OPINION: “All for a Good Cause? Islamic State and the Delusions of ‘Salvational Cause Amorality’,” ABC Religion and Ethics, Australian Broadcasting Corporation

By Khaled Abou El Fadl


There are those who seem to live blissfully confident of their own moral salvation. They covet whatever they covet, and might wrestle with their resolve, but they have this undaunted, deeply entrenched belief in their own absolution.


What will save or absolve them? It does not matter; it could be anything. It could be God, church, or country, or their flag, or perhaps their constitution, their forefathers and heritage, or their prized books or movies, or even nothing more than their coddled egos. This is what one might call salvational cause amorality - the tendency by some to believe that regardless of their misconduct and misdeeds, their cause is sufficient to entitle them to absolution and ultimate salvation.


I believe that nothing can earn a person absolution other than a full internal accounting of what they have done, and what they continue to do to others. No one can pay for the sins of another, and no one can absolve one of the sins inflicted upon others. No amount of deliberation and contrition is worthwhile unless it unravels and cleanses the ugliness in the heart that drives one, not just to inflict harm, but to be oblivious to the suffering of others.


Even if, as an act of grace, God promises salvation, ultimately, this does nothing to restore the moral rectitude of a person. In theological terms, it is that moral rectitude, and only that, which reconciles a person to godliness and divinity and is thus a human's true absolution.


It is profoundly disturbing to witness the sickening abominations committed by those who presume that their cause excuses and justifies anything. These are the people who cannot feel or suffer the pain of the other if that other falls in the blind spot of their salvational cause.


What I mean by salvational cause is whatever purpose motivates people to feel justified in ignoring ethical boundaries, and also to adopt a sense of moral entitlement towards depriving others of their life, dignity, or personhood. The range of salvational causes is practically limitless, but whether religion, ideology, nation, family, wealth, happiness, love, or any other sentiment, they are reverentially served while infusing their adherents with a false sense of moral rectitude and ethical well-being.

The tragic reality is that any cause that is used to excuse the inexcusable and to perpetuate ugliness becomes a cause of shame and damnation, and not absolution and salvation.


Why put the problem of ugliness and cruelty in this way? Why not simply say that the ends do not justify the means and leave it at that? I think the problem is not adequately vetted by the means-ends language because of the ease by which we often reduce this mean-ends equation to a mere relational dynamic. Very often, we do end up affirming and validating the idea that the ends do in fact justify the means when we make arguments based on proportionality.


In American jurisprudence, for instance, the more compelling and necessary the ends, the more accepting are we of the means. So if the ends are important enough, we might end up accepting any means as valid and legitimate. This is exactly how we end up with the practice of targeted killings and drone attacks. Since the end is national security, we allow a great deal of unfettered discretion in pursuing those purported ends, even if the means are grotesquely immoral.


The reason I emphasize the language of salvational cause amorality is that I am deeply troubled by the tendency among so many to treat causes as if they can absolve oneself of the duty to act morally. Indeed, such causes often replace the very drive to hold oneself ethically responsible, or to scrutinize the moral consequences of one's own actions. This is also why I use the word amoral and not immoral. What is particularly troubling about the logic of salvational causes is that it tempts otherwise moral human beings to be more self-forgiving towards their own moral failures.


Recently, I put myself through the grueling chore of watching Islamic State videos posted on YouTube. It was not long before I was beside myself with absolute disgust at the ease by which these people dispatched the wounded, indulged in executions, and pursued and killed panicked and terrified retreating soldiers.


In the same night, I watched Iraqi soldiers torturing captured Islamic State fighters by slashing their backs with knives and rubbing salt in their wounds before executing them. However, it was a comment made by one of the Iraqi soldiers that captured my attention. His comment was something to the effect that normally torturing the captives and spitting on the corpses of the dead would be haram (a sin or immoral), but not in the case of these people because they are no better than insects.


We know from psychology that perpetrators of cruelty objectify and dehumanize their victims. However, I am struck by how often we as human beings inflict harm upon others, or ignore the harm inflicted upon others, while maintaining our belief that our own essential moral rectitude remains intact. Put simply, people will often inflict harm without even bothering to demonize their victims. But even more, otherwise morally conscientious people will tolerate immoral situations where people are made to suffer without taking account of their own moral responsibility.


Islamic State and similar puritanical organizations exhibit an extreme case of salvational amorality. Whether their cause is the Caliphate, addressing historical wrongs, or the glory of God, they have detached themselves from the impulse to think morally because they believe that regardless of their conduct, they have been absolved by God. Indeed, they believe that God's absolution has made ethical thinking altogether unnecessary. Their moral obligation is limited to obeying what they believe is God's law.


But their system of belief creates numerous insolvable theological problems. Among many other things, they render the Qur'anic obligation to bear witness in justice entirely meaningless. Shari'ah is supposed to be the source of life and the means to human flourishing, but the puritanical understanding of Shari'ah renders it into a way of inflicting suffering and death as a means to establishing the supremacy of the chosen people (namely, the true believers), and then only those chosen people would be entitled to mercy, compassion and justice.


As I explain in my book The Great Theft, this is a complete corruption of Islamic theology and ethics, and makes the Muslim merciful God into a God who is unmerciful to all except those who obey the presumptive law of God - the law of God as they understand and interpret it. This becomes entirely incoherent when we recall that all of humanity inherited the earth, and not just Muslims, and that all people were made the vicegerents of God and not just the believers. The foundational obligation God gave to those vicegerents is to seek what is good and condemn what is wrong. This mandates an investigation into the nature and meaning of goodness and its opposite, and this obligation is not discharged by acts of blind obedience but by the process of reflection, investigation and enlightenment.


In my view, salvational cause amorality, or failing to critically engage the ethical quality of one's own actions because one assumes absolution and forgiveness by God, is antithetical to the Islamic message. To be clear, I am not deconstructing the theology of martyrdom in Islam. But martyrdom is quintessentially the act of witnessing through self-sacrifice, and witnessing presumes the existence of a moral agent who reflects, decides to bear witness and takes moral responsibility for his or her actions.


But other than the existence of people like Islamic State capable of committing genocidal violence in the name of religion, there is a far more pervasive and equally troubling phenomenon. I could put it this way: I have often felt very puzzled and disheartened by the number of colleagues and friends who have a strong commitment in favour of the state of Israel, who are normally highly moral and reflective individuals, and yet these highly ethical and learned individuals suddenly suffer from a near epistemic block when it comes to critically thinking about the brutalization of the Palestinians. When it comes to thinking about this salvational cause (that is, Israel as a Jewish state), so many morally responsible people become oblivious to the systematic and unrelenting subjugation of a people living under occupation.


This heedless and derelict attitude is assumed because of the importance of the salvational cause of Israel to some people. This is not to make excuses for the existence of this epistemic block. In fact, the more one is aware of the existence of such cause, the more the ethical duty to resist the temptation to absolve and forgive one's self.


For instance, some Muslims might feel passionately about the rebirth of the Islamic Caliphate. But if as a Muslim I feel passionately about this cause, the greater the moral responsibility upon me to scrutinize the harms inflicted in the name of this cause, and the more vigilant I must be in holding myself accountable for the wrongs committed in the pursuit of the cause.


Returning to the point with which I began, it is important to emphasize that salvational cause amorality is not limited to major or pivotal causes. It is as common and pervasive as ethical obliviousness and neglect. It is also as endemic to the human condition as our tendency to make excuses for ourselves that we would not accept from others.


We witness this moral failure to be ethically vigilant every day in the United States as our government continues to assassinate and murder people around the world in what is commonly referred to as "dirty warfare." Even worse, every single year the United States government kills hundreds of people in drone attacks that often go unreported and virtually unnoticed. Whether it is for patriotism, for fear of a repeat of 9/11, or some other cause, we absolve ourselves of moral responsibility while paradoxically continuing to see ourselves as ethically responsible and upright.


I think that forgiveness is necessary for salvation, and self-forgiveness is an essential ingredient of moral health. However, if self-forgiveness becomes an indulgent act undertaken at the expense of others, it becomes an immoral act. Self-forgiveness means little without repentance, but repentance is meaningless without first acknowledging one's responsibility and accountability. Religious people who are convinced that they will earn God's grace and go to heaven regardless of their treatment of others often become dangerous. Equally dangerous, however, are those who absolve themselves of responsibility because they believe that their cause is sufficient to earn them immunity from the moral consequences of their conduct.


In short, self-indulgence at the expense of others is as common a human vice as any. But when we presume to absolve ourselves of wrongs for a good cause, this is when we are at high risk of becoming ugly. The road to hell is paved not just with good intentions, but even more so with good causes.


Originally published on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Religion and Ethics Website.