Overview:

The United States is not immune from the religious terrorism that has historically bedeviled much of the world.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

You think the Afghan Taliban are bad?

They’re relative sweethearts compared to their domestic arch-nemesis, the ruthless Islamic State affiliate known as Islamic State in Korasan Province, or IS-K for short. But make no mistake, ISIS and their ilk are both truly evil.

As these two rival Muslim terrorist groups continue modeling their claimed superior piety and authority in Afghanistan as elsewhere in the Mideast, they demonstrate how fluidly religious ideology can devolve into violent, murderous authoritarianism—anywhere.

[T]he more racist attitudes a person holds, the more likely he or she is to identify as a white Christian.

Robert P. Jones, head of the Public Religion Research Institute

So before condemning these Afghan terrorist organizations, one of which (the Taliban) is ruling their country now, we Americans should consider sweeping our own porch first.

Religious violence is not confined to Third World

As I’ve alluded to many times before, ruthless religious bigotry is not unique to ultra-conservative Third World countries. We have our own religious extremists right here in America, who intimidate, maim, and kill people for their views (e.g., attacking abortion clinic staff or persecuting gay people for their supposedly Bible-condemned sinfulness). These intractable modern-day “Pharisees” attack citizens not for their faith, per se, or lack of it, but for not being faithful to their persecutors’ faith, which in the U.S. is Christianity.

It’s not a small problem.

In 2021, FBI Director Christopher Wray warned Congress of the evolving and growing threat to national security from home-grown “racially motivated violent extremism”:

“I would certainly say, as I think I’ve said consistently in the past, that racially motivated violent extremism, specifically of the sort that advocates for the superiority of the white race, is a persistent, evolving threat. It’s the biggest chunk of our racially motivated violent extremism cases for sure. And racially motivated violent extremism is the biggest chunk of our domestic terrorism portfolio, if you will, overall.”

These scary people are largely white Christian nationalists and followers of evangelical denominations, and they make up a huge proportion of Donald Trump’s much-vaunted voter base.

Faith and racism coalesce

A recent New Yorker article quotes Robert P. Jones, head of the Public Religion Research Institute, from his book, White Too Long:

[T]he more racist attitudes a person holds, the more likely he or she is to identify as a white Christian. If you were recruiting for a white supremacist cause on a Sunday morning, you’d likely have more success hanging out in the parking lot of an average white Christian church—evangelical Protestant, mainline Protestant, or Catholic—than approaching whites sitting out services at the local coffee shop.”

Christianity in America has a long pedigree of justifying racism, even slavery, by quoting scripture.

In his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Civil War-era anti-slavery activist Douglass, a freed slave, recounted his disappointment after his previous owner, Thomas Auld, became a Christian. A New Yorker article notes that Douglass had hoped Auld’s new piety “might lead him to emancipate his slaves, or at least ‘make him more kind and humane.’”

“If (his conversion) had any effect on his character, it made him more cruel and hateful in all his ways,” Douglass wrote, despite Auld’s newfound passion for ‘praying morning, noon and night. “I have seen him tie up a lame young woman, and whip her with a heavy cowskin upon her naked shoulders, causing the warm red blood to drip; and, in justification of the bloody deed, he would quote this passage of Scripture—‘He that knoweth his master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes.’”

Corpses of beheaded felons hung in public

When we denigrate the ancient backwardness of Afghanistan and other wayward theocracies that inflict suffering on their populaces in the name of God, we shouldn’t be too smug. Afghan authorities just this month, for example, executed supposed kidnappers and then hung their corpses in a public square as a grotesque example of the huge cost of civil disobedience in that oppressive land.

Religious authorities in the failed state, with government backing, also recently ruled that men are now prohibited for cutting their beards, or not having them at all, because the prophet Muhammad supposedly had one. And women were thrown off public transport because they did not have a male guardian with them. All because of ingrained cultural practices over long centuries, like the veiling of women and enforced chastity, that have become inextricably and often unjustifiably linked to religious dogma.

Indeed, we Americans, too, have a long history of demanding women’s bodies be modestly shrouded in public and for centuries have enforced chastity with cruel shaming, or worse. Of course, those once-mandated cultural norms have significantly eased in recent decades as the nation grows more secular, but the embedded traditional assumptions behind them remain in many, many minds.

Trump made racist religiosity mainstream

As Michael Luo wrote in his New Yorker piece, the divinities of the distant past are also still very much with us in the U.S. and are being culturally appropriated on a wide basis, particularly since the advent of now-former President Donald Trump.

“In some sense,” Leo wrote. “Trump’s Presidency has merely given modern form to racist attitudes that have long festered in American Christianity.”

This is not to say that the Taliban and IS-K aren’t far worse than faith-based bigotry in the U.S., particularly the latter. They are.

Since IS-K established itself in eastern Afghanistan in 2014, it has been involved in a number of mass-casualty attacks, mainly on minority-faith Shiite mosques, including a school assault that killed 80 girls in 2020, months before the Taliban took power. The Sunni denomination is the Islamic theocracy’s official religion. In the latest attack in late April 2021, an IS-K bomb of a Shiite mosque killed 33 worshippers and wounded 33.

If it happened among Christians in the U.S., it would be like Baptists bombing Catholics. Or white Americans attacking churches full of black Americans, as has happened many times in the past.

The recent IS-K Afghan bomb was detonated remotely at a moment the killers were certain the worship service was fully packed with true believers.

In what moral universe would that be a godly act? In what country?

What does this all mean for us? That when invisible deities are fully embraced, no one and no place is ultimately safe.

Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...