What were we then, and with the emergence of the so-called Islamic State now, fighting exactly? Is it “Islamic extremism,” as some proclaim? Those who insist on the term have accused President Barack Obama of failing to take the first step to fight this threat successfully: naming it.
Or is the president right, asserting that our enemies are trying (and succeeding) in suggesting to Muslims that the United States is in a war against Islam itself, and therefore we must avoid tarring the religion with those who would kill in its name?
What if both positions are correct? And, to add to the complexity, what if naming something correctly unintentionally helps our enemies and isolates our allies — Muslims who reject terror in their name?
To think this through, maybe a more fundamental question has to be asked: What does it mean to use a “religion” as an adjective modifying a word such as “extremist”? Maybe a comparison would be instructive.
Take “Jewish extremist,” for example — maybe Meir Kahane and the Jewish Defense League. Certainly Judaism was an important part of Kahane’s ultra-nationalistic, racist and fascistic message. But Kahane, despite being a rabbi, used religion as a foundation from which to brew an extremist ideology. To defend Jews, he believed he had to vilify others and advocate racist and blatantly discriminatory ideas. He was far from a “fundamentalist” adherent of religion — certainly the haredim and Chasidim practice a Judaism that is more the old time religion. But his worldview and use of Judaism, and the fact that he was acting “as a Jew,” made him a Jewish extremist.
Then there were the Jewish extremists who put pipe bombs in offices of pro-peace American Jewish organizations in the mid-1990s. Another Jewish extremist assassinated Yitzhak Rabin. Many others, claiming they were caring Jews, called for Rabin’s assassination beforehand and cheered it afterward.
Inside the Jewish community, we might have used this term. But when it was used by those outside, it rankled. Kahane’s problem was not that he was a Jew, but that he hated Arabs. Other extremists believed that if the democratically elected government of Israel was willing to give up any piece of the Holy Land, it was an act of treason against the Jewish people and required the death sentence. These hateful ideas, while expressed by Jews and sometimes wrapped in Jewish packaging, were not a logical outcome of being Jewish, which is what the term “Jewish extremist” implied when used by others.
I suspect American Muslims have the same queasy feeling when they hear the words “Islamic extremists” used by non-Muslims. Nonetheless, proponents of the term might point out, accurately, that Al- Qaeda, the Islamic State, Hamas, Hezbollah and others of such ilk wrap their hate in a package named Islam and that, in any event, so many of today’s terrorists are indeed Muslim.
That’s true enough. But think back 100 years. The capitalist world saw communism as the great threat, and many of the communist (and anarchist) leaders and followers were Jews. People spoke of “Jewish Bolshevisim” without embarrassment. Certainly Jews were disproportionately represented in these political movements, and even though Bolsheviks were, by definition, atheists, it wasn’t much of a stretch for some to tie their fight for the proletariat to themes in Judaism about social justice.
And what about “Christian extremists”? Certainly the Crusades and the Inquisition come to mind — people willing to commit great cruelty not only because they believed the “truth” of their theologies, but also because they had a political and ideological agenda that made anyone who did not see the world as they did worthy of death, a death that would please God. (In another sense of the word, and unlike their Muslim and Jewish counterparts, these “extremists” were not extreme at all — their reign of terror had the mainstream support of the Church.)
When we think of “Christian extremists” today in America, we think of people such as Mel Gibson’s father, who rejected the teachings of Vatican II (and denied the Holocaust as well) and anti-abortion activists who bomb clinics. Certainly their view of Christianity informs their extremism. And one can understand — not condone, understand — if someone acts from a belief that aborting a fetus is the same as taking a child from a swing set and dismembering her. But a devout association with Christianity does not necessarily preordain that one can justify killing an abortion provider.
Looking at the Islamic State and its cohorts, it is rational to focus on the threat they pose to democracy and the personal security of westerners. But don’t forget that in many ways, they impact western Muslims even more directly. A few years ago I was a hate crime expert at a conference of members of parliaments about anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism in higher education was a topic, and my colleague, Dave Rich from the Community Security Trust in London, agreed there was some anti-Semitism on campuses in the United Kingdom. But, he said if he had a choice of being a Jewish parent or a Muslim parent of a college student, he’d rather be the former. At worst, he’d worry that his child would hear some unpleasant words. But a Muslim parent had to worry about a child being seduced into the world of jihad.
The name of what we’re fighting isn’t defined by whether we choose to use the adjective “Islamic.” We are fighting something with a simpler name: hate. Humans have always had the capacity to define, and then demonize, another. Sometimes that hate gets neatly packaged in theology, sometimes in ideology and sometimes in an especially toxic combination of both. External enemies are created if they don’t already exist, and genocide and horrid acts of cruelty are redefined as acts of love of self, love of mankind, love of God. Hate in little doses is manageable. Hate on steroids, wrapped in images of “true religion,” protecting God, reclaiming lost lands and lost glories, can be especially pernicious.
Hate can grow on a foundation of Islam or Judaism, or Christianity. Some hatreds fueled by religious zeal are, for various reasons and at various times, more deadly than others. But the problem is that we don’t understand hate and how it works, and how to better manage and defeat it.
Kenneth S. Stern is executive director of the Justus and Karin Rosenberg Foundation.