Some columns are easier to write than others. Many issues are clear-cut, providing a platform for uncompromising, nuance-free advocacy of a particular course of action. And then there are situations in which values conflict and proposed solutions to the problem require resolving that tension.

For me, the example of that latter category that most urgently demands attention is the horrifying series of massacres by vicious thugs who justify slaughtering their victims by invoking Islam. On one hand, this religiously based fanaticism is an increasing threat to public safety. It is not simply that innocent people are being killed, which is itself a grave evil. The harm done to society is exacerbated by the fact that the killings are not random, but specifically targeted at those engaged in particular activities which the butchers deem sacrilegious – education, especially of females; freedom of expression, and inoculation against contagious disease.

This adds to the terrible injury of mass murder the damaging insult of discouraging people from exercising their basic rights and doing things that improve the quality of their lives.

On the other hand, the very fact that these villains are motivated by their understanding of Islam is the complicating factor. Our challenge is to protect ourselves against them without inflicting harm on the great majority of Muslims who follow their religion in an entirely reasonable manner. This requires us to repudiate the demagogues who seek to extend our legitimate revulsion at murderous zealots into the demonization of an entire religion, with accompanying restrictions on all its adherents: law enforcement practices that treat all Muslims as suspects; sweeping, arbitrary travel bans; infringements on their places of worship.

There is both a right way and a wrong way to accomplish this. The wrong way – well-motivated, but counterproductive – is to object to any reference to the self-declared Islamic motivation of the killers, or the refusal of many of their co-religionists to join in unambiguous condemnation of their crimes, by calling for “understanding” why they act so savagely or suggesting that people abstain from “provoking” them.

Ignoring ugly facts does not make them go away, and pretending that these terrible evils were not committed in the name of Allah, or that the evildoers do not derive some support – moral and otherwise – from the broader Muslim population deprives those who try to do so of any credibility. If the non-Muslim public – in the U.S. or Europe – is asked to choose between absolving Islam of any role in these horrors, or blaming all of its adherents, they are much likelier to choose the latter than the former.


The right way is to draw reality-based distinctions, acknowledging four things:

 There are tens of thousands or more Muslims whose interpretation of their sacred duty includes slaughtering others.

 While such religiously driven savagery is not exclusive to Islam historically, Islam’s followers are by far the overwhelming majority of its current practitioners.

 The great majority of Muslims neither engage in this practice nor condone it (hundreds of millions of Muslims live peacefully in the democratic nations of Indonesia and India).

 In some ways, the most troubling realization is that too many of those who are nonviolent themselves, especially in the Arab world, Iran and Pakistan, are in the category of those who refuse to support effective action to oppose the killers, and who, to invert a familiar saying, in effect praise the savages with faint damn.

This analysis leads to two recommendations for action on our part. First, we need vigorous and fair law enforcement in the U.S. and Europe. This means doing the difficult but necessary job of respecting the rights of the majority of Muslims while focusing sufficient resources – including scrutiny – on people and organizations within that community whom there is reason to suspect. This very much includes appropriate, court-supervised surveillance and the use of undercover agents. To be explicit, there is no basis for objecting to the proper employment against would-be murderous fanatics of the tactics that most of us – including civil libertarians – found entirely acceptable when used to combat the Mafia.


Doing this with full respect for the rights of the law-abiding majority in the Islamic community is important not just as a matter of right, but also to advance our second policy need: pressing that majority to play a more active part in the fight against the fanatics.

Domestically, a community that feels victimized by discriminatory law enforcement is not likely to give the authorities the co-operation they need to do their job effectively. Internationally, any perception that America follows anti-Islamic policies makes the job of both our security forces and our military much harder. And this is not just some bleeding- heart-liberal concern. A major argument from the CIA and its political allies against releasing the Senate Intelligence Committee report on interrogation was that it would cause an increase in anti-American reactions in the Middle East.

One question remains: What can the non-Islamic world ask of the peaceful majority of Muslims? Morally, I understand their argument that they have no greater obligation than anyone else to speak out – although my own personal reaction as a Jew to the minority of West Bank settlers in Israel who have terrorized innocent Arabs has been to condemn that strongly. (In 2010 the Boston Herald grossly distorted these remarks to make them seem to be a general attack on Israel.)

But there are three reasons why I wish more of them would speak out more strongly. First, they have an obvious credibility in refuting the claim that slaughtering people is compelled by the Quran. Second, the reverse of damning people with faint praise is effectively to condone their terrible acts with qualified condemnation.

Finally, it is in their self-interest: Our fight against those who use these horrors to demonize the entire religion will not otherwise succeed.

Barney Frank is a retired congressman and the author of landmark legislation. He divides his time between Maine and Massachusetts.

Twitter: BarneyFrank

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