Who Is the Real Enemy?

Terrorism, Islam, and the true threat to America


"Our real enemy is not Islam or Muslims. The enemy is extremism and radicalism and radical ideology."

So says Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam for the planned Islamic center near the site of the World Trade Center. So says the Obama administration, too. So said George W. Bush the week after 9/11, when he declared, "The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace." The sentiment has become a shibboleth.

Nevertheless, yesterday Rep. Peter King gaveled into session hearings on the radicalization of American Muslims and the extent of Islamic complicity in terrorism. Some have noted with a touch of asperity that King is a fine one to talk, given his former support for the Irish Republican Army. (He once termed that terrorist group a "legitimate force" and compared the leader of its political wing to George Washington.)

King's personal history aside, are the questions worth asking?

First things first: Let's stipulate that even though most terrorists who target Americans are Muslim, the vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists. Muslims are not the enemy. At least 1.3 million Muslims live in the United States (according to the American Religious Identification Survey) and perhaps many more. If even 1 percent were inclined to terrorism, then no mall in America would be safe. Rauf is surely right on the first point.

But is he right on the second? Are extremism, radicalism, and radical ideology the real enemy?

A raft of studies and reports have examined the terrorist threat confronting the United States. So far, not one has identified the Amish as Public Enemy No. 1. (Heck, they're not even in the top 10.) And yet the Amish embrace a strain of Christianity that the typical Protestant or Catholic would consider extreme, in asceticism and by mathematical definition. Out of 2.2 billion Christians, about 250,000—one one-hundredth of 1 percent—are Amish.

The Buddhist monks of Tibet have as much cause for grievance against the government of Red China as the IRA had against Britain. Yet one does not read about Buddhist terrorists addressing mail bombs to government offices in Beijing, or Buddhist monks urging holy war against non-Buddhist infidels. Islamic Rage Boy is everywhere on the Internet. Buddhist Rage Boy is nowhere to be found. Does this tell us anything?

Here in the U.S., domestic political extremism has produced terrorists on the left (e.g., the Weather Underground), and on the right (e.g., the Ku Klux Klan). But it has not produced terrorists of a libertarian bent, even though the libertarian view of society and the state is in some ways radically different from the views of the traditional left and right.

Amish, Buddhists, and libertarians do not share many fundamental beliefs. But all three adhere to some principle of nonviolence, noninterference, or nonaggression. No matter how strict their asceticism or how small their cohort, they seem unlikely candidates to start building car bombs. But this should not be a blinding insight: To say that people who believe in nonviolence will not be violent is tautological.

Is there a principle common to all terrorist groups? Probably not an explicit one, although their actions uniformly demonstrate a belief in consequentialism, the idea that the ends justify the means. Not even terrorists would argue that the indiscriminate butchering of innocent people is desirable as an end in itself. Beyond that, it's hard to nail down a single doctrine shared by every bomb-thrower from the IRA to the Klan to the Maoists of the Shining Path. Terrorism is a tactic, after all, not a tenet.

Now it is true that some of the greatest crimes against humanity in the 20th century—the Great Terror, the gas chambers, the gulag, and the laogai—were driven by a utopian vision. As others have pointed out, if you have embarked upon a glorious revolution that will bring about heaven on Earth for millions of unhappy people, then it is not only desirable but imperative that everyone get on board your agenda immediately—and that anyone who tries to slow you down should be summarily liquidated. Your goal is that important.

Is utopianism necessary, though? It wasn't for the IRA. Nor was it for the Klan—which was not trying to usher in a radical transformation of Southern society but to bar the door against it. It employed terror in service of the status quo.

Where does this leave us? In a muddle—caught between the stunningly obvious (pacifists aren't terrorists) and the generally unhelpful (utopianism is conducive to terror but not necessary for it; radicalism has little to do with it one way or the other). Any discussion of terrorism that starts with "The real enemy is X," it seems, is probably doomed to frustration. At the risk of sounding overly pacifist and utopian, perhaps the real enemy is the apparently incessant, and nearly universal, need to find the enemy—any enemy—in the first place.

A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. This article originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.