part of his process. He examines the available materials and searches for the meaning behind the meaning, for the roots of extremism within Islam via the writing of participants.
I ask Bloom if there’s a solution to the the threats he sees. “We have to wake up,” he says, stopping in his tracks and turning to make eye contact with me. “If we Western intellectuals think we are the cause of all evil in the world, then that is racism. It’s believing that other peoples are too puny to accomplish anything in history, that only we have ever counted. We have to realize that there are other cultures out there with very different ways of viewing the world, and that we’re in competition with them.” It’s a deeply Darwinian worldview—a zero sum game wherein billions of human lives are at stake. So why does he persist, knowing that his work is met with censorship, skepticism, and worse? “If you’re serious about your research, about science, then your job is to look at every mystery there is and try to uncover it and see it clearly.” One thing is clear to me: Howard Bloom won’t stop looking any time soon.