One of the most controversial terms in the Islamic lexicon is "kafir."
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It's ordinarily taken to mean an "infidel," or just to describe someone who isn't Muslim; it's a loaded term, though, and by loaded, I mean ready to fire, like a weapon. A year ago, a Twitter account supportive of ISIS responded to one of my articles on pluralism by labeling me a "kafir." I shrugged it off, until I remembered that for jihadists, the term is tantamount to announcing a death sentence.
Groups like ISIS mostly kill Muslims, whom they judge to be insufficiently, incompletely, or falsely Muslim – and therefore worthy of murder.
But "kafir" has a far more nuanced and difficult meaning than extremists apply; the word comes from an Arabic root often used to imply burial, concealment or camouflage. A "kafir" isn't an infidel, in fact. He's not someone who just isn't Muslim, either. A "kafir" is someone who actively, with malice and ill intent, denies the truth, even though in his heart of hearts he knows it to be true. But for reasons circumstantial, existential, psychological, or otherwise, pretends otherwise.
Now, the problem with such religious language is that it's applied by believers to conditions you cannot actually determine. How do you know if someone really believes in the religion they practice, or actually disbelieves in a religion they don't practice? One of my favorite Muslim responses to acts of terrorism is to focus on the alleged or actual terrorist's religiosity. See, that guy who murdered ten people in the name of Islam was in a bar the night before, drinking. "How can he be Muslim!"
As if drinking at a bar is more dispositive than, say, murdering people. Both are contrary to religious law, but obviously not in the same way.
But we can lift a concept out of its religious context and apply it in a secular sense. To be a "kafir," in that meaning, is to know something is true, but to act otherwise. To deny the truth. You might argue that President Donald Trump doesn’t always know he’s lying, even though I’d find that hard to believe. He’s smart and resourceful enough to access enough sources of information to know when he’s wrong. Even if he wouldn’t know, surely his advisers could. And that doesn’t even begin to explain the many times he contradicts himself.
Whether it's self-aggrandizement, insecurity, or a disinterest in anything beyond self-interest, it's hard to say. But Trump and those he surrounds himself with are famous above all for one thing.
Lying. Through their teeth. Again, and again, and again.
Remember when you first heard Eskimos had 350 words for snow, or Arabs had 200 words for sand? You never knew if they were true. (Maybe you did, but I certainly didn't.) The point, however, was that some cultures had reasons to come up with many distinctions for certain concepts or realities, principally because they had a need to. I wonder, in the years to come, whether we'll find ourselves awash in multiple iterations of terms, from "alternative facts" to "alt-right," all of which hide a far more mundane and vulgar reality, Orwellian in its overdetermined, undeniable, overwhelming reality.
America has a president who doesn’t speak the truth. Which matters.
If it's not true, it's false. If you know it's not true, and you say it anyway, you're a liar. Trump has often been compared to a dumpster fire. But it's his pants that are alight. In his farewell address to the nation, President Obama struck a plaintive note when he referenced the values of the Enlightenment on which America was founded. But ever since the internet trolls came to power and occupied the White House, those of a politically liberal mind, who represent classical, constitutional values, are in danger of failing to perceive themselves for what they are: reactionary conservatives.
We have to stand up for simple, boring values, like transparency, dignity, honesty and the comportment a democracy requires. There's something almost charmingly religious about that. We can't know, of course, which of us is sincere and which of us is false, which is why we require checks and balances – for the next four, eight or, heaven help us, more years, that's our calling. To stand up for common sense. If it's not true, it's false. If it's not right, it's wrong. There's no greater, graver insult to any healthy society than to deny a common, objective reality, to which we all have access.
A world of instinct and unfounded intuition is a world without laws, democracy or basic decency.
Haroon Moghul is a Senior Fellow and Director of Development at the Center for Global Policy. He is president of Avenue Meem, a new media company. Follow him on Twitter: @hsmoghul