Carmen M. Ortiz, US Attorney for the District of Massachusetts
After Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was sentenced yesterday, Massachusetts US Attorney Carmen Ortiz gave a press conference at which she hastened to assure us that his crime was "A crime of terrorism, a crime not religiously-motivated... And he couched his comments in line with Allah and Allah's views, which gives it a religious tone and there was nothing – as you heard Judge O'Toole say in the courtroom – there was nothing about this crime that was Islam-associated." Apparently the press wasn't buying it, because in response to an inaudible reporter's question, Ortiz doubled down: "That is a skewed view of the religion of Islam. That is not what Islam is all about... It's a radical ideology which really isn't at the heart of what is truly a peaceful and loving religion."
This is not a new theme for Ortiz, who offered similar views on May 15 following the jury's decision to impose the death penalty. "The defendant claimed to be acting on behalf of all Muslims. This was not a religious crime," she insisted, "and it certainly does not reflect true Muslim beliefs."
We have received similar assurances from others in the current administration, including President Obama, and from President Bush before him. It appears to reflect a desire not to smear all Muslims with the deeds of a few, and that impulse is commendable.
Nevertheless, it is very troubling and very dangerous, for two reasons. Most obviously, it is a refusal to accept reality – namely, that these crimes are very much about Islam and represent an ideology which, though it is not shared by all Muslims and many Muslims oppose it, is at least an offshoot of Islam which many Muslims do believe authentically represents their faith. If you can't correctly identify who or what you are fighting, you can't defeat it, to paraphrase former US Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn.
More importantly, it is not the business of the United States government to decide what is "true" religion (any religion) and what is heresy. That is the foundation of the (non-) Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. By arrogating to themselves the right to determine what is authentic Islam, federal officials are making themselves religious authorities, and dangerously eroding the separation between church (mosque?) and state.