Watching our public officialdom struggle with language through the terror events of this weekend past should be a cause for deep reflection. There were people hurt and/or dead, property damaged, and millions more in various states of emotional turmoil and this bunch of yahoos wanted to make sure their statements did not go outside of the evidence at hand or in anyway to incite ill will amongst the populace. The latter concern is almost laughable given the willingness of this administration to routinely make pronouncements that have fueled #Blacklivesmatter to the point of burning cities, but it is the former concern that requires the deepest reflection.
In our nation there has always been a division between law and morality. The distance between them has varied with time, but the distinction has always been real. The much misunderstood “separation of church and state” is in part rooted in that distinction. For example, I know of no incident in our history where it was contemplated that keeping kosher should be legally mandated for the entire populace. The law is a matter purely of fact and evidence. Morality, while far more practical and reality based than many want to admit, also has considerations of the philosophical and the supernatural. When, in the wake of attacks like the nation witnessed this past weekend our officials limit their statements, often awkwardly and uncomfortably, to staying strictly within the limits of the evidence they are speaking in an entirely legal fashion, neglecting both morality and the very emotional reaction people may have to the events.
This trend is troubling politically because of the disconnect it highlights between the populace who in the immediacy of something like this are more emotive than anything else. This disconnect accounts for much of the divide that we see in the current electoral cycle. This disconnect makes our political leadership seem at best dispassionate, and at worst inhuman. Yes, we expect our law enforcement personnel to act with justice and precise insight, but our political leadership’s job is much broader than simply law enforcement. That job is broader even than considerations of international relations and perhaps conflict, which also requires a level of dispassion but is often far less precise than criminal legal proceedings. But this is also politics, they ebb, they flow, they are full of contradictions. Whenever I make a piece in my wood shop, when finished, all I ever see are the mistakes. A friend, far more experienced at woodworking than I, once told me that the everyone makes mistakes and the magic is in how you deal with those mistakes. Politics is like that.
But the precision of language in our officialdom fails to acknowledge that the perpetrators of these actions have motivations, and that in this day and age, generally those motivations are steeped in religion – a very specific religion. For the immediately previous administration there was the admirable, if misguided, desire not to condemn the millions of peaceful and law-abiding Muslims in the world. For the current administration there is a desire to avoid overseas entanglements, generally military in nature. But in both cases they fail to acknowledge that the millions upon millions of peaceful and decent Muslims notwithstanding, there is something very wrong in the heart of Islam. While the technology and methodology is different now, things of this nature have been coming out of Islam for centuries. Whether nation-states, organized groups, or simply Islamic individuals inspired by their faith, Islam has played a motivational role in acts of violence throughout its existence.
When an abortion clinic blows up we are quick to condemn right-wing Christianity. When nasty people act in the name of Christ and do other ugly things we are quick to condemn the whole of Christianity. Many of the commentariat do not bother to distinguish between the the vast majority of good Christians and the few bad Christians. Not to mention there are no Christian nations where the government sponsors such heinous acts. But when individuals, motivated by Islamic faith, kill dozens and in some cases thousands we struggle awkwardly not to accuse them without sufficient evidence. When nations built around Islamic law sponsor acts of terrorism we want to blame the nation, not the religion. When men whose religion objectifies women move to central Europe and begin tormenting, even raping, women we struggle not to blame the religion. But the religious role is too obvious.
Islam needs reforming. Christianity and Judaism have both undergone reformations – hundreds of years ago – even when most Christians and Jews were good people. But Islam has yet to catch that particular boat. The reformations that Christianity and Judaism experienced were driven from within. History appears to be making it clear that Islam lacks the internal mechanisms for such reform to arise of its own accord. Therefore, it would seem evident that pressure for such reformation has to come from outside of Islam. That pressure can take many forms and the first and most pervasive form should be our rhetoric.
We do not have to condemn the millions of peaceful Muslims in the world, but we can call upon them to reject their violent brethren. We can pray that we do not have to make that call for rejection with the threat of violence, but if their response to that call demands it, so be it. The Muslim-on-Muslim violence that has seen a severe uptick with the rise of ISIS is an opportunity. It creates an environment that makes calls for reform more likely to receive a positive response.
The time for awkward, stumbling, disconnected rhetoric is at an end. It is time to get real, and most serious.