Why — and How — We Need to Talk About Islam and Terrorism Together

The only way to defeat terrorists is to promote a faith that is not threatened by other beliefs.

What should we call terrorists, some of whom claim to be motivated by their religion? Can one be an Islamic terrorist? What about a Christian terrorist? Does what we call terrorists matter?

The question answers itself. Terrorists are terrorists; that is, they use unlawful violence to intimidate for political purpose. They cannot, however, be deterred, denied, and/or defeated without understanding and directly addressing their motivation. At the end of the day, only good theology beats bad theology.

For starters, it is simply fact that the U.S. has been attacked by terrorists motivated by their understanding of Islam, an Islam that allows for suicide bombings and the stoning of women, gays, and lesbians while not allowing for freedom of conscience, free speech, women’s education, and Israel. Reflecting on the 2004 terrorist attack in Beslan, Russia — which killed 346 civilians, including 186 children — the general manager of Al-Arabiya, Abdel Rahman al-Rashed, wrote: “It is a certain fact that not all Muslims are terrorists, but it is equally certain, and exceptionally painful, that almost all terrorists are Muslims.”

The beginning of wisdom is to call something by its proper name. To pretend that this terrorism is not rooted in the terrorists’ own understanding of Islam is delusional. Furthermore, it is absolutely absurd that our national security dialogue and documents cannot have honest conversations about these facts and their implications for policy formation and implementation.

For example, how is it that the State Department’s January 2010 strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan does not include the words “religion,” “faith,” or “Islam”? How can we engage one of the most conservative theological places on earth and not talk about religion?

The only thing more delusionally absurd than the above, however, is to assume that these terrorists represent Islam. They do not, just as the Ku Klux Klan does not speak for Christianity. Indeed, to monolithically classify all Muslims as terrorists is to deny three basic facts.

First, we deny our own history. It was not too long ago that Puritans fled England because, according to them, it was still too much like Rome . . . only to found a theocracy in Massachusetts that dictated how one worships. Nor should we forget that we fought a civil war that was essentially about whether scripture validated slavery or not. To state that “Islam is the problem” is to refuse to look into our own historical mirror and remember our own theological and political evolution of thought and practice.

Second, the overwhelming majority of Muslims do not believe as the terrorists do — just as I do not define by faith as a Christian according to the racist teachings of the Klan that resulted in thousands of lynchings throughout the south. The only way to grasp this fact is to actually talk to Muslims, at home and abroad.

Third, and most importantly for Christians, to treat Muslims as a monolith is to deny the God who made each Muslim in His own image, possessing an innate dignity and worth that no one can take away. Indeed, as soon as we treat Muslims as a stereotypical monolith, we have committed the same sin as the terrorists who view those who do not agree with their theo-political goals as Christian-Zionist-Crusaders-Apostates.

So where does this leave us?

We should acknowledge that we cannot kill all the terrorists, nor can we occupy all of Iraq and Afghanistan (or Iran or Yemen or Somalia for that matter). So we’d better think of some new ideas.

Next, we should not call the terrorists “jihadis.” Forget theology and morality for a moment. As a matter of good strategy — not to mention public relations — why use the term “jihadi” and confirm the terrorists’ own self-perception as religious; and, in doing so, encourage others worldwide to think of them as Islamic? They are terrorists. Period.

Nor should we use such phrases as “Islamic Terrorism” or “Islamo-Fascism.” These terms only insult the entire faith and the majority of Muslims who stand against the terrorists.

Which brings us to the most maddening part of this administration’s refusal to discuss Islam and terrorism together. While we should never shy away from honest discussions about the terrorists’ self-perception and motivating ideology — which is to acknowledge religion as part of the problem — we should always allow for the possibility that religion can also be a part of the solution. By refusing to talk about Islam and terrorism together, the administration effectively prevents this latter discussion from taking place.

At the end of the day, only good theology beats bad theology, only the best of faith defeats the worst of religion. Unfortunately, we Americans get downright squirmy when it comes to talking about religion and politics . . . but our national security now takes place at their intersection.

As I have written elsewhere, however, this is a conversation we must have, with eyes wide open to the fact that religion will play a role in realpolitik, whether we like it or not. We may as well get comfortable with the fact that religion could be a force-multiplier on national security issues…if we let it.

Walter Russell Mead writes the following in God and Gold: Britain, American and the Making of the Modern World:

The history of the encounters of religious faith with the dynamic society of the maritime world suggests that neither Islam nor religion should be seen as the enemy. Not even terrorism is distinctively Islamic; both Catholic and Protestant fanatics stooped to terrorist tactics during the long wars of religion out of which the dynamic society ultimately rose. There is as yet no good historical argument to back the belief that as its encounter with dynamic society proceeds, Islam will ultimately prove to be less dynamic and less adaptable than Christianity has been.

Islam “will not ‘secularize’ itself into a mild form of atheism. It will not blend into a post-confessional unity religion that sees all religions as being fundamentally the same. Rather, pious Muslims of unimpeachable orthodoxy, conspicuous virtue, conservative principles, and great passion for their faith will show the world what dynamic Islam can be. Inspired by their example, vision, and teaching, Muslims all over the world will move more deeply into the world of their religion even as they find themselves increasingly at home in a dynamic, liberal, and capitalist world that is full of many faiths and many cultures.”

Have you ever wondered why there were no witch trials in Rhode Island? It’s because Roger Williams took his faith so seriously that he considered those who did not believe like him to still be made in the image of God and worthy of respect. So he fled theocratic Massachusetts and founded Rhode Island. In writing its 1663 Colonial Charter — as Massachusetts hung its Quakers — Williams specifically linked religious freedom and security, allowing for the obvious fact that if people could (not) worship freely, they would be less likely to agitate against the state. The result, at least in Rhode Island, was place where Indian, Quaker, Jew, and Christian could (not) worship according to their conscience. It was a remarkable event.

What we must remember most about this event, however, was that this Charter was not rooted in the “enlightenment” of secular values, but in the orthodoxy of a faith so strong that it was not threatened by — and indeed engaged — other beliefs. And thus the establishment of a pattern of a principled pluralism capable of self-rebuke and correction . . . a humble process that continues to this day.

This is our ongoing prayer for ourselves, for Islam, and for the good Muslims working to make it so. This is the only way we will defeat the terrorists.

Chris Seiple
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  • michtom

    “The beginning of wisdom is to call something by its proper name.”The proper name for this discussion is propaganda.Terrorism is a tactic. It is no better or worse than any other tactic of warfare. Whatever motivates violence against others–be it religion, ideology or profit–it is the violence that is unacceptable, that brings death.Is terrorism worse than carpet bombing? than sending drones 8000 miles away from their controllers and killing families? than dropping a nuclear bomb on a city (surely an act of terror as well)? How about proclaiming a policy that allows a president to have a citizen assassinated without due process?Why is this discussion focusing on Islam? I don’t care if I’m murdered for the benefit of a religion or a corporation. I’m just as dead.Do you want a better world? Renounce the propaganda of “terrorism discussions” and discuss violence, whoever commits it.

  • SyedSahab

    Its is true that most of terror acts are committed by Terrorists who are Muslim. (Let us Ignore State terrorism and non Muslim terror for a while).So while we all see very simple things being put into a context so that the turf shifts from very obvious issues to more complicated ones like which religion is more of a terrorist friendly one.Personally speaking, I know and believe that NO REASON allows a Muslim to commit an act which will result in killing of even a single innocent person even if that also take out 100 criminals.So while I do not know if Israelis and Dick Cheney’s faith allow collateral damage or not, I am 100% sure that its not permitted in Islam, and those who commit these atrocities must by brought to justice, regardless of the religion they practice and country they belong to.