In the face of the current rising tide of racism, in this case directed at Muslims, it is very difficult to know what to do. The Islamophobes place the blame on a large group of humans – more than 1 1/2 billion persons – for the actions of a very small, if very lethal, group of fanatics. It is the same sort of bizarre logic by which anti-Semites blame all Jews past and present for their part in the death of Jesus. It is important to point out to these ultraconservatives that when African-Americans demand reparations for the suffering imposed on generations of slaves and their descendants, suddenly the logic shifts. Faced with the demand for reparations the same people who blame all Muslims for terrorist acts and blame all Jews for the crucifixion will protest that they did not own slaves and are therefore not responsible for the suffering of African Americans. But if all Muslims are responsible for the actions of a very few, and the same is true of Jews, all Whites are responsible for slavery and Jim Crow and for todays continuing racist oppression.
Obviously this would have no traction with people who are confused, often irrational and contemptuous of logic. (You know who I am talking about.) The President has therefore asked American Muslims to reach out to their neighbors and establish contacts so that the two groups can learn to cooperate and thereby defeat Islamophobes.
But what should the different groups be talking about? In some places there are conversations between Christians, who have collected a list of passages in the Koran which seem to legitimate or even demand violent actions against non-Muslims, and members of the Islamic community who try to explain the meaning of those passages in less violent and more conciliatory terms.
But that seems to me a misguided undertaking. Scriptural verses whether Islamic or Christian or Jewish, or in any other religion, do not make people act. How many Christians love their neighbors? There are some, to be sure, such as the Catholic Workers or members of some monastic orders. But most Christians definitely do not love their neighbors and when they are asked to support the poor, they will tell you that poverty is a result of laziness. The poor only have themselves to blame.
By the same token the violence inflicted by terrorists who happen to revere the Koran, cannot be blamed on that book anymore than the violence that Christians and Jews have inflicted and are still inflicting on peoples in the Middle East can be blamed on passages in the Old or the New Testament.
What we all should talk about it instead is what moves some people to be violent, as so many people have shown themselves to be in recent years. That is the beginning of a long and difficult conversation because most of us believe that sometimes violence is justified. Many Americans who are appalled by school shootings or by religiously motivated killings – among those are the murders of doctors who worked in abortion clinics – are, at the same time, frequently convinced that the war in Iraq was necessary to protect our American freedoms. The people who are ready to countenance war must explain why they reject terrorism as a legitimate form of warfare. As they think about the motivations of terrorists, many people need to confront their own approval of violent actions.
These are difficult questions and painful ones, but we do need to ask them. Is killing people by drone strikes any less terrorism than killing people by flying an airplane into the World Trade Center? Do we approve of terrorism, as long as it is not directed against us? We cannot even begin to understand the terrorism aimed at us as long as we do not acknowledge and justify ( or condemn) the terrorism we inflict on others.
“Let him, who is without guilt, cast the first stone.” Our response to terrorist attacks will only perpetuate thetrajectory of brutal violence, if we continue to refuse to see what part we play in these violent tragedies.