2015-11-24 – Ever since 9/11 there’s been a constant debate about whether terrorism is inherent in Islam or not. For the most part, liberals say no (with the notable exception of Bill Maher) and conservatives say yes (with the notable exception of George Bush). This debate heated up over the last week in wake of the Paris attack.
I’m here to tell you that both sides are wrong.
It is wrong to say that Islam is devoid extremism. It is also wrong to say that Islam is devoid of peace. Holy texts, by their nature, tend to contain the whole spectrum of human vice and virtue. The Koran counsels both war and peace. So do the New and Old Testaments of the Bible. (See Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, by Jonathan Sacks for a discussion of the texts. This is an important book, though there are some parts of it I disagree with.)
People who embrace hate can find support in their holy book.
People who embrace love can find support in their holy book.
As it says in Deut. 30:19, I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life. (Isn’t it great that even I can pull this trick!)
We create our gods in our own images.
That means that, within each religious tradition, there are good people and there are bad people. To lump all Muslims together is not only intellectually dishonest, it is stupid—for very practical reasons.
We find ourselves in a world in which millions are fleeing Islamic terror. (By Islamic terror, I don’t mean terror that is commanded by Islam; I mean terror that is committed in the name of Islam, which is different.) It is alleged that Islamic terrorists are using the flight of refugees to infiltrate western countries in order to commit future acts of terror. I have no way of knowing whether this is true or not or how large the risk is. I am able to say, however, that the fear of this is real and widespread.
This is a huge problem if we can’t tell good Muslims from bad.
If we take the liberal view that Muslims are good people, we let everyone in, including a few terrorists. If we take the conservative view that Islam is inherently bad, we bar everyone, and send the good Muslims back to be slaughtered by the bad. The better view is to learn to distinguish the good from the bad. (And, in fact, that is how U.S. immigration policy works, though many people don’t understand this.)
Now, you may not care about refugees. That is sad. But even if you don’t care about refugees, you ought to care about the message that is sent when we can’t tell good Muslims from bad. This is obviously insulting to good Muslims and pushes them to support, or at least tolerate bad Muslims. When we fail to distinguish between good Muslims bad bad Muslims, we are simply building the enemy’s coalition.
Confusion about who is good and who is bad has been the cornerstone of American policy in the Middle East. Nothing good can come when confusion is your cornerstone. And, indeed, history is proof. When our country was attacked by Saudis (mostly) on 9/11, we retaliated against Iraqis. And we still hold Saudis as our allies in the region, even though their consistent policy for decades has been contrary to American interests. All they have is oil.
Don’t get me started on oil. Let’s stick with the project of telling good Muslims from bad. If we make any headway on that, I’ll talk to you about telling good Christians from bad—or good Jews from bad.
(It’s actually not that hard. Hint: The good ones don’t want to kill you or send you to hell.)