There is much suffering in our world, and of late, much of it is being perpetrated in the name of Islam. Overcoming it will require a concentrated and extended effort on many fronts, including the moral one. Supposed political correctness, however, is undermining our moral discourse and deflecting our efforts. If evil is excused, justified away, and not identified as such, or if we fail to properly locate its sources, our efforts will be misdirected, we will fail, and evil will prevail.
Common sense, as distinct from political correctness, dictates that we acknowledge the reality of Muslim terror as such, for it describes not just the faith of the perpetrators but the pretext and motivation they themselves claim for their actions. It is obvious that recognizing the reality of Muslim terrorists does not assume that all Muslims are terrorists. However, because not all Muslims are terrorists, it does not follow that there are no Muslim terrorists.
Denying the existence of Islamic terror blurs the critical distinction between an Islam which advocates terror and the Islam which abhors it. Since everyone knows that there are Muslim terrorists, the failure to call it such actually contributes to the coloring of all Islam with a negative hue. When one defends Islam by characterizing the terrorists as merely an “errant few,” contesting the scope of the “few” breaches the defense and leads to condemnation of Islam as a whole.
In ignoring the dictates of political correctness, the point is neither to denigrate Islam, nor to associate all who care about Islam with terror. The point is to put the emphasis clearly and unequivocally on the challenge we face, for only by doing so, is there any chance of generating change.
All monotheistic faiths rooted in millennia-old traditions are replete with laws and beliefs which fail the moral standards of Western liberal democratic traditions, or what we now like to call our universal moral truths. In this sense, Islam is no more challenged than Christianity or Judaism. As Shakespeare has taught us, the Devil quotes Scripture. He has no need to misquote it. The challenge of every religious tradition is to engage in an ongoing process of criticism, evaluation, and reinterpretation to give new meanings to ancient laws, and authority to some chapters over others.
Our traditions are neither inherently moral nor immoral, inherently great or depraved. There are only great and moral interpreters and interpretations. Religious life and devotion entail engaging in a constant struggle within our religious traditions to ensure that the forces of good prevail over those of evil.
Of course, there are Muslim terrorists, just as there are Jewish and Christian ones. The danger of political correctness is that denying the reality of Islamic terror does not protect Islam, but rather allows the terror in its midst to grow. If this terror is to be uprooted, it will only happen when we all acknowledge its existence, and Muslims worldwide engage in an internal war over the identity of their tradition.
We too must do our part. We must couple our efforts against Islamic terror with robust and sustained support for an honorable and ethical Islam and its advocates. At the same time, we must cease tolerating and supporting evil Islamic regimes and ideologies and designating them as allies as long as they limit the suffering they inflict exclusively to fellow Muslims, non-Americans, or non-Europeans.
Political correctness, however, is not merely misdirecting our efforts; it is corrupting our moral compass. Here in Israel, we experience this regularly, when the targeting and murder of Israeli civilians is not considered by many as acts of terror, but merely “understandable” resistance to the occupation. A parallel example of this moral mediocrity is what US Secretary of State John Kerry was exhibiting when attempting to distinguish between the recent Paris attack, which he condemned as senseless terror that was distinct from other murderous acts which had a “legitimacy,” or as he quickly corrected himself, “a rationale that you could attach yourself to somehow.”
We need to wade through the fog of moral relativism generated by our sense of political correctness. Terror is not characterized by its senselessness, nor by its incomprehensibility to Western sensibilities. All terror has its justifications, reasons which legitimize heinous murders in the eyes of its perpetrators. It could be the result of a real or imagined sense of injustice resulting from occupation, colonialization, affront to one’s holy sites or prophets, a response to prior aggression, and demanded and legitimized by God, religion, or country.
Similarly, terror is also not defined by the particular religious, ethnic, or national identity of the either its perpetrators or its victims, be they Israeli or Palestinian, American or Middle Eastern, Syrian or French, Jew, Christian, or Muslim.
Terror is a politically motivated act of inflicting harm which does not distinguish between combatants and non-combatants, which makes no attempt to do so, and which does not deem itself morally responsible for the failure to do so. To the contrary, terror involves the purposeful targeting of civilians and the blurring of these critical distinctions, under the guise that the end justifies any means.
What distinguishes a moral society from an immoral one, is not that one engages in acts of aggression with cause and the other “senselessly.” It is not the mere existence of a motivation or justification which marks moral fortitude, but rather the moral weight of the motivation in question and the nature of the response. I may acknowledge the existence of a person’s motivation, such as protecting the honor of a defamed prophet, fighting an alleged plot to overthrow a holy site, or protesting generations of subjugation, and still morally condemn the validity of the act, because I reject either the nature of the motivation and/or the nature of the response. Stabbing pedestrians, shooting concert goers, and blowing up civilians are acts of terror regardless of one’s ideological motivations and suffered injustices.
Our moral strength depends on our ability to identify evil, whether in ourselves or in others, and to distinguish with moral clarity that which is good from that which is not. Doing so will not alleviate the suffering, but will at least ensure that we are heading in the right direction.