I was so outraged and offended by the recent attacks in Paris and by the series of beheadings and burnings by ISIS that I have felt unable to write about these painful subjects. Oddly, it was President Obama’s comments last week at the National Prayer Breakfast that encourage me to break my silence. At this now ritualized annual reaffirmation of faith, the President commented on the string of savage attacks saying: “Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.”
This attempt to root the current wave of terrorist cruelty in the broader historical context of violence committed in the name of religion was viewed as poorly timed by the mainstream media and as yet another example of the President’s leftist moral relativism by conservatives. While I question the continuing relevance of a national prayer breakfast for a nation dedicated to the separation of church and state in its constitution, I share the revulsion of all those with a moral conscience, religious or secular, towards the perversion of an established religion to justify atrocities such as those perpetrated by ISIS and its followers.
President Obama’s critics on the Right vilify the President for equating Islamist violence with atrocities committed by other religious zealots such as the Crusaders. His critics on the Left assail the hypocrisy of supporting established modern religions such as those attending the National Prayer Breakfast while failing to see that it is inherent in all religions to be intolerant to the point of violence towards apostates.
I have a different perspective. While not religious myself, I deeply respect the true religious feelings of others and defend their right to practice and express their beliefs, whether in the majority or not. I also recognize that we live in a special time that makes comparison to earlier religious practices an unreliable guide. When zealous Christians went on the Crusades in the 12th and 13th Centuries, they travelled to places separated by geography and development from whence they came, with little regular means of communication. Today, we live cheek by jowl with different communities joined by Internet, immigration and jet travel in a way that assumes that all parts of the world are equally developed and share a modern sense of ecumenicalism.
Much of the media-savvy violence perpetrated by ISIS and other terrorists exploits this very connectedness of the modern world. While the establishment of a caliphate is an ancient idea, the production of slick YouTube recruitment videos, replete with slo-mo and night vision footage, seeks to inflict the maximum outrage and terror. The question it forces us to confront is how can we co-exist or fight evil perpetrated in the name of religion in a world in which immigration, Internet and travel make it impossible to ignore? President Obama is not wrong (he simply chose a poor time) to compare modern Islamist violence with that of prior religious extremists. He just failed to explain how much harder it is today to ignore and co-inhabit a world in which there are large communities that have not advanced beyond proselytizing by the knife.
So what can be done to protect Charlie Hebdo, Jyllands-Posten, Salman Rushdie and other brave voices from attacks out of the 12th Century? Neither drones nor smart bombs will protect these true freedom fighters. We instead require a 20-year strategy that certainly includes strong policing and electronic and other intelligence, but also requires education, job creation and prison reform for those at greatest risk of radicalization. It is satisfying on a primal level to take vengeance for the slaughter of an innocent journalist or aid worker. However, it will neither bring her back nor prevent all future murders. Track and contain those we have already lost to violence, and educate, support and employ those who can still be integrated into the larger political community. If we do not rise to this challenge we are destined to be tous Charlie.Like This Post