Demonizing radical Islam diminishes our own humanity

Sam Chapman

I’m stealing a bit from my thesis-in-progress to begin making this point. Beloved “Lord of the Rings” author J.R.R. Tolkien has often been accused of racism, due to his unfortunate tendency to characterize his players based on their ancestry: elves like forests, dwarves like beer, orcs like human flesh. It’s the “human flesh” part that concerns me today, as I have lately discovered I am very uncomfortable with the depiction of any segment of human society as, for lack of a better phrase, a bunch of orcs.

This belief, deeply rooted, has put me in the awkward position of defending ISIS, convicted child murderers and the Charlie Hebdo shooters. So I wanted to use this column space to explain myself.

Radical Islam is the news story that has put this debate in my mind, so it’s the place to begin. I’ve observed enough events seemingly fueled by Islam to know there is a certain progression of responses they tend to evoke. Most will stand in solidarity with the victims, interested in recovery and not in blame. But some, driven by a natural desire to understand, will condemn Islam itself for allegedly inspiring violence and hatred due to its very nature.

Here is where it becomes more predictable: There will be a defence, partly along the lines that none of the pillars of Islam reward violence, partly that a large and diverse group of people has no obligation to defend itself against its worst associates, and partly that other religions have inspired just as many evil deeds, from the Crusades and Inquisition to the Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate suicides.

All of these are natural and understandable, but the last one is the most interesting to me because it’s what finally takes this out of the realm of religion, which, as it goes, takes with it the dynamic of orcs and elves. To make evil universal makes it at the same time personal: Instead of thinking that anybody who would join ISIS or commit rape is so evil they do not deserve the usual human dues of mercy and pity, I am forced to deal with the presence of darkness in my own soul.

To do the opposite –– to declare any subset of man to be a cancer on the species –– is comforting, but wrong. It is easy to declare what I will never do. It is harder to face the potential that I could murder or rape or abuse power, but that confrontation is the only reliable way to keep evil at bay.

I hold this belief deeply, and it sounds very broad, but it has policy implications as well. For a long time I have opposed the death penalty because “we must not sink to the murderer’s level” is in fact another way of phrasing what I stated above. But this goes further. It is the right of a state to fight actions, and actions alone; we must never go to war against people.

Unity, like that which has flourished in the wake of the Paris killings, is the other equally powerful side of this coin. But we have to remember that it is not the unity of a side in a clash. To steal again from my thesis, Smeagol is present in “The Lord of the Rings” for a reason: He cautions us against imputing susceptibility to corruption only to subhuman groups of which we could never be members. Being good requires a stronger basis than the hatred of miserable slinking things.