Regarding the Orlando Massacre, there’s plenty to be mad about

Photo by Jenna Michele Photography
Photo by Jenna Michele Photography

It has been two and a half days.

By now we know that in the early morning hours of June 12th, 2016, a crazed, Islamist extremist took a small arsenal of legally obtained weapons in to a nightclub frequented by the LGBTQ community in Orlando, and then proceeded to murder 49 people and wound 53 more.

Now that the initial shock and horror of that atrocity has started to subside, with the smoke barely settled, people are starting to retreat in to their sadly predictable factions.

Liberals are blaming gun culture in the United States.  A culture that makes possible with obscene ease, the purchase of weapons of mass destruction (unless of course we decide that killing 49 people does not qualify as “mass” destruction). A gun culture that is a fact of American life. A gun culture which makes massacres like Orlando (and Charleston, and San Bernardino, and Sandy Hook, and Virginia Tech, and Aurora, and Columbine, etc.) so “easy” to pull off. The liberals don’t mention Islamist extremism.

Conservatives are blaming Islam. In fact, the presumptive presidential nominee for the Republican Party, Donald Trump, is once again calling on the United States to ban all Muslims from entering the country (never mind that the killer in Orlando was born in New York). The conservatives don’t mention guns.

The reality of course is that this most recent and most deadly atrocity was about homophobic bigotry, fueled by Islamist extremism, and made possible by guns.

There are clearly multiple variables at play. By focusing only on the variable that validates our political narrative, not only are we are dishonoring the lives stolen by this kind of hatred and violence, but we are leaving the door wide open for the next attack. We are being pitifully myopic.  If we only attack guns, extremists will use bombs or knives or whatever tools they can find to main and kill others. In the case of Islamist extremism, if we vilify all Muslims, the extremists among them will simply use anti-Muslim bigotry and xenophobia as tools for recruitment and convenient excuses for more extremism. We clearly have to talk seriously about both the obscenely easy access we have to the tools of murder as well as the perversion of certain religious ideologies that inspire murderous behaviors.

Here is what must happen:

We have to better control the proliferation of weapons designed to kill. As a simple start, people who are deemed too dangerous to board a plane, should also be deemed too dangerous to purchase a gun.

We have to eradicate Islamist extremism. Preferably by convincing adherents that their extremist interpretation of Islam is morally bankrupt to the degree that they begin to once again place value on human well-being; but by force if they insist on violence against others.

Both of these actions are going to take time, so what can we do now? We can ensure that all people are treated with the same dignity and respect expected within a free and open society, particularly people such as those in the LGBTQ community, who are consistently targeted for derision by those who think their holy texts, irrespective of the religion, compel them to denigrate LGBTQ people as unworthy, sinful and broken.  For example, Christian politicians in the United States don’t get to “pray for Orlando” in one breath, and in the next, make the lives of LGBTQ people who aren’t being laid to rest, miserable by restricting their restrooms or the marriages or their adoptions or whatever else they can find that helps them discriminate in the name of “Biblical” or “family” values.

Fundamentally, we have to champion and promote the “liberal” in the classical sense and secular values that make pluralistic societies work. These are the values that erode the walls between factions. We have to promote across the globe, freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of conscious, freedom of ideas, freedom from tyranny, and the rule of law.

If history is any guide, understanding that our problems are more complicated than any one faction would have you believe will take time. So in the meantime, consider a contribution of financial support to the victims now.

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We all will make a difference. We have to.

Terror-Go-Round: Breaking the Cycle of Xenophobia

Syrian refugeesAs the German and French national football teams entertained a crowd of 80,000 supporters inside Paris’s Stade de France on Friday, November 13, three cowardly men—hellbent on the destruction of modernity and peace—tried unsuccessfully to get inside. Rather than wreaking havoc among the fans, the terrorists were forced by a vigilant security staff to accept what must have felt like a cheap consolation prize; they blew themselves up on the outside of the stadium and claimed an innocent life in the process. The match continued unabated.

As we now know, however, the terror didn’t end with the self-annihilation of those three. Elsewhere in Paris, men armed with automatic rifles mowed down over one-hundred unarmed concert goers and restaurant patrons before blowing themselves to smithereens in a crescendo of stolen and wasted life. The terror attacks by Islamist jihadists on unsuspecting Parisians was chilling in its callousness and nauseating in its depravity. Anger and fear were sure to follow. Indeed, the detonations in Paris set off a tsunami of xenophobia that sped across the Atlantic and washed over the American psyche in a surge of dangerous anti-refugee and anti-Muslim hysteria.

Politicians are nothing if not reactive. In the days following the Paris attacks, when asked about the possibility of accepting Syrian refugees, state after state turned red with a resounding “hell no.” Governors and congressmen—mostly Republicans, but a few Democrats too—rushed to slam their doors shut. Some GOP presidential candidates (see below) even went so far as to suggest that the best method for resolving the quandary between compassion and security would be to apply a “religious” test. The verified Christian refugees would be welcomed; the Muslims would be turned away. One can only imagine what such a test might resemble in practice: “What is your favorite holy book? Do you have any cross-shaped jewelry on your person?” (And while we’re verifying religious convictions, can the politicians suggesting this absurd test please recite the parable of the goats and the sheep from Matthew 25?) The idea is as absurd as it is decidedly un-American.

While random acts of violence are certainly terrifying, how did so many end up linking the terror attacks in Paris to the Syrian refugee crisis?

Simply put, a false narrative developed—a narrative that said the violent ISIL jihadists of the Paris attacks snuck across borders by posing as Syrian refugees. The facts say otherwise; all of the identified terrorists were actually European nationals, not refugees. But as we know too well, many choose to believe what fits their own internal narrative rather than what the facts actually indicate. And as we also know, for many those internal narratives were screaming anti-Muslim invectives long before the Paris attacks. Paris was simply another opportunity to draw a tribal boundary between the “good guys” and the “bad guys.”

This is where the meanings of words really start to matter. While it’s true that all Islamist extremists are Muslims, it’s also true that the vast majority of Muslims are not Islamist extremists. The inability or unwillingness of some to make that distinction has created an atmosphere of anti-Muslim xenophobia in the United States that not only brings out the very worst in us—as evidenced by bigots shouting at Muslims at city council meetings, by groups of heavily armed “protestors” surrounding Muslim families at mosques, and by a ranting taxi passenger shooting his Muslim cab driver in the back—it also means terrorism is winning this round.

By vilifying all Muslims, including those refugees in the direst need, and including our friends, neighbors, and colleagues simply trying to live peacefully in America, we are priming the violent jihadist pump. Factions like ISIL, Al Qaeda, and other Islamist groups hungry for another “holy” war simply wait for the disaffected, angry, antagonized, and hypnotized to find them. They want us to retreat into tribes. In fact, they need us to retreat into tribes. To paraphrase political commentator Maajid Nawaz: terrorist groups don’t radicalize. Radicalization occurs elsewhere. Only after convincing oneself of the “righteous cause” do individuals seek out terrorist groups. Violence perpetuates fear and fear precipitates violence.

So what to do? Obviously, terror attacks happen. Obviously, Islam has something to do with attacks performed in the name of Islam. Religious freedom, which is essentially freedom of speech, is a fundamental right guaranteed to all Americans. So where does that leave us?

First, our politicians must quit fanning the flames of hysteria. They must cease the incessant xenophobic drumbeat. Because the battle against Islamism is, at its core, ideological, and retreating into competing ideological tribes is a strategy that ensures perpetual conflict. In order to extinguish the Islamist ideology, as distinct from the religion of Islam, we have to be both precise and honest in how we talk about the challenge ahead.

Second, we should lead with compassion and with the liberal, secular values that bring peace and prosperity to pluralistic societies everywhere. Rather than cower in fear from the Muslims in need, and rather than castigate our own neighbors, we should be a shining example of enlightenment values at work—not only because it’s morally right, but because, pragmatically, we need majority Muslim countries to demand the same rule of law for themselves. They must see it working. We need to have open and peaceful conversations with the 1.5 billion Muslims who are not going to suddenly jettison their religion. And if we hope to have open and peaceful conversations, we need to recognize that claiming moral authority while turning away the neediest is an indefensible position.

Helping others in need extends compassion and celebrates our shared humanity. Compassion removes cultural barriers. Removing cultural barriers encourages people to listen to new ideas. Listening to new ideas helps people learn. Learning helps people determine what’s true. Understanding what’s true helps people abandon irrational beliefs. Getting rid of irrational beliefs removes the justification for harmful behaviors inspired by those beliefs. Eliminating harmful behaviors that cause others to suffer means people no longer need to seek refuge. Thus, through compassion, the cycle is broken.

Terms matter, now more than ever

normaldistributionAs we paint “Muslims” and “Christians” with broad brushstrokes, we concede the labels entirely too much descriptive authority. In other words, religions are simply large bundles of beliefs and ideas, with no way of discerning within them, what, if anything, is actually correct.

For example, say we survey 100 self-identified Christians to discover how one gets in to heaven or avoids hell. Do we expect 100 identical answers? Similarly, if we survey 100 self-identified Muslims to discover the true meaning of “jihad” do we expect 100 identical answers?

The answer to both of those hypothetical questions is of course, no. A part from the top layer belief that a certain deity exists, interpretations of the scriptures that underpin a particular religion fill the normal distribution curve. Given that, how could we possibly predict a specific behavior from someone, simply because they identify themselves as a Muslim or a Christian?

Hint: we can’t.

What we are really concerned with is the area under the belief curve that, when compared to universal rights and liberal values such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion, would be considered “extremist.”

We must talk about that specific area of the curve using terms other than the name of the religion or the blanket label by which practitioners identify themselves, if we are going to create the allies we need within the belief system. For these are the people simultaneously closest to the problem, and closest to the solution. We can’t expect the belief curve to evaporate, but we can slide the entire curve to the left, making the extremist area ever smaller. But to effect that movement, we have to exercise discipline and use linguistic precision.

In the case of Islam, we need to stop blaming “Muslims” for the extremism of Islamism.  But we need a word, like “Islamism,” that not only encapsulates the problem of extremism, but also recognizes the reality of the relationship of that extreme end of the tail to the rest of the belief spectrum curve.