Moral Principles vs. Islamism


By Aaron Rhodes

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Washington D.C., Brussels, 16.06.2016 (HRWF/FOREF) – Americans are chewing each other apart following the massacre of 49 people at a gay bar in Orlando, Florida. The tragedy is being ruthlessly exploited to promote a range of partisan and social agendas.

Many are blaming the event on the availability of “assault weapons,” such the gun used in the slaughter. “Semi-automatic” weapons, which many confuse with machineguns, are thought to be the cause of mass murder. But a .45 caliber automatic pistol is also a semi-automatic gun, as are some shotguns used for hunting. The New York Daily News blamed the attack on the National Rifle Association. Defending constitutional gun rights has become emblematic of an entire political outlook.

The New York Times editorialized that the gay victims were “casualties of a society where hate has deep roots,” while others blamed conservative Christians for fomenting an anti-gay atmosphere, and have associated the event with opposition to transgender toilets.

Conservatives have blamed immigration policies, weak leadership and political correctness promoted by left-wing Democrats.

President Obama said that “hate” was to blame, argued with his political critics, and again avoided linking the crime to Islamist ideology.

Especially since 9/11, when almost 3000 Americans died at the hands of Islamist terrorists, commentators, both professional and amateur, have promoted various constructions of the “root causes” of terrorism.

A common theme is that Islamist terrorism is rooted in interventions by Western powers in the Middle East, and the policies of Israel. The implication is that only by righting the wrongs done to these societies will we stop the terrorism originating there. The argument suggests that terrorism is a natural, and even justified response to the errors and failings of Western policies.

Many similar explanations reduce terrorism to economic injustice and exploitation. These explanations hold little water from a logical point of view, but they show how monolithic, reductionist approaches to explaining terrorism have become pervasive, and how they are intrinsically political. Political orientations have taken over, and distorted, our understanding of terrorism.

Our educational programs, and our way of thinking about human motivation, is infused with reductionism and a mechanistic model of the human being that resembles what a computer programming instructor once taught me: “garbage in, garbage out.” The common, pseudo-scientific understanding of how social life and experiences shape human behavior reflects the influence of such figures as French sociologist Emile Durkheim and of course Karl Marx. We seek to explain human actions by the actions of society upon humans.

It follows that if the “root cause” of terrorism could be determined, then we could stop terrorism by changing what caused it. Reactions to terrorism thus reflect a belief in social engineering—that by the actions of the state, or the international community, or of civil society, we can reduce or end terrorism.

There is little doubt that things can be done to reduce terrorism. But understanding both opportunities and limitations depends on an appreciation of the infinitely mysterious and complex nature of the human personality and soul, and an appreciation of individual moral accountability and the importance of ideas.

Humans differ from animals in the capacity for reason and moral choice, in our moral agency. We have freedom. Even in the most extreme circumstances, we can resist the influence of those circumstances and make choices that are both rational and ethical. Not all who are so unfortunate as to be exposed and vulnerable to Islamist propaganda become terrorists. We, and we alone, are responsible for our choices. We have no right to blame others, or society, for our errors, any more than we should give them credit for our moral victories.

We in liberal democracies contrast our way of life, our freedoms, with oppressive societies and with ideologies, like Islamism and fascism, which denigrate individual freedom. But our free societies are undermined when we embrace dehumanizing reductionist, collectivist and mechanistic models of what drives individual choices and behavior—indeed, when we politicize explanations of terrorism.

The confrontation with Islamism is a confrontation about ideas and moral principles. Protecting ourselves from Islamism or any other totalitarian ideology won’t come by misunderstanding the power of moral choice or restricting our freedoms, but when we better understand, appreciate, and promote them. It will require us fearlessly to contrast the core principles of liberal democracy with Islamism, and thus to show a free society’s benefits as a form of social and political community where differences are tolerated and where individuals may live free of suffocating and dangerous ideologies.

Aaron Rhodes is President of the Forum for Religious Freedom-Europe, and a founder of the Freedom Rights Project. He was Executive Director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights between 1993-2007.

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