President Trump’s declaration of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has been widely condemned in the Arab and Muslim world. With Trump’s recent decision to move the embassy this May, it is likely only a matter of time until Islamists invoke the declaration to justify and explain an act of terrorism. To what extent can we hold Trump and the United States responsible for such an attack?
The question of causality and blame in the context of terrorism is rarely the subject of in-depth discussion. However, there is another field in which the question of blame has evolved considerably in recent decades to a high level of sophistication: that of sexual assault and rape. When determining blame in rape cases, our society predominantly recognizes two key principles. Unfortunately, many that advocate most ardently for these principles seem to overlook them in the similar context of terrorism.
The Jerusalem declaration provides an opportunity to consider these principles and evaluate their application to perpetrators of terror attacks.
Rejection of the Perpetrator’s Mentality
A rapist claims he was aroused or encouraged by the victim’s revealing clothing. We establish that this is factually true, and that wearing different clothing might have reduced the likelihood of the sexual assault. However, in this instance we would rightly be unwilling to say the woman “caused” or even contributed to the act of rape.
Most of us would be unwilling to acknowledge the factual link between the revealing clothes and the actions of the rapist, because we reject the rapist’s twisted mentality — a mindset that accepts revealing clothing as a rationale to committing rape. We refuse to recognize a woman’s clothing, however revealing, as contributing to the rapist’s decision. If we were to accept the “causality” between the clothing and the act of rape, we would in fact be legitimating and validating the rapist’s distorted outlook. We would be giving credence to the notion that rape can be “caused” by a low-cut dress, regardless of whether we perceive the victim’s behavior to be reasonable.
Yet the attitude towards terrorism is often inconsistent with this principle. It is not uncommon for terrorists and others to casually attribute an act of terror to some external cause. Many terror attacks are ostensibly “in retaliation for,” “provoked by,” “due to,” and so on. However, the exact same principle of rejecting causality should apply to the twisted mindset of terrorists.
In the June 2016 Orlando attack, which was also classified as a hate crime, a terrorist deliberately targeted a gay club and murdered 49 people. It is undisputed that the perpetrator saw the gay club as an incentive for the attack. It would however be absurd to claim that gay pride or the celebration of homosexuality “caused” the attack. In the free world, we reject the terrorist’s depraved mindset, according to which open homosexuality is a valid reason to commit mass murder. Using homosexuality to “explain the cause” of the attack essentially validates the terrorist’s worldview.
In July 2017, Israel decided to place metal detectors in the Jerusalem Temple Mount compound. Such a decision would usually be hardly controversial – there are metal detectors at holy shrines throughout the world, including the Kaaba in Mecca and in the Vatican. All the more so in light of a deadly terror attack which emanated from within the compound, prompting the decision. A few days later, a Palestinian terrorist murdered three members of the Israeli Solomon family while they were enjoying a Friday night dinner. The attacker himself and additional sources blamed the attack on the above decision, and some claimed the Israeli government was responsible for the Solomon’s deaths.
Perhaps the terrorist would not have gone on his killing spree, if Israel had not installed the metal detectors. In this sense, the decision contributed to the attack, much like the revealing clothing contributed to the sexual assault. Nevertheless, by the same rationale as in the case of rape, such attribution necessarily includes a measure of absolution. It lends credence to the notion that the wanton murder of civilians can be “caused” by a legitimate action, or even by a provocation. It is unclear why we should accept such a “causal” claim when we reject the same claim in a rape case.
When the next civilians, Jewish, Israeli or otherwise, are slaughtered “as a reaction to the Jerusalem embassy,” consider whether such a nonchalant assertion is tantamount to blaming rape on a short skirt. It would certainly seem so.
Recognition of Environment and Context
Notwithstanding the above, we do in fact recognize an external cause in cases of rape and sexual assault. Today, the perpetrator’s environment has risen to prominence. The cultural and societal background that has influenced the creation of the rapist’s mindset is seen as an important contributing factor. There is growing appreciation for the complex effect societal norms have on a perpetrator’s actions and worldview, without reducing his/her culpability.
It is widely argued that rape is encouraged and exacerbated by what some call “rape culture”. The essential claim is that our socio-cultural environment contributes to the perpetration of rape and sexual assault. Such an environment might typically include hyper-sexualization of relationships, objectification of women, tolerance of misogynistic norms and other similar elements. A person educated and nurtured in such an environment is arguably more likely to commit acts of rape and sexual assault.
The issue of rape culture has received significant attention in the latest revelations of widespread sexual misconduct in Hollywood and other industries. The recent instance of Brock Turner was also the object of widespread debate. In June 2016 Turner was convicted of rape but received an unusually light sentence, which sparked outrage and was seen as a compelling example of rape culture.
The debate on terrorism can benefit greatly from the progress made in recognizing and exposing rape culture. It would stand to reason that the socio-cultural environment of terrorists should receive recognition as a contributing factor to acts of terrorism. In some cases it actually does. Mass shootings often spark debates about “gun culture” and the way society encourages gun violence, quite separate from regulatory questions of gun control. However, despite the growing consensus, the acceptance of the rationale behind rape culture seems to have one glaring exception.
The 2016 Orlando terror attack occurred only a few weeks after the Brock Turner case. Yet in stark contrast, the attack on the Pulse nightclub sparked no similar debate about the ideological background and environment of the massacre’s perpetrator. It would seem that the “environment” principle is inexplicably ignored in the context of Islamist terrorism.
While the essence of rape culture and gun culture is complex, obscure and subtle, the effect of Islamist ideology on Muslim terrorists is direct and explicit. It is undisputed that Islamic terrorists act according to what they believe is a faithful interpretation of their religion, usually derived in some form from the Jihadist teachings of Sayyid Qutb. Their murderous violence is based on a fully formed ideology, which is not only religious but also political and social in nature. They subscribe to an unambiguous and well-documented worldview that shapes and informs their perverse mentality and which ultimately leads to their vicious actions. Acknowledging such truths is no more Islamophobic than the rape culture debate is sexist or misandristic (i.e. man-hating). Why then, would we gloss over this crucial environmental influence in the context of terrorism?
One typical example is President Obama’s notorious refusal to employ the term “radical Islamic terrorist”. When explaining this he said that “these are people who kill children, kill Muslims, take sex slaves — there’s no religious rationale that would justify in any way any of the things that they do…” (Emphasis added). This is of course a blatant falsehood. There have been numerous such religious rationales throughout history and across the globe. Modern Islamist doctrine provides for precisely such measures – doctrine which is not-inconsistent with “moderate” and mainstream interpretations of the Muslim faith. This is but one instance reflecting an overall unwillingness to apply the “environment” principle to Jihadist Islamic terrorism.
This “death cult”, then, is the terrorist parallel to rape culture. Acts of Islamist terrorism ought to spark a discussion, at the very least, recognizing the radical Islamic environment which spawns such attacks. Bizarrely, the same people that are adamant that rape should be seen in its wider societal context, seem to be incapable of recognizing the clear ideological context of Islamic terrorism. In the next terror attack citing “Jerusalem” as the cause, will there be a debate about the wider societal culture, which legitimizes mass murder as a response to a diplomatic statement?
If we are to take these two principles above seriously, and are to respect their proponents in the context of sexual assault, we must recognize their equal applicability to acts of terrorism. Those who reject the rapist’s absurd attribution of “cause” should also reject the terrorist claim of the same variety. Those who assign blame to the societal and ideological environment of rape culture should also assign such contextual blame to the death culture of radical Islam. This is an imperative of intellectual consistency and of moral integrity.