What is the opposite of ISIS? It’s not atheism or secularism. Rather, it’s the First Amendment, whose Religion and Speech Clauses require the state to be neutral toward religion and require believers to obey the neutral, generally applicable laws that apply to everyone else. In the United States, no one religion can be the government or control the government, and no religion may rid the rest of the country of apostates. Nor can any government imprison or execute someone for blasphemy of any sacred text or for believing or not believing anything. Nor can men enslave women and children simply because they do not share their faith. ISIS is the opposite of each and every one of these principles.
No principle of the First Amendment, however, requires us to pretend that a religiously motivated terrorist is not religious. Presidents Bush and Obama have struggled for political reasons with how to characterize the extremist Islamic terrorists attacking our very civilization. Bush was fond of saying the 9/11 terrorists weren’t “true Muslims,” because it is a faith of peace. So they were just terrorists or jihadists—no religious label. This is of course the height of wishful thinking. Sadly, there are plenty of religious actors who are bad actors and some of them indeed are Muslim. That does not imply every Muslim is a terrorist. Far from it.
President Obama and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton have followed that lead and declined to use the terms “Islamic” or “Muslim” when describing these religiously fanatical terrorists. One commentator has suggested that Obama and Clinton are on target in not referring to the “Muslim” or “Islamic” element of these terrorists, but I believe this is a serious mistake. Their description of “terrorists” is inaccurate and fraught with the perils of ignoring history, as I suggested to the president here.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump careened to the other side of the road when he suggested there be a Muslim registry. This use of “Muslim” aggressively misses the mark (and pits Trump against the First Amendment’s mandate of neutrality).
Though different, both the Democrats and Trump are engaging in misleading and ultimately dangerous rhetoric. Here is a suggestion: the truth will set us free, and the truth is that these enemies are extremist Islamic terrorists. They are extremists, they are Islamic, and they are terrorists. They are not ordinary Muslims, but they are also not secular terrorists.
Never Forget the Power of Religion to Fuel Passion for Good and for Bad
Faith stretches across a vast spectrum. Indeed, there are over 100,000 religious sects in the United States, and Americans understand that there are variations in religious groups that come from similar histories or that share a sacred text. There are many Protestants like the Presbyterians who are broken down into mainstream and fundamentalist segments, or the Baptists, which encompass the Southern Baptist Convention, American Baptist Convention, and National Baptist Convention members. Both Catholics and Protestants read the Bible. There are many flavors of Jewish faith from Reconstructionist, Conservative, Reform, and Modern Orthodox, to ultra-Orthodox, just to name some.
More to the point, Americans can grasp that the polygamist Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is decidedly not the same as the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And there are plenty of extremist groups in the United States from neo-Nazis to Skinheads to our own homegrown religiously motivated terrorists.
That means Americans can get the difference between the millions of law-abiding Muslim believers and the extremist Islamic terrorists. And we actually need to make that distinction for the sake of the millions of good citizen Muslims. It does them no favors to pretend that this fanatical enemy is non-religious. They are a reminder that the Muslim faith does not inevitably require death to nonbelievers, but can thrive and contribute to a national common good.
At the same time, leaving out the “Muslim” or “Islamic” term in describing our enemy is an error, because there is no more authoritative force in many people’s lives than religion. The fact that these terrorists are mobilized by religion sends a message that their apocalyptic horizon is fervently and even feverishly embraced, and that it is not open to rational debate. These are terrorists who share a rigid religious dogma, and we have a long history showing us what religious entities can and will do when they decide to root out apostates. It is horrifying. Without the religious descriptor, it is too easy to treat them as political actors rather than the dogmatic, unbending fundamentalists that they are.
The Problem Is Not Religion Per Se But Rather Humans
This is also a moment in history to remind the globe that while religious liberty is deeply valuable, religious domination is often despotic. There is actually such a thing as too much liberty, which the founding generation understood through experience because so many fled religious tyranny in Europe. First Amendment framer James Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance is often invoked in support of religious liberty, but he also pointed to the ways in which religious entities go off the rails. The problem is humans (even when they are Christian):
Because experience witnesseth that ecclesiastical establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of Religion, have had a contrary operation. During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.
ISIS is undoubtedly off the rails, but it remains a religious entity with fanatically murderous intent and a self-destructive wish for the apocalypse. We must fight it with everything we have, and we need to start by calling it what it is and distinguishing it from what it is not.
Excellent article. I may not agree with all points, conclusions or citations, but the partial conclusion that Humans are the Problem is the issue. The “self-destructive wish for the apocalypse” is a bit much, but not too far from the truth from us humans looking in at ISIS.
I’m curious to know your solution for us Christians, or other religious 1st Amendment followers here in the U.S., to get involved with the fight against ISIS — outside of the US. Irrespective of our belief that ISIS is off the rails, does our religious freedom in the US allow us to seek to extinguish another “religious entity” because we disagree with their method of creation for their own state or following? Where in our Constitution does it authorize our destruction, isolation or termination of a “religious entity” outside of the US? This is the reason people originally came to the US because the US was not in the religious turmoil found in Europe. Sadly, I think of the Indians we isolated and terminated in our founding of this Country in the name of 1st Amendment so-called Rights.
Yes. Obama at one point says “No religion condones the killing of innocents.” That’s a rather blind view that is belied by history.
Likewise, I really don’t want him to set forth opinions on what is or is not “Islamic” or “Christian” or whatever. That in fact seems like a violation of the Establishment Clause. He might be right. It might be right to say that the KKK is not “Christian.” But, defining such things is not the job of the government.
He can say that Muslims should not be tarred by the worse of those who self-identify as such, no more than anti-abortion terrorists who murder doctors as part of some ‘army of god’ should be used to tar Christian religion. That is a more honest and realistic approach. I understand why he is trying to be PC here but at the end of the day it’s misguided and sort of unrealistic/believable.
The problem with the argument here is that Amerika is not a free country when it comes to religion. You can tell by all the ubiquitous “god”on the coins and in the anthems, pledges, oaths and Ten Commandments monuments. Ms Hamilton must be confusing the USSA with Holland or some other free country.
There is one important thing to note about Islamically motivated terrorists. They are all, almost to a man or woman, what in Judaism would be called “ba’alei teshuva” or in Christianity “born-again”
Well, ISIS certainly thanks you for your support. Doesn’t it make you wonder that you are doing EXACTLY what ISIS wants you to do?
If you want to be truthful, why don’t you speak more accurately and identify the religious extremists in terms of their EXACT sect within Islam? ISIS wants to unify ALL Muslims within a single entity pitted against the non-Muslims, and you evidently agree.
Slightly different angle, but how would you feel if all stories about female murderers emphasized the female part when the salient aspects were quite different. Perhaps that would justify a war against ALL women? After all some of them are murderers, right?
My suggestion is that we need to do everything we can to DIVIDE the ISIS lunatics away from the sane Muslims. In particular, it is important to emphasize the specific sect of Islam that they belong to and put heavy focus on their brutal treatment of all Muslims who do not follow their insane beliefs, where the political insanity is only a minor extension that naturally leads to mass murder.
Oh, wait. There’s a little problem there. America is in the highly awkward position of being closely allied with a certain government that supports that sect. Just good business, eh? Insofar as there was NO mention of those awkward truths in the column, I’m already quite confident this comment will not pass “moderation”, and even more certain that naming names of the sect and the government would insure its censorship. If you [Marci Hamilton] actually wanted to deal with the truth, then you would have mentioned the truth already, eh?
Distinctly surprised to see the comment passed moderation, and even tempted to name the names (of the sect and the country) for the more complete truth… But perhaps that should be left as a (trivial) challenge for the reader (of this comment)? Or for the original author of the column? After all, Professor Hamilton is saying we need to deal with the truth…
a great article, marci, and such an important consciousness raiser! i can’t add much to comments made by others. but i do wonder if some kind of amendment might be considered for the first amendment that addresses the situation we are in currently – specifically that takes into account that it’s humans who practice religion and who have in some instances [present and past] embarked on deadly paths that encroach on the rights of all american citizens.
Do you or she know the Article 4, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution? And then the passed laws implementing it?