Editor’s Note: As soon as something good happens, such as the assassination of Osama bin Laden, there will be those who feel guilty about feeling good about it. In the past couple weeks, I’ve observed a rather disturbing tendency to view happiness at the death of a revolting Arab terrorist as a form of racism, as if his race or religion somehow made our feelings of satisfaction that justice had been done a bad thing. Despising an evil person who happens to come from a foreign culture isn’t racism or bigotry, it’s just a sense of moral discernment.
In March, enraged that a vile American preacher had burned a Quran, Afghan religious militants murdered more than 20 innocent people. Two wrongs don’t make a right, but, when fanatical cultures clash, one wrong often ignites a second, far-worse wrong.
A decade after 9/11, American attitudes toward Muslims are all over the map. What’s often called “Islamophobia” fuels public opposition to the building of mosques, not just at Ground Zero, but elsewhere in the country as well. Meanwhile, apologists for Islam label as racist negative comments about Muslim practices, such as Shariah law.
Islamophobia has become part of the ongoing culture war, but it’s self-evident that it cannot properly be defined as racism, because Islam is a religion, not a race. Muslims are black, white, Asian and Arab. Hatred of blacks, whites, Asians or Arabs can rightly be labeled racism, but disapproval of someone’s religion cannot.
Two aspects of racism make it a uniquely indefensible. First, the targets of racism have no choice about being members of their groups. It’s an accident of birth, and they can’t “convert” to something else, even if they want to. For example, African-Americans with even small amounts of black blood were historically stigmatized, and unable to escape their categorization and the attendant discrimination.
Anti-Semitism is another racial prejudice over which the victims have no control. Secular Jews who never see the inside of a synagogue are still considered Jews by bigots, because anti-Semitism is less a religious bias than the scapegoating of an ethnic group. In Nazi Germany, for example, Jews who claimed to have converted to Christianity were persecuted the same as those who remained devout.
There’s a qualitative difference between practicing Judaism and being a Jew: The former is a option; the latter isn’t. The analogy is the same for Muslims and Arabs. Belief in Islam is a choice, but no one can choose to be an Arab, or elect not to be. Hence, labeling Arabs with negative stereotypes is anti-Semitic racism, but expressing disapproval for the tenets of Islam or the behaviors its ideology produces is not.
Religion may seem like something one is born into, and, for many people, it does come down to an accident of geography or parentage. However, unlike race or nationality, followers can opt out of a faith if they find its doctrines and values unpalatable. This brings us to the second aspect of racism that differentiates it from a religious bias — the absence of a distinct, characterizing ethos among its victims.
Although racial groups are routinely saddled with stereotypes, blacks, whites or Semites (whether Arab or Israeli) have no defining doctrines or moral codes. By contrast, religious faiths are — by definition — described and differentiated almost entirely by the beliefs and dogmas that their adherents accept and practice.
Hence, the faithful are similar to political partisans, who embrace ideologies that inform their actions. Like Democrats and Republicans, Shi’ite Muslims and Southern Baptists are open to criticism from those who disagree with their beliefs, as well as the doctrines and behaviors that result from them. This is neither racism, nor bigotry; it’s discernment.
However, even among religions and political parties, one must be careful not to judge individuals based on the group. Among Christians, there’s a chasm between Unitarians and holy-book-burning evangelicals, just as there is between Rockefeller Republicans and Limbaugh Dittoheads, and between peaceful, mystical Sufi Muslims and the Taliban. There are more than a billion Muslims in the world, but relatively few are terrorists.
Much of the worst behaviors result from the intersection of ideology (religious and otherwise) and nationalism that’s generally described under the rubric of “culture.” For example, when Saudi religious police forced young girls who weren’t wearing their head coverings back into a burning building to die, it wasn’t an exclusively Islamic atrocity (the Quran doesn’t actually mandate this), but a cultural mixture of Arabian and Muslim morality, similar to the Taliban’s imposition of the burqua in Afghanistan.
Like religious and political sects, cultures are institutions their adherents can join or opt out of; hence, their followers are accountable for their actions. The homophobic cruelty of the Westboro Baptist Church, the child molestations abetted by Catholic hierarchies, the polygamy (and the resulting child marriage/rape) practiced by Fundamentalist Mormon cults, and the dog and cock fighting practiced by various American subcultures are as inexcusable as the sadistic torture of helpless animals ritualized in Spanish bull fights, regardless of how deeply they may be woven into their respective cultures.
More reprehensible still are the honor killings of rape victims in Pakistan; the killing of artists, like Theo van Gogh, murdered in Holland for dishonoring Islam; the Iranian fatwa against Salmon Rushdie for blasphemy; the genital mutilation of young girls in Somalia; or the murder of innocents in Afghanistan because a Quran had been burned. Calling these atrocities justified by Allah makes them no less indefensible.
Americans should feel free to condemn any and all of this, without worrying that the politically correct, who use culture as an excuse for evil, will accuse them of bigotry. And we should be able to express satisfaction and pride that our military assassinated Osama bin Laden, without worrying about being tarred as racists.
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