I was talking on the phone to an American friend the other day and he said, “The Terrorists are evil and so is Islam, their religion.” I told him the head of Australia’s version of the CIA (ASIO) had recently said that such statements are not only wrong but also cause great damage to Australian citizens of Islamic descent, creating a dangerous “we” versus “they” attitude in Australian society. He persisted, telling me of the Sunni / Shai conflict that had been present since the birth of the Moslem religion, which proved (to him at least) that the roots of Islam were tied to war and intolerance. Neither of us actually know very much about Islam so the whole conversation was flawed. Nonetheless, I’m sure such conversations are common these days, hence I’m writing this blog.
What is evil? Who are evil persons?
I instantly called the hooded young man with the knife at the throat of the journalist evil. “He is evil.” Certainly the act of murder of an innocent person is a horrific act. Few of us would debate that. The question I’m raising is what do we mean when we say an individual person is evil (not his act) — and then extrapolate from that person’s evil to the larger group of which he is a member. The syllogism is as follows:
- That person is evil
- That person is a Muslim
- All Muslims are evil
It must be obvious that such reasoning is wrong on many levels.
First of all, as I have already stated, an act can be immoral without the person necessarily being evil himself. I have done some immoral acts in my life, but I don’t consider myself an evil person. I haven’t given myself over to evil completely and intentionally. It was wrong for me to say, “That person is evil.” His act was evil, not necessarily his entire being and purpose.
Secondly, what do we mean when we say “That person is a Muslim?” That he is observed to praying to Allah several times a day? What is in his heart and does it represent the ideals of Islam? What are those ideals when it comes to acts of terrorism? None of us can confidently answer these questions because they involve the condition of a man’s heart and his understanding of what it means to be a Muslim. There are very different views, I sense, about terrorism within the Muslim community.
Thirdly, any statement of the form “All ____ are ____” is wrong in most instances on the face of it. There is simply no way to verify a statement like that and so it is prejudice, pure and simple. (Notice that I did not say all statements like that are always wrong. I would have been making the same mistake.)
But what is evil? Is there a distinction between immorality and evil? Why isn’t the terrorist simply being immoral when he beheads a journalist or flys a plane into the World Trade Tower?
To me immorality seems to have to do with violating the 10 Commandments. Evil is a deeper, nihilistic act, denying even the existence of moral rules and even civilisation itself. Evil wishes to destroy everything ultimately, while immorality wants its own pleasure regardless of the consequences but doesn’t want to destroy everything since it would not longer have the things that give it pleasure. We sense terrorists actually don’t care about anything we care about; they simply hate everything we stand for (and, it seems, even their own religion as well). In that sense, a person who commits immoral acts is also evil if he has a consuming hatred for mankind and loves death (as terrorists often proclaim).
Notice that I said terrorists not Muslims. It may be possible to sense that a particular terrorist is evil from their statements. It may also be possible to see some external evidence that they are Muslims — but part 3 of the syllogism is simply not supportable. One cannot infer from individual acts or even groups like Al Qaeda that “all Muslims are evil.”