Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Deconstruction Zone: After Orlando

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David Harris


As the horrific events in Orlando unfolded on June 12, all Americans of good will reacted with horror and dismay. It was a time for expression of total solidarity with the LGBT community and the city of Orlando, as well as yet another moment to ask why military-style assault weapons are so readily available in our country. Today, three defining points have become ever more clear.

First, once again, we have witnessed a horrendous terrorist attack motivated, in part or in whole, by radical Islamic ideology. The killer was known to the FBI, and made clear his sympathy for Islamic State.

In response, we need to grasp the essential fact that our enemy is a worldwide belief system that views our civilisational values as worthy targets - and uses terrorism to advance its goals.
Thus, gays, Christians, Jews, Yazidis, Baha'i, Muslims, journalists, cartoonists, police officers, soldiers, women, and other symbols of an open, pluralistic and tolerant society have all been in the crosshairs of the foot soldiers of this warped mindset.

We need to name the foe for what it is, and not dance linguistically around it. It is radical Islamic ideology. No, it is not just "hatred" or "violent extremism", and its deadly assaults can't be reduced, as some have sought to do in various instances, to such misguided notions as "workplace violence", "road rage" or the "politics of grievance".

Radical Islam is in the mould of other supremacist and totalitarian belief systems with worldwide aims that preceded it. We all might wish this were not the case, but, alas, it is - and history should amply teach us the high price for a failure of imagination or appreciation of the danger.

Second, terrorism is terrorism is terrorism. The deliberate targeting and killing of innocent people in the name of a belief system cannot be rationalised or contextualised, nor can it somehow be blithely separated from one instance to another.

The terrorism faced by the United States derives from the same wellspring of radical Islamic belief that has motivated deadly attacks in France and Belgium, India and Indonesia, Nigeria and Kenya, Israel and Denmark, Australia and Canada. And the list goes on.

Trying to create what are effectively distinctions without differences in each of these cases is little more than intellectual sophistry, ignoring the obvious theological-ideological denominators underpinning all these attacks.

As a consequence, all societies under assault need to band together in solidarity, common purpose, and full cooperation. This struggle will not end anytime soon, and our staying power, resilience, and will must outlast those of our adversaries.

And third, pretending that there is no link between these terrorist acts, including the horror in Orlando, and some adherents of Islam is self-deluding and dangerous. The perpetrators repeatedly invoke their faith. Why are there those who wish to pretend otherwise?

No, no one should for a single moment seek to indict or stigmatise an entire faith. That would be irresponsible, inaccurate and dangerous in the extreme.

But that does not mean avoiding the subject entirely, either. It can't. Something has gone terribly wrong with a segment of Islam and it threatens us all, other Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Outsiders have a key role to play, of course, from intelligence to law enforcement, from outreach to inclusion, and from counter-radicalisation to deradicalisation programs.

But the real struggle for the soul of Islam will be determined from within. Are moderate Muslims prepared to defend their beliefs and confront the faith hijackers in their midst? Many have condemned the Orlando atrocity, but much more will be needed in this long-term struggle. Ultimately, it will depend, I believe, on whether structural reform can take hold from within and prevail.

Those Muslims who simply dismiss terrorists acting in the name of Islam as "non-Muslims" are doing no one a service. The terrorists invoke their faith and its most potent symbols and teachings, however misguided they might be.

As a Jew, when Yigal Amir assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, there was no way I could declare him to be a "non-Jew" because he acted contrary to my Jewish beliefs. Shamefully, he believed he was reflecting Jewish teachings as he understood them. Our response, in turn, was deep soul-searching and an effort, which continues to this day, to reject those who foster his diabolical thinking.

The late Harvard professor Samuel Huntington famously wrote about the "clash of civilisations." In reality and more immediately, there is a clash within civilisations.

If we are to have any chance of reducing the risk of future Orlandos, apart from the law enforcement dimension, the resolute voices of pluralism, modernity and mutual respect within the Muslim world must ultimately prevail.

David Harris is CEO of the American Jewish Committee. © American Jewish Committee, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.