Why I Refuse to Lie About Islam

“Who cares whether it's a perversion of Islam or not?” The subject was terrorism, specifically the attack at London Bridge, and after the politicians had made their usual statements to the effect that this atrocity had nothing whatsoever to do with Islam, or was (at most) a terrible betrayal or perversion or hijacking thereof, several of us expressed the usual outrage over this barefaced lie. But one friend of mine, quoted above, wasn't having it. “Who,” he asked, “cares?”

It's a common question, posed routinely by millions of people who sincerely think that focusing on Islam in the wake of terrorist acts only makes things worse. Yes, the politicians may be lying through their teeth when they accuse terrorists of hijacking Islam, but these lies, we're told, are benign lies, which help to avoid giving unnecessary insult, to prevent increased radicalization, and to preserve social cohesion. Why, then, not just go along with the pretense that the terrorists' ideology is a perversion of Islam?

Quick answer: It's a matter of living with the truth. For some of us, that's important. People who have lived under totalitarian regimes but who now enjoy freedom understand this in a way that suburban American twenty-somethings may not. No, none of us can ever know the whole truth about any subject. But if we live in a free country, we are free to inquire, to study, to struggle for knowledge of the truth, and that is a freedom to be cherished.

Equally precious is our right to articulate the truth and act responsibly upon it. There are whole lives based on lies, whole marriages based on lies, and whole societies based on lies. To study Communist history is to see what kind of society takes shape when people feel compelled to assent to the truth of a proposition that they know to be false. I've just begun reading Orlando Figes's 2007 book The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia, described on its back cover as “the story of ordinary people in Stalin's Russia, a world where everyone was afraid to talk and a society spoke in whispers.” A society, in short, of necessary lies and forbidden truths.

I know that that is not the kind of society my friend and most of those who share his views would like to live in. Presumably they believe that universal voluntary assent to a single lie about the subject of Islam would be, on balance, a positive pragmatic act, not a major sacrifice. I could not disagree more. Even if universal assent to a lie begins as voluntary, the assent soon ends up being mandatory and speaking the truth becomes a crime. And freedom, just like that, is lost.