A thoughtful woman recently took me to task for employing the term "Islamic terrorist."  She argued that it is unfairly discriminatory against Muslims and their religion.  With restrained contempt in her eyes, she reminded me that nobody ever called John Brown a "Christian terrorist." 

If you do not remember him, John Brown was a prominent figure in the events leading to the Civil War.  He was a Calvinist who lived in Massachusetts.  He worshipped an "angry God" and was convinced that Jesus Christ had come not to bring peace on earth, but a sword. Brown was a true religious fanatic, crazy as a June bug. He actively embraced the abolitionist cause and set out to avenge the horrors of slavery.  To this end, he organized a small guerrilla force and called it the "League of Gileadites."  In 1855, he and other members of the League rode into "bleeding Kansas" and shed additional blood, literally cutting to pieces James Doyle and his two adult sons, killing Allen Wilkinson as well, and cracking the skull of William Sherman.

Although Brown first slew "Philistines" in Kansas, he planned greater exploits.  He wanted personally to deliver God's vengeance throughout the South in the hope of triggering a huge slave rebellion. He decided to begin this mission by assaulting the federal armory in Harper's Ferry, Virginia.  Robert E. Lee and J. E. B. Stuart, along with the militiamen under their command, put a quick end to the terror this time, and took Brown captive.  He was hanged thereafter in 1858.

Now here is the nearly incredible part:  on the day he was executed, church bells tolled from Boston to Chicago.  Sermons were preached extolling the man.  Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and William Cullen Bryant eulogized him by their written words.  This religious terrorist was compared to Jesus Christ himself!

Brown was not known or referred to in the North as a terrorist.  Nobody in the South dared call him a "Christian" terrorist.  The question for me, then, concerns why I insist upon referring to Dr. Nidal Hasan as an "Islamic" terrorist?" 

This is a fair question, which I take seriously.  It is not as if I have not previously noted that there are Muslim patriots living among us.  There are.  But I want to address the overarching issue in a substantive way. 

First, the North and the South during Brown's time were involved in a sectional conflict.  Those on both sides regarded themselves as "Christian."  Each attempted to advance its own understanding of the Bible and of God's Will.  No one in the South would have labeled John Brown a "Christian terrorist," since his actions were not in keeping with the South's understanding of Christianity.  Each section of the country was interested in shaping America in its own image, and according to the "Christian" principles it espoused.  Would America's (Christian) culture support or outlaw slavery?  That was the question.  A house divided against itself, as both Jesus and later Lincoln maintained, could not stand.  America was destined to be either all slave or all free.

Second, Islam does not have the same cultural position in America as Christianity does. This fact means that the vast majority of Americans are typically not as sensitive to or as protective of Islam as they are Christianity.  When Muslims perpetrate terror, Americans have no problem calling them "Islamic terrorists." It makes perfect sense to most of us. 

Critics will argue that this explanation is true enough, but that it does not constitute a justification for the term "Islamic terrorist."  They will urge, "Why tar with treason those Muslims who are patriotic Americans and who support the war against Al Qaeda?  Why insult their religion by linking it to terrorism, when you would not think of doing so with 'Christians' like John Brown?"

Out of respect for Muslims who love peace and God, and who desire to assimilate to American culture and to be United States patriots, it is probably best, I admit, to speak of "jihadist terrorists" or "radical-Islamic terrorists." The fact that jihadists, then, are the exception in Islam and not the rule is not only implied by context, but also explicitly stated. I have no problem with this change in nomenclature.

Yet a final point -- and a very important one -- should be made.  While moderate, peace-loving Muslims are the first to contend that the term "Islamic terrorist" disagrees with and discriminates against them, they have not always been the first to highlight the distinctions between themselves and their jihadists brothers and sisters.  Mainstream Muslims should be in the forefront of condemning such acts of terror, and should do so in the most direct, uncompromising, and compelling manner possible.  I have read a number of statements by Muslim organizations opposing terror, but these statements seem weak and hollow compared to the magnitude of the atrocities they condemn.  The apparent lack of righteous indignation blurs the distinction between themselves and the jihadists.  May I suggest that, if moderate Muslims are in fact the object of invidious "broad brush" discrimination, they are a leading cause of it themselves?

November 15, 2009