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A Decade of Imprecision: Reflections on America and Islam

2011 September 11

Today marks the tenth anniversary of perhaps the most egregious, manipulative, and immeasurably dangerous linguistic crime in modern history: the equation of the words “Muslim” and “terrorist.” This irredeemable offense was perpetrated and perpetuated by both the United States government and the national media, who have advanced this heinous fallacy with humiliating regularity since September 11th, 2001 without any reduction in frequency or ignorance. If the horrific events in Oslo this summer taught the world any lesson at all, it should have been that the word “terrorist” must only be synonymous with “terrorist.” How soon this country forgot the work of its own Timothy McVeigh, who committed the most deadly terrorist attack on the United States prior to 2001, while being white, American, and Christian.

Of course, one must confront the fact that the holy books of Islam are particularly good for making terrorists. Many from within and without the faith have tried desperately to separate Islam from the motivations of its most radically devout followers, but this has proved both negligent and futile because it elects to ignore the confessed faith of the aggressors, the distinctly religious claims made thereby, and the litany of supportive passages in their holy books. This useless endeavor is often undertaken by those trying to distinguish “Muslims” from “fundamentalists” or “extremists” in an attempt to preserve the ostensible integrity of the faith. The glaring logical inconsistency is that fundamentalists, by definition, do not extrapolate, interpret, or rewrite—they simply believe what they read. If one struggles to understand just what motivated these religious zealots to turn planes into bombs, one need look no further than their holy books.

Subsequently, there has commenced a bizarre and unsubstantiated verbal war between one camp which would deem every disciple of Islam a potential human bomb and another which would remove religion from the discussion entirely. This argument is meaningless because it ignores what should be an obvious and vitally inseparable pair of facts: 1. Al-Qaeda is a militant Islamist organization, and 2. Not every Muslim is a terrorist. That these statements can coexist in truth is attested by all available evidence. Regarding the former, al-Qaeda has made no secret of its religious foundations throughout the entirety of its 22-year history. One may disregard this if one likes, I suppose, but I cannot make out the benefit. The continued existence of the author, the reader, and the remainder of humanity should suffice to confirm the latter.

This problem is distinctly linguistic. Distinctions must be made between “Islam,” “Muslims,” and “terrorists.” The idle conflation of these terms has directly caused the deaths of thousands of our brothers and sisters across the world. Short-cutting language in this fashion has consequences, and a laziness in language is often symptomatic of a laziness in thought, which is exponentially more devastating. Imprecision of this kind, whether unintentional or, in its most vicious form, deliberate, leads to incredible misunderstanding and misrepresentation. It is ambiguity of this kind that provides the justification and framework for the sort of unfounded babble spouted daily by uninformed bigots on both sides of the podium. Linguistic and intellectual imprecision on this point has inspired a decade of ignorance and hate, stifled the religious freedom and culture of millions of American citizens, and stumbled our country into more than one gratuitous war.

Islam is a wicked and silly religion, though certainly no more wicked and silly than the remaining Abrahamic cults. The books of Christianity and Judaism are irredeemably violent as well (Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and the Book of Job destroy all hope of a “loving” Old Testament god; and Jesus, after introducing the enduring vision of hell, has few kind words to say to those who don’t believe his outrageous claim to divinity), and thankfully most believers in each case have employed their evolutionarily inherited faculties of reason and morality rather than accept the spiteful ramblings of sadistic nonsense. For this reason we cannot identify a person’s moral character by identifying his or her religion. We rational thinkers from within and without the faith community must be diligent in taking no issue with a person of faith because of their holy book until that person takes issue with us because their holy book commands it. Until then, we must recognize that the issues we have are ideological issues and, while of dire importance, can only be resolved (or at least better understood) through sober and intelligent discourse. In lieu of this ability we must judge one’s actions when they are taken.

There are vast numbers of intelligent, critical Muslims, Christians, Jews, etc. that value the tenets of the Enlightenment, believe in rigorous intellectual debate, and engage in an ongoing, informed dialogue between the secular and religious communities. Even those that do not subscribe to these principles specifically or are not afforded by birth or effort the opportunity to do so largely abstain from religious violence anyhow. We must be thankful that there exist such Muslims as those who publicly denounce their book’s more violent commandments (while we solemnly wish that there were more who would do the same).

The books of Islam command violence. However, to claim that “Muslims are violent” because Islam is violent would be a dangerous inaccuracy. This sentiment is no different from deeming Jews violent because of the butchery commanded in the Torah and it should be ridiculed and dismissed as readily. The true aim of rational, educated critics of religion (especially including those within the religious community) must be bent toward the source. Islam is a target worthy of dedicated and merciless criticism. However, it must be remembered that Islam is an ideology, not a person, or even a group of people. Critics of Islam (who should, by my reckoning, likewise be critics of all religions, for I don’t see how one of these wretched fictions is more appealing or reasonable than another) must be careful to limit the instruments of their assault to language and thought, which, for the record, are far more explosive weapons than bombs.

Let us be precise when we say that this is, above all, a war of ideas, and that it can only be effectively fought as such. If our target is religion, let it remain so and let us aim our words and pens well. Our target must not transform to include all those of faith. Earthly punishment can only be doled to earthly creatures, and we must reserve it for those deserving. We cannot punish an idea but with reason, and let us stand by this. Precision on this issue, both linguistic and intellectual, is paramount. To mistake an idea for an action, or one’s holy book for one’s character, can be, as we have long seen, fatal. This is a mistake we cannot afford to make because it not only gets us nowhere, it undoes progress.

This article was adapted from another entitled “The Importance of Precision,” published on September 11th, 2010 at The Clam Room.

2 Responses leave one →
  1. September 26, 2011

    To “Muslims,” “Islam” and “terrorist,” I would add “Islamist,” meaning proponent of political Islam. Some Islamists support or have supported terrorism (Hamas, Hizbollah) and some are essentially the Islamic equivalent of the Christian Democratic Party of Norway or some other such banal thing which doesn’t seek to impose theocracy or revivalist imperialism. This, too, is a vital distinction, and, while it gets down into the minutiae, when we’re on about human rights, ethnic supremacy and violence, the minutiae is worth it.

  2. April 11, 2012

    It is counter productive to call our holy books wicked and silly. This mud slinging makes conversation with Muslims very difficult. Oh I know, this is about Muslims, they are the object of discussion, of critique, of suspicion etc. However we are tired of being text objects!

    I appreciate that you are trying to unpack some of the conflations & assumptions … but some of your assertions dont quite fit the facts. As a faith (not only ideology, please) Islam is much more elastic & much less monolithic than most non-Muslims seem to believe. Many of us feel it is guiding us in a very positive direction, towards and honoring all life with compassion.

    I admit that rigid interpretations sometimes do lead to militancy and that this is a trend– I trust you have read Ibn Khaldun on this subject– ie Muslim sociologists have been aware of these social patterns at least since the 13th century…. it’s over a billion people and leadership very decentralized– have some compassion!

    But you do, I see. I suggest one fruitful avenue for scholarly exploration might be how many traditional value systems become distorted in global (and lets be clear, capitalist & consumerist) cultures. Why limit this only to Muslim countries, except that there is a market for the “Muslim Other.” Progressives may idealize “resistance” to exploitation, hegemony etc but such resistance to injustice may break quite a few eggs in the collective cooking up of a glorious utopian omelette.

    If that’s a receipe –or command– to defensive use of force on occasion, so be it– but never terror, never violence towards civilians. Alas, everyone regardless of religion disregards that last bit.

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