Is Terrorism “Not Islam”?

Khizr and Ghazala Khan, Muslim parents of a slain US soldier, delivered a speech at the Democratic National Convention that was easily the highlight of the political process so far this year. Someone among the organizers of the DNC had the insight to realize that what is needed when facing an opponent like Donald Trump is to remind Americans of the ideals that we all share, and the Khans nailed that reminder.

Ghazala Khanwhose essay at The Washington Post is tremendously moving, wrote something that I found interesting: “…terrorism is a different religion.”

This is a sentiment I’ve heard take a number of forms, but I think this is the most to-the-point form of the claim; that Islam and terrorism are not related, but rather that terrorism is itself and at most a perversion of Islam which has no claim to the faith.

When I read this, my first thought was that it is odd to think of terrorism as a religion at all — I feel that terrorism cannot be thought of as a purely religious act, because it is secular and serves non-religious ends —much like, for example, the Crusades. The Crusades might easily have happened without encouragement from Christian leaders at the time, because they had many secular motives. In the same way, Islamic terrorism has persuasive secular motives which preclude it from being thought of as an expression only of religious belief.

Regardless of secular motive, we must think about the institutional power wielded by religious leader to impact the choices of their followers — when leaders or important people in a given faith use the auspices and authority of that faith to encourage, justify, enable, or excuse an evil behavior, I feel that we have to say that the institution of that faith is per se responsible unless there is an explicit schism. Modern Islam’s structure is *far* looser than Christianity at the time of the Crusades, which I think is part of why this is difficult for many people to translate directly to Islam. There is no central power structure to which one can readily appeal.

For a more cut-and-dried example, consider Catholic priests molesting children. In order to say that Catholicism as an institution bears no responsibility, it’s reasonable to say that we would need to see:

- Overt condemnation of the act and of the coverup
- Overt condemnation of the persons responsible for both committing the act and covering it up
- Removal of those people from positions of authority

Because we did not see those things (at least not within any sort of reasonable time frame) from the Catholic church, it is fair to say that they bear some responsibility — as an institutional religion, not an ideology — for what happened. Leaders in their faith used the auspices and authority of that faith to encourage, justify, enable, or excuse an evil behavior.

Unlike the rigid structure of the Catholic Church, however, there are many “Islams” depending on how you draw divisions — Sunni and Shia being the most formalized. Most Americans (myself included) lack the knowledge to properly distinguish between all or even most sects and ideological divisions within Islam. This is not a criticism of Americans — I rather doubt that the average Muslim could explain the difference between a Baptist and a Seventh-Day Adventist — but rather an attempt to explain why it’s reasonable to expect Americans to think of Islam as Islam; a monolith. As long as that is true — most likely forever — we will be forced to rely on an incomplete picture of how terrorism fits into Islam, but it doesn’t change my opinion that Islam should be held to account for the words and actions of its leaders, whether they are radicals or “mainstream.”

This may seem unfair, but the extremists who advocate and perpetrate acts of terrorism have not invented a philosophy from whole cloth. Like the Westboro Baptist extremists in America, their philosophies are backed up by a book said to be infallible by their faith and by centuries of religious thought within their faith. Just as one can easily find an instruction to persecute homosexuals in the Bible and in mainstream Christian doctrine, one can easily find instructions to fight the infidel in the Koran and mainstream Islamic doctrine. Absent mainstream condemnation of those books and those philosophies as flawed — an unlikely event, to say the least — we’re talking primarily about differences of opinion in degree, not in kind.

Does any of this mean that I share Donald Trump’s beliefs about Muslims or support his plans? Absolutely not. Individual Muslims bear no more guilt over the actions of terrorists and warmongers than individual Catholics bear over the abuse of children, which is to say as much or as little guilt as can be justified by that individuals knowledge of wrongdoing and ability to step in. And I believe that last sentence also describes pretty accurately my feelings on how the US should handle terrorism and child molesters alike — by targeting the individuals who have actual responsibility for the misdeed and by seeking to gain the cooperation of those who are in a position to step in.