The bombings this past weekend in New York City and New Jersey, unfortunately, followed a familiar and predictable pattern. First, the attacks happen and people reel in shock. Then emergency officials respond to the incident, caring for the wounded while attempting to secure the location(s). Next, an investigation follows in which law enforcement agencies seek to identify and locate those responsible for the act. And at this point, the people they are looking for almost always come from, or have ties to, the Middle East. And by “ties to the Middle East,” they don’t simply mean someone has an association with that region; what they mean is this person or persons have ties to religiously-motivated groups that have their roots and command structure in the Middle East. The ties to said groups are not always in deed — they need not have physically been to the region — but are always, at least in word. In some way or another, the individuals who commit such terrible acts of violence against innocent people have pledged affinity with religiously-motivated groups and the ideas they spread.
After every such act of Islamic terror we hear from both sides of the aisle that we should not condemn all Muslims based on the acts of a few. This is true — just as we should not condemn all Christians for the acts of a few bigots at the Westboro Baptist Church. And of course we should decry “hate crimes” targeted against innocent members of a religion, one example of which involved setting a Muslim woman on fire in NYC. But we must be careful not to conflate people who believe a certain thing with the belief system itself. Muslims are people who practice the Islamic religion and deserve to be respected as human beings. Islam is a belief system that, like any other belief, is open to critique, criticism, and condemnation for its abhorrent views.
In the wake of terrorist attacks, there are also those who would deny that religion had anything to do with motivating individuals to act. And this mistake in assessing causation is one that must be corrected, and soon. If we are ever to properly combat the plague of terrorism that is ravishing the Western world, we must be honest about what the root of the problem actually is. Then, and only then, will we be properly equipped to destroy our common enemy. And that enemy, I contend, is primarily bad ideas that motivate people to do bad things.
So what happened this past weekend? While all the details are still being sorted by authorities, there is at least one thing we can be certain of: the terrorist was motivated to act because of religious ideas, and more specifically, Islamic ones. And for evidence of this we need look no further than his own writing in the book he possessed when captured. As reported in the New York Times, his blood-soaked notebook contained passages in which he expressed a desire to “kill the kuffar.” Kuffar, is a reference to unbelievers — people who are outside the Islamic faith. That distinction between believer and nonbeliever is an explicitly religious concept. And the desire to kill unbelievers is a desire that can be found within the Koran itself. Yes, liberal Muslims will claim that such passages should not be taken literally, but then there are conservatives who contend the opposite. And who is to say what the “correct” interpretation of a religious text is in the first place? Regardless, the person who committed the attacks this past weekend explicitly expressed interest in acting on violent religious beliefs. And I think we need to take a step back and realize that without a conception of “believer” and “nonbeliever,” without any reference from a “sacred text” that commands the killing of nonbelievers, this tragedy never would have happened.
So let’s educate ourselves about the source of such beliefs, and let us not be afraid to call something for what it is — religion is the primary source of terrorism in our world today. And until we are willing to have an honest conversation about religion and its proper place in society, we will continue to be plagued by its violent kinds.