Terrorism and Radical Islam

One of my sisters lives in the Back Bay, quite close to the marathon’s finish line. She and my mother, who still lives in the suburbs near where we grew up, were discomfited by last week’s attacks. My sister hurt her knee in a fall during the lockdown and was unable to see a doctor for several days because she wasn’t allowed to leave her home. My mother spent those days dwelling on the many times in years past that she had watched one of my brothers participate in the race, and worrying about my sister’s knee; I spoke with her two nights ago and she still sounded tired and sad. The attack on innocents at the marathon struck deep chords in my family, in Boston, and in the nation as a whole.

In a sense, the terrorists chose their target very well. In spite of the fact that the bombs at the finish line killed “only” three people, and maimed about 170, the whole nation seems focused on the attack. There is a sense of innocence lost when people are attacked at so benign and celebratory an event as the marathon; henceforth, there will be much more looking over of shoulders at athletic events and civic gatherings of all sorts. And I wouldn’t assume that lightening won’t strike twice: when radical Islamists deemed the death toll of their first attack on the twin towers insufficient, they waited eight years and tried again. They wanted to make a point about the towers – and those who worked within –as symbols of American economic power; presumably the marathon was seen as a symbol of our shared joy. They do not want us to be rich, or joyful; to them, we are infidels, and enemies.

We want to believe that these were the random acts of madmen, but they were not. The murderers had lots of contact with, and likely training and support from, other radical Islamists. There is a global network of fiercely determined Islamic terrorists, sympathizers and backers; attacks are planned all the time. Just yesterday the the Canadians announced that they had foiled a different plot – to blow up a New York-bound train – by radical Islamists with ties to Al Qaeda and maybe Iran.

Radical Islam poses an existential challenge to the West: to defeat it, we may have to surrender some of our privacy and our illusions. Think of the pictogram bumper stickers exhorting people of all faiths or no faith to coexist: that’s all well and good as long as one group isn’t imposing its worldview on others.

From the perspective of radical Islamists, we are trying to impose our worldview on them, and their attacks constitute their efforts to strike back. Our society’s values are inimical to theirs; they don’t want equal rights for women, societal acceptance of gays, consumerism and what they see as our extreme moral decadence – and they don’t want their children seeing, and being tempted by, our materialism or sexual exuberance. Insofar as we ship our movies and our products in their direction, we are inevitably changing the culture that they revere.

The illusion that all cultures are of equal moral value – promoted endlessly by so-called multiculturalists – is actually quite dangerous when two cultures see themselves as, or in fact are, mutually poisonous. The radical Islamists strenuously make the case – in their sermons and by their actions – that you can have democratic nation-states as we understand them, or true Islam, but not both. If we are to deal with the threat they pose, we need to understand their mentality, rather than ignore it. Happy talk about everybody getting along will not stop their attacks.

To some extent, Islamic terror is succeeding at intimidating the West. The fatwa against Salman Rushdie, the murder of Pim Fortuyn and the attacks on those who published the Muhammad cartoons have taught many that under no circumstances should anything evil be publicly imputed to Muhammad or his creed. Artistic poseurs can be “daring” all they like in ascribing evil to Jesus, or displaying a cross in urine because they know that they will not be beheaded for doing so; few are daring or outré with respect to Muhammad.

Even more disturbing, as mentioned in my post Facing the Truth, Secretary Clinton’s obfuscating and dishonest response to the murders of our consular personnel in Benghazi was to attack the free speech rights of an American who had made a video critical of Islam, promising that he would be imprisoned.  The UN is trying to push a worldwide agreement banning blasphemy  – a thinly veiled (!) attempt to outlaw criticism of Islam. I would have expected no better from that particular club for kleptocrats – but I never would have expected the American Secretary of State (and Presidential aspirant) to attack the foundation of our freedoms in that manner.

As individuals, most of us don’t see Islam as poisonous to our culture, because we are not threatened by the Muslims we know and love. What do we care if, like the Mormons, they don’t drink? We don’t. There are millions of Muslims among us – they are friends, and in many cases they are family to us. The Muslims who most of us know are just another spice in the American pie. We are threatened by radical Islamists who want to kill us as a means of intimidating our society into behaving differently, but not by our Muslim neighbors, co-workers and relatives who share our hopes and aspirations. We want to believe that we can all get along, and in the vast majority of cases, we do.

In a sense, the reach that radical Islamists will have among Americans will depend mostly on people’s senses of identity. If you see yourself primarily as an American who is Christian, as I do, or as an American who is Jewish, as my principal business partner does, or as an American who is Muslim as another business partner does, then we are all part of the same American team; if you owe your primary – and primal – emotional allegiance to your faith, that’s a very different matter. In several posts (e.g., American Exceptionalism and Demography and Values), I have written that America is generally better than other countries at welcoming people of other faiths and ethnicities and integrating them into our society because we are a nation based on an idea of liberty rather than tribal ties. I still believe that – and I note that the Boston murderers were born abroad and the plotters arrested by the Canadians yesterday were also non-native.

I do not pretend to have the answer to the dilemmas presented by radical Islam. As the late historian Samuel Huntington observed, Islam has – and has always had – bloody borders. The conflict between Islam and the West has gone on for well over a millennium, and shows no signs of burning out.

During that millennium-plus of conflict, Christianity has changed enormously, and the societies that Christianity helped form have evolved, becoming both more tolerant and dramatically less religiously devout. Doubtless, most Muslims’ worldviews have also evolved, but radical Islamists seek to reconstruct a kind of religiously pure society, through the strict and universal application of Shariah, that would spell the end of Western traditions of personal liberty.

We cannot appease those who are the enemies of our freedoms, and we should not try. They will never be satisfied, and in our attempts at appeasement they will see weakness and cowardice. Our government must be ruthless at seeking out, and rooting out, those who would attack us, whether they are plotting in Somalia or in Cambridge. And we must remember that the whole point is to preserve the personal freedoms established by the Founding Fathers and extended through the sacrifices of the US military and the innumerable American civilians who have worked to broaden and deepen our commitments to those rights. Our rights define us as a people; if we give them up, we are lost.


M.H. Johnston April, 2013

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