“People of faith want a candidate who can beat radical Islam.” So claimed Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, in a statement endorsing John McCain for the Republican primary in South Carolina. Graham’s statement is deeply disheartening, but hardly unexpected, especially for one who watched the Republican candidates debate just before the New Hampshire Primary. Ron Paul, who is loony on just about every other issue, was the one sane voice when it came to foreign policy and the Middle East. To the raucous dismay of the other candidates, Paul reeled off the long series of provocations that the US has committed in the Middle East and our role in creating the blowback that was 9/11. The other candidates insisted we had nothing to do with causing the terrorist response that we have been experiencing since well before 9/11. Nor did Paul use the kinds of locutions—such as “radical Islam,” “Islamofascism,” even “Islamism”—that have become fashionable among rightist politicians, even as they protest that they have nothing against Islam as a religion.
Since Graham is a serious politician and not a charlatan, it is worth looking at his sentence closely and trying to determine his meaning. First of all, what does “people of faith” mean? Does it include all people of faith: Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims as well? Does it even include all Christians? Thinking of the Sermon on the Mount with its injunction to turn the other cheek and not to resist evil, can we ask if any Christians would be concerned with “beating” radical Islam or anything else? “Beating radical Islam” sounds more American than it does Christian, though, remembering the Crusades, it does have a Christian lineage.
On purely pragmatic grounds, “beating radical Islam” along with the ubiquitous phrase “war on terrorism” are profoundly mistaken ways of thinking about the present global problem of terrorism. It is worth remembering that terrorism is a world phenomenon, not an exclusively Islamic one. Certainly we have our own homegrown terrorism, as in the case of Timothy McVeigh and the 1995 Oklahoma bombing or the religious attacks on abortion clinics and murder of abortion doctors. But terrorism, Christian, Muslim, or otherwise, is not something one can “beat.” The reason “the war on terrorism” is the wrong metaphor is that it is not a war–so it cannot be won. We could beat Saddam’s army in a couple of weeks. In five years we have suffered victories and setbacks against al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups in Iraq, but the terrorists are still there and are likely to be there, even with diminished capacity, for a long time. The situation in Afghanistan is not much better. We and our Afghan allies easily won the war against the Taliban government, but the Taliban terrorists are still busily at work all these years later.
There are two things to keep straight about terrorism that are obliterated by the war metaphor: 1) you can contain terrorism by police action, but you can’t defeat it by military action; 2) social change in the direction of better living conditions, greater public participation in political life, and a decrease in regional conflicts such as that between Israel and the Palestinians, will gradually weaken the support for terrorist organizations and marginalize terrorist ideology. Spending billions (or trillions) on state-of-the-art military technology will not “win the war on terrorism.” On the contrary, to the degree we are tempted to use these weapons, we will increase the support for terrorism.
But to return to Senator Graham’s statement: if people of (conservative Evangelical Christian) faith really want to “beat radical Islam,” then we must ask why. Apparently they are afraid that radical Islam will beat us or at least do us grave harm. It is surely the case, with the laxity that the Bush administration has shown about securing nuclear weapons and the weak security at our ports, that a terrorist group might set off a small atom bomb in an American city. This is truly a chilling possibility. Yet preventing it is above all a matter of good intelligence, excellent security work, and global efforts to control nuclear and other “weapons of mass destruction.” To focus on “beating radical Islam”—with its sporting as well as military tone—is simply unhelpful in allaying the genuine fears that many Americans feel after 9/11.
Even more unhelpful is the phrase “radical Islam” itself. Do we speak of “radical Christianity” because there are Christian terrorists? Do we call them “Christianists”? Islam, like all the great religions, has its extremists, a small minority of whom have resorted to terrorism. But however qualified by assertions that they “really respect Islam as a religion,” when preachers or politicians use Islam in any part of a term to define the enemy, they are engaging in religious stereotyping and bigotry. Nationalist Americans—and the most patriotic in the sense of traditionally nationalistic Americans are conservative Christians—need a genuine Other to help them define their in-group solidarity.
Many other nations have moved beyond that kind of nationalism but it is only one aspect of American exceptionalism that we, at least in large numbers, have not. The fall of Communism led to a deep sense of absence. Where could we turn to find the next Other who would unite our otherwise rather fractured polity? Even before 9/11 Islam seemed to be the leading candidate. After 9/11 the gloves were off. Bush more than once used the loaded term “crusade” for the war on terrorism. “Islamofascism” became a widely used derogatory term among right wing commentators. In spite of all declarations of support for “moderate” Muslims, the constant use of “Islam” in some combination of terms has led to the inevitable conclusion that Islam is our new Other. Once again, what is supposed to support our war on terrorism is self-destructive. To the degree that we identify Islam with the enemy, we support the beliefs of many Muslims–not all of them extremists and certainly not all of them terrorists–that we hate them and that we should be opposed.
My suggestion is that we drop the use of the word “Islam” in any phrase applying to our enemies. We can identify them with the specific groups they are, such as al-Qaeda, but we don’t need to identify them with the whole religion of Islam. In so doing, it is the responsibility of Christians and Jews to take the lead, not to participate in religious stereotyping. All three Abrahamic religions share some profound convictions about the essential dignity of human beings. It is these shared convictions that we must emphasize now, rather than pandering to a politics of fear that requires a massive and dangerous Other to be effective. Unfortunately, Ron Paul will not be the Republican nominee. All the others seem to rely on the politics of fear as their only hope of election. So far the Democratic candidates have not taken that line. Let’s hope they continue to reject it. And let’s hope that the leadership of all American religious communities commends them for their present course.