Shaming the murderers
A religious Muslim who murders an innocent person in the name of the Quran desecrates his own religion. I wish that idea had been the theme of last week’s White House Conference on Violent Extremism.
Instead, President Barack Obama went out of his way to take religion out of religious violence. Referring to the growing threat of Islamic violence, the president suggested that this is not the real Islam.
“We are at war with people who have perverted Islam,” he said.
Well, the fanatics of ISIS might disagree. “The Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic,” Graeme Wood writes in a widely read essay in The Atlantic. “Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers … but the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.”
This interpretation harks back to the earliest days of Islam and includes a radical interpretation of takfir, the practice of excommunication. As Wood writes: “Following takfiri doctrine, the Islamic State is committed to purifying the world by killing vast numbers of people.”
Taking violent religious texts literally may be a horrible idea, but it’s not a misinterpretation or perversion of Islam, even though the great majority of modern Muslims would never practice it. And it’s not just our current president who glosses over this uncomfortable reality. President George W. Bush made a similar wishful assertion in 2001, a few days after the 9/11 terror attacks, when he said, “These acts of violence violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith.”
Our wishful thinking comes from a good place — we’re conditioned in America to respect religion. So we want to believe that when a religious person kills in the name of religion, it must be a perversion. We look for another agenda.
“Obama’s position seems to be that the leaders of these [jihadist] groups aren’t sincere in their beliefs,” Reihan Salam wrote in Slate. “He suggests that what ISIS is really after is power, as if its obsessive focus on acting in accordance with practices that were widespread in the days of Muhammad is merely window-dressing for thuggery and theft.”
One of Obama’s arguments for downplaying religion is that he doesn’t want to give fanatics the “religious legitimacy they seek.” But we’re in a war. It’s not about giving religious fanatics the legitimacy they seek, it’s about giving them the public shaming they deserve. Separating their acts from their religion and calling them “violent extremists” doesn’t offend or hurt them — it just lets them off the hook.
A more effective approach would be to put them on the defensive by accusing them of desecrating their own religion. The fact is, all the murders that religious fanatics are committing in the name of Allah dishonors Allah and the very religion they cherish so deeply.
We must stick to what we know. Most of us, including the president, are not theological experts on Islam. Who are we to decide what is and what isn’t Islam? There have been countless interpretations and reinterpretations across the centuries, some more peaceful than others. There is one thing, however, that is quite clear to all of us– what looks good and what looks bad. Chopping off a reporter’s head in the name of religion makes that religion look bad. Period. Case closed. So does lynching gays or stoning a woman to death.
Promoting peaceful coexistence in the name of religion looks good; promoting murder in the name of religion looks bad. This is true for all religions and for all societies and for all time.
Yes, the majority of Muslims are against jihadist violence, but they must take responsibility for the fact that most religious violence today emanates from their religion. As J.J. Goldberg writes in the Forward, “There are many sources of violent extremism in the world, but there’s basically just one that’s terrorizing vast sections of humanity right now, and that’s the one that identifies itself with purist Islam and jihad.”
The best way for supporters of Islam to defend Islam is to target and publicly shame those who are poisoning the image of Islam. Instead of attempting to separate these religious thugs from their religion, we must go in the opposite direction and tell them: “You’re not just violent extremists. You’re religious sinners and desecrators. By murdering in the name of Islam, you are destroying the image of your own faith.”
Obama alluded to this at his conference when he said: “Violence against innocents doesn’t defend Islam or Muslims, it damages Islam and Muslims.” That should become his main line of attack in the war against religious fanatics.
It’s time to raise the stakes. Instead of trying to convince people that Islam is a “religion of peace,” let’s go after those who are making Islam look like a religion of war. It’s no longer enough to say, “We are not at war against Islam.” We must now say, “You who murder in the name of Islam are the ones who are really at war against Islam.”
In the long struggle against religious fanatics, let’s remember who the bad guys are and let's never forget the lethal weapon of public shame.
David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.