During the interfaith panel that I was on recently, in my response to the question of whether there is a heaven, I said that the concept of heaven was not merely a harmless fantasy but harmful because it led people to do awful things in the belief that it would help them get into heaven. I mentioned Islamic terrorists who had committed recent atrocities and the Christian terrorist who gunned down the abortion providers in the belief that he would receive the grateful thanks of fetuses in heaven. I could have, if I had the time, listed Jewish, Buddhist, and Hindu terrorist acts as well.
The Muslim panelist took issue with me and said that it was wrong to call these people Muslim and Christian terrorists because these were not truly religious people and their crimes should not be attributed to their religious beliefs. It was an interesting comment that I could not respond to at that time because the format was not that of a debate.
I think that the problem with a description of ‘[religious] terrorist’ (insert the religion) is not with the religion part but with the word terrorist. All too often it is not defined objectively but is used pejoratively to describe those who are perceived as the enemy. As the old saying goes, one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. But assuming that one can arrive at an agreed upon definition of what constitutes terrorist acts, then I see no problem with labeling anyone who publicly professes to committing such acts in the name of their religion as a religious terrorist.
The defense of the Muslim panelist falls into the ‘No true Scotsman’ category that allows people to disown members of their group when they do something that embarrasses the group.
The idea that there is some ideal type that sets a standard for belonging is hard to sustain. For example, we now accept that there is no Platonic ideal of each species, with variations from the ideal being considered aberrations. We accept that variations are all there is. The same is true of languages. Some talk of dialects as if they are aberrations from the true language but in reality, there is no true language. Dialects are all we have and there is no rule that forces us to pick one of them as the standard.
The same is true for religion. I can well understand why leaders of religions want to disassociate themselves from the actions of people who commit appalling acts. But it is disingenuous for them to suggest that they are not representatives of their ‘true religion’. There is no true religion of any kind, in the sense of some kind of distilled essence that everyone subscribes to and nothing more. There are only religions as practiced by individuals and these are as varied as individuals, although people who subscribe to any specific religion share some common features.
So it seems to me to be perfectly justified to label someone as a Christian/Islamic/Jewish/Buddhist/Hindu/other terrorist if they commit an act that can be fairly labeled terrorist and they claim to be doing it in the service of that religion.