At the New Republic today, Leon Wieseltier, the magazine’s literary editor and one of my all-time favorite essayists, makes an excellent distinction that I would endorse: he writes that, while he is prepared to release Muslims of collective guilt for 9/11, he is not prepared to let Islam qua Islam off the hook for 9/11. He notes that, just as Jewish terrorists come out of Judaism, so Islamic terrorists come out of Islam. No terrorist is an island. Each killer bears the “currents of culture”:
One of the most accomplished Jewish terrorists of our time, Baruch Goldstein, came from the Jewish universe in which I was raised. . . . The same was later true of Yigal Amir. . . . If the standpoint of broadly collective responsibility was the wrong way to explain the atrocities, so too was the standpoint of purely individual responsibility. There were currents of culture behind the killers. Their ideas were not only their own. I am reminded of those complications when I hear that Islam is a religion of peace. I have no quarrel with the construction of Cordoba House, but not because Islam is a religion of peace. It is not. Like Christianity and like Judaism, Islam is a religion of peace and a religion of war. All the religions have all the tendencies within them, and in varying historical circumstances varying beliefs and practices have come to the fore.
And Leon Wieseltier castigates the following fuzzy-headed and glib distinction:
It is absurd to describe the perpetrators of September 11 as “murderers calling themselves Muslims,” as Karen Hughes recently did. They did not call themselves Muslims. They were Muslims.
And at the conclusion of Leon Wieseltier’s brief essay, he makes solidarity with moderate Muslims a category he recognizes (as any reasonable and educated person must):
Mohammed Atta and his band (as well as the growing number of “homegrown” Islamist killers and plotters) represent a real and burgeoning development within Islam, an actualization of one of Islam’s possibilities, an indigenous transnational movement of apocalyptic violence that has brought misery to Muslim societies, and to us. It is not Islamophobic to say so. Quite the contrary: it is to side with Muslims who are struggling against the same poison as we are.
Wieseltier, I think, has struck exactly the right balance here: Islam is not a religion of peace, but Cordoba House should be built.
This is not an absurd position for two reasons:
- it recognizes that all three of the traditional monotheistic religions bear in them the cultural seeds of both peace and war; and
- it recognizes that most Muslim Americans are “struggling with the same poison” that other Americans are.
To think about this issue clearly, one must not only make distinctions, one must make the right distinctions. Leon Wieseltier does.