What should we call terrorists, some of whom claim to be motivated by their religion? Can one be an Islamic terrorist? What about a Christian terrorist? Does what we call terrorists matter?
What we call terrorists may not matter very much, but a restriction on what we can call them is of enormous importance. In order to get to the truth of any issue, people have to be free to talk about it without fear of repercussion. Unfortunately, one of the issues around which many problems revolve – religion – is also a topic that is particularly hard to discuss freely. In our day-to-day life, we may avoid the topic with only minimal inconvenience. When it comes to global terrorism, restricting what we say about religion can lead to devastating results.
Next month I will start the new semester by teaching a course called "Terrorism and the Law." On the very first day, I will explain to the students that we will be talking about religion even though we are at a state law school. Islam, or at least the way some people interpret Islam, is an important issue when it comes to modern terrorism. I will, of course, explain that not all Muslims agree with the terrorist tactics – or even their long term aims – and not all terrorists are Muslim, but we can't really study modern terrorism without developing an understanding of the motivations. Unfortunately, religion is a significant motivation underlying much modern terrorism.
Four or five years ago I traveled with a group to Israel. Instead of studying the holy sites, however, the focus of our trip was on counter-terrorism. Most members of my group were college educators who taught courses on terrorism. One of them had authored a major textbook. He told me that his publisher forbid him from any discussion of religion in the book. He said that was common. Publishers were afraid that books would not be used if they ventured into that area. He also said that most experts in the field lacked the knowledge to write about religion anyway.
By keeping religion out of these textbooks and the related courses we were knowingly providing an insufficient education to our next generation of counter-terror experts. The author said that when the book came out in its next edition (which was going to be its third), he planned to demand inclusion of religious issues. He felt that by then the book would be well enough established that he would be able to make that demand. Still, the very idea that we had been intentionally excluding important issues when discussing this topic was shocking.
Of course, a private entity might fear a violent reaction such as the riots that followed the publication of those Danish political cartoons. It is not, however, only private publishing interests that feel unable to talk about religion. The United States government also has a very hard time doing it. After all, as an inclusive society, we can't really argue that a Christian or Judeo-Christian outlook is better than even "hard-line" Islam, can we?
The government's inability to talk about religion reached almost comical proportions in 2003, when the Department of State launched a "cultural magazine" for young men and women in Arab-speaking countries. A special coordinator for public diplomacy in the State Department explained: "This is a long-term way to build a relationship with people who will be the future leaders of the Arab world…. This is, in a very subtle way, a vehicle for American values."
"Hi" magazine focused on things like entertainment, technology, and sports. Among the early articles that I remember was one about sand-surfing and another about protecting against over-exposure to the sun. There was, of course, no direct discussion of religion or religious values. The magazine floundered for a year or two, added an English version, went online, and finally died a quiet death. It was a phenomenal waste of time and money.
I don't know how we are going to resolve issues that surround our very different world views, but I am quite certain that restricting what we say – whether that means barring topics from textbooks or rejecting the use of terms like 'Islamic terrorist' and 'jihad' – is not a good start. Let's first be honest in our language and our discussions. That will be hard, but it is the surest way to the truth. If we get to the truth, let's hope that we can also find peace.