By now the refrain is familiar. A violent man, usually in his 20s, is motivated by his belief system to commit murder in such a way as to deliberately inspire fear and terror in a certain segment of the population – frequently institutions that symbolize Western liberalism and/or Jewish culture. The media, reporting on the violence, curiously refuses to mention his religious affiliation – or buries it in the 12th paragraph. If the terrorist in question converted to Islam after his birth, refuse to use his adopted Muslim name, even if this is now his legal name. Spend most of the story explaining the terrorist’s behavior in terms of his own personal problems, dissatisfaction with society – anything but his religion.
It almost is not worth commenting on the phenomenon at this point, which is set forth in this Washington Post story on the Danish attacks on a free speech meeting and a synagogue. The suspect’s name, “Omar Abdel Hamid el-Hussein” is not given until paragraph 13. Early paragraphs point out that he was a “gang member” who had a “history of violence” and who as “radicalized” in prison. Radicalized to what? Not until paragraph 14 are groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS mentioned, giving some clue that maybe what we are discussing is someone who had been radicalized to Islam. Not until paragraph 19 is it mentioned that cartoonist Lars Vilks, the probable target of the attack, had been marked for death by Islamic extremists for lampooning Mohammed in cartoons.
It is almost tiresome, at this point, to wonder aloud how the coverage might be different if a gathering of Muslims led by someone like Anjem Choudary would have been targeted by a would-be assassin who sat at the feet of Mike Huckabee for years.
There is at least a credible explanation for this phenomenon that has its roots in basic notions of fairness that run deep in the modern American tradition. There is in our culture an ingrained preference for not stating – at least aloud – that certain behaviors or characteristics are due to factors beyond which we have no control. We in America are big believers in the notion that we are all masters of our own destinies and each man is the captain of his own life’s ship. We tend, for the large part, to shy away from explanations for behavior that smack of prejudice against social classes (separately, we tend to overemphasize individual allegedly inborn characteristics such as alleged psychological disorders but that is another discussion for another time). And thus, where possible, we seek (properly!) to avoid explanations that tend to place blame on things like skin color, national origin, and gender. After all, these are things over which an individual has no control and we rightly believe all people are responsible for their own actions.
We make an error, however, by conflating religion with these inborn factors. Definitely, most people follow the religion of their parents, broadly speaking. However, at least for an adult human being, religion is not fairly characterized as an inborn condition. Unlike a person’s skin color or national origin, a person’s religion does tell you something meaningful about them as a person. Religion, after all, rejects the very premise that it is merely a set of habits inherited from one’s parents. All the world’s major religions take seriously the proposition that they claim to a person’s devotion and philosophy. A person who claims themselves as a Christian is entitled, in the absence of evidence to the contrary. to have a person believe about them that they hold to an identifiable set of beliefs that can be expected to shape their behavior. When a Christian fails to adhere to these expectations, it is a matter worth public comment.
Thus it should also be with Islam. Christians accept the justice of being judged according to the edict of Jesus, “by your fruits you shall know them.” Why should any other belief system be judged by a different – which is to say, lesser – standard?
All too often with respect to Islam, we have allowed our laudable national preference for inherent fairness to cloud our judgment and become ignorance. For myself, I refuse to accept that if a person says that their belief system compels them to commit violent acts upon those who exercise Western freedoms or who commit the sin of being Jews, some sense of “fairness” compels me to disbelieve their words.