After the June 12th massacre in Orlando, when the ever-demagogic Donald Trump jumped into the fray, accusing the president of somehow showing his sinister side by not immediately branding the shooter “an Islamic terrorist,” I understood Obama’s angry response and continued refusal to fuse the two words “Islamic” and “terrorist” into an epithet. Given the intensifying vilification of Muslims here and abroad, drawing a firm line between the vast majority of Muslims and those few who slaughter innocents in the name of the prophet made good sense.
And yet….when Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, followed up by declaring of those who commit terror in the name of Islam, “They are not Islamic. No religion condones the killing or terrorizing of innocent individuals, certainly not the religion of Islam,” I had to step back.
I’d actually started thinking about all this when ISIS was busy destroying the ancient city of Palmyra. I’d long marveled at those ruins which had survived into modern-day Syria, and even used them as the homepage image on the website for my novel set in the ancient Mideast. So while these treasures were being systematically obliterated, I kept asking myself, What possibly could inspire someone to do something so senselessly destructive? How could anyone believe that remnants from an extinct culture were a threat all these thousands of years later?
But of course I knew. Those Muslim zealots didn’t arise out of nowhere; nor did their urge to destroy. After all, the Bible tells a similar story when Moses famously comes down from the mountaintop and orders the Israelites to smash their idols. And in the patriarchal narratives when my novel takes place, Jacob too orders his family to bury their idols to appease his god. Yes, destroying false idols for the sake of the purity of the cult was a very long tradition.
But now, in the wake of the massacre in Orlando, and with ISIS’s ongoing slaughter of innocents in the background, the question had hit us again—with a vengeance. What possibly could inspire someone to do something so vicious and unprovoked? Should we simply call it senseless, denying a link between these acts of terror and true Islam, as Earnest had? Or should we target and condemn all Muslims, like Trump? Those seemed to be the two options.
Or maybe we could go vaguely mystical—as the charming Muslim woman, Mona Haydar, did post-Orlando when faced with the question: “Is Islam homophobic?” Demurring with, “Islam is nothing… a person with a Muslim identity can do whatever they will…”
Yes, clearly they can, I thought, but no, Islam and the Koran are certainly not “nothing,” nor is the Torah, nor the Bible, to which fundamentalists cleave with such vehemence. And they have consequences.
Because if we look broader and deeper, to the long history of patriarchal monotheism—the link between Islam (and Christianity, and Judaism) and terror is undeniably there. Who could say, for instance, that the Crusaders and the Inquisitors weren’t terrorists, or that they weren’t true Catholics? Or who could say that the Puritans didn’t terrorize the native tribes they called savages and heathens as they exterminated them, as well as the victims of the witchcraft delusion whom they hanged at Salem for conspiring with the devil? Nor does it make any sense to say that those Protestants who’d endured so much to come to the New World to preach and practice their religion weren’t true Christians.
Or what about the KKK, whose members, exclusively white and Christian, chanted at a recent rally in Georgia “White power!”and “Death to the ungodly! Death to our enemies!” Are these not Christian terrorists? As the Black transgender political activist, Cazembe Jackson sees it, “In my experience, Christian religious terrorism has been slowly killing me and friends for over two decades — the amount of time that I’ve been out.”
Then what about the Jews, those original monotheists? And here the story of Dinah, daughter of Jacob, the narrator of my novel, comes into play, as she revisits the massacre her brothers carry out, slaughtering all the men of Shechem—that first religiously-inspired massacre reported in the Bible. Was this not terror? And were Simeon and Levi, who perpetrated this terror, not true Jews—sons of Israel himself, who spawned the Jewish nations? It would be hard to make a case, here, against “Jewish terror.”
Of course not all terror is God-inspired. Nor are all religious warriors worshippers of a solitary Father God. In Myanmar, Buddhist monks terrorize Muslims, in India Hindus do. But it’s difficult to deny the link between the belief in one true God and the terrorizing of infidels who ignore the strictures of His word; to chalk this up to nonsensical aberration. Islam and its close monotheistic relatives, Christianity and Judaism, really are implicated in a good deal of the terror that has pervaded our world. And this terror in its many forms, inspired by religious zealotry, still goes on today just about everywhere. In truth, at least as it appears to me, religion and terror actually go together like fist and glove. And, as with most truths, we are not well-served by denying it.