In December, 2014, after a driver shouting Islamic slogans mowed down more than a dozen pedestrians in Dijon, France, the city’s chief prosecutor called the attacks the work of an unbalanced man whose motivations were vague and “hardly coherent.”
Mere weeks earlier, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, a spokesman for Daesh (the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State that I prefer, since the group finds it demeaning), called on Muslims to “smash [any Westerner’s] head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car, or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison him.” Comprehensive fellow, covers all bases.
So it wouldn’t be in the realm of the unreasonable to imagine that, whatever the mental state of the Dijon driver, Islamism played a distinct role in his rampage. Yet reluctance to use the “I”-word, like that evidenced by the cautious French prosecutor, persists.
Equally persistent is the apparent desire, when Islamism is clearly implicated, to find other “root causes” for the acts of Arabic-shouting stabbers, shooters and bombers, and to relegate Islamism to some secondary role. We hear that the mayhem was the result of things like mental illness, or that the attackers’ real problems were that they were “social misfits,” “impoverished,” “disaffected youths,” seeking a “cause” to give their lives “meaning” (a usually sublime word, here demoted to a state of utter ugliness).
Such contentions, in particular the last one, may hold some truth in some cases. William McCants, a Brookings Institution scholar, contends that there are many socially inept people “who have no organizational ties to ISIS,” and are not religious at all in their personal lives but who readily murder in the name of Islam. He calls them “ISIS-ish” and describes them as “rebels looking for a cause.”
But that doesn’t explain calculated Islamist killers like Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was a popular college student; Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood killer, who was an army doctor; San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook, who lived the comfortable life of a suburbanite; the Orlando mass murderer Omar Mateen, who worked for a security firm; or the Bangladeshis who killed 20 at a cafe in Dhaka last month, who were members of a privileged elite. Or Adel Kermiche, who recently slit the throat of a priest during a church prayer service in Normandy and was described by his uncle as “normal… good… He went to school, he was like you and me. He had friends…”
Then, though, there is the discordant fact that not all mass mayhem is Islamism-inspired. Neither 1999’s Columbine massacre, 2007’s Virginia Tech shootings, 2012’s Aurora mass murder nor last year’s attack on a black church in Charleston had any Islamic connection.
So what, in the end, is the enemy? Islamism? Mental illness? Poverty? Privilege? Racism? Disaffection?
We prefer our crises neat, simple, comprehensible. But the murderous violence plaguing the world today isn’t any of those things. And, while we may be comforted — if such a word can be used here — to imagine that the mass murder buck stops squarely at some particular group, it doesn’t.
Even if so much mayhem today is committed in the name of Islam, most Muslims do not seek to harm anyone. Most mentally ill aren’t in the least violent. Most poor people don’t seek to wreak havoc, and neither do most privileged ones. Most racists are content to nurture their antipathies privately. Most disaffected or socially inept just suffer in silence.
To be sure, the Islamist threat, from not just Daesh but Al Qaida, Hamas, Hezbollah, Boko Haram and others, is large, looming and real. An ideology that fuels so much killing, and that exults in cold-blooded murder, needs to be fought by civilized humanity in every way.
But the version (or, many Muslims would say, perversion) of Islam represented by groups like those in the previous paragraph, still isn’t the essence of the ultimate enemy, something larger that has infected not only the Muslim world but the minds of all sorts of others.
It is ra, evil, the outgrowth of the bechira Hashem has bestowed on human beings. It plagues our imperfect world in an assortment of guises and infiltrates those receptive to it. It finds portals, ways of seeping into human movements and human beings, of fostering hatred and disdain for life.
Which is not to imply that we shouldn’t fight all of that ultimate enemy’s contemporary manifestations. Only that, as we do, we not lose sight of the bigger picture, and our role as ovdei Hashem, in changing it.