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In 2009, Ruslan Tsarni and his nephew Tamerlan Tsarnaev had a bitter argument over the implications of their faith. Tsarnaev announced he had chosen “God’s business” over work or school. “I was shocked when I heard his words, his phrases, when every other word he starts sticking in words of God,” says Tsarni. “There is someone who brainwashed him, some new convert to Islam.” The falling out ended their relationship.
This was more than a family disagreement. It is a debate being conducted, in various forms, in Egypt, Nigeria, Indonesia, the Caucasus, the Palestinian territories and other places.
In our country, such radicalism is rare — a tribute to America’s special superpower of assimilation — but not unknown. And it seems particularly difficult for us to account for. As the circumstances surrounding the Boston bombings have clarified, some of the reactions have been ideologically reflexive and counterproductive.
Yes, the Boston bombing is an isolated case, but one that proves an isolated case can cause a million people to shelter in place. And one reason it doesn’t happen more often is that an extensive apparatus of homeland security — designed, equipped and trained over the last decade — helps keep it from happening.
But elements of the right suffer their own form of ideological impairment. Their tendency is to regard terrorism and Islam as interchangeable.
Yet some things, rather than being politically correct, are just correct. The Boston bombing was not because of Islam, as most Muslims understand it. Islam is a diverse religious tradition including more than 1 billion people and millions of our fellow citizens who overwhelmingly reject the murder of random strangers as an expression of their faith. Terrorism is the expression of a violent ideology that has, disturbingly, taken root among some Muslims.
Debates over the meaning of terms such as “jihad” and “Shariah” are at least as complex as Christian debates over “just war” and “social justice.”
Somehow Americans of every ideological background need to be able to hold two ideas in their heads at once. The threat of terrorism is lethal and ongoing. But a war on Islam would make a war on terrorism impossible.
MICHAEL GERSON is a columnist for The Washington Post and a former senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations. He was President George W. Bush’s chief speechwriter from 2001 to 2006 and was a Bush Administration senior advisor.