Taliban propagandists are desperate to portray their drive for power as a defense of Islam. After the Taliban murdered 10 members of a medical aid team last week in northern Afghanistan, a Taliban spokesman tried to justify the attack on the grounds that the victims were trying to convert Afghans to Christianity.
There was no truth to the allegation. The 10 who died were idealists who had trekked across 16,000-foot mountain peaks to provide eye care to villagers in an isolated valley. They had indeed been sponsored by a Christian charity, the International Assistance Mission, but that organization has been working in Afghanistan since 1966, under a monarchy, a communist regime, warlords, and the Taliban; its aid workers understand Afghan customs and sensibilities and have scrupulously obeyed prohibitions against religious proselytizing.
But the propagandists are appealing to deeply embedded emotions touching on faith and communal identity. This is all the more reason for American politicians and public figures to avoid falling into the trap of claiming that Islam is synonymous with violence or terrorism. The Taliban win the propaganda war — and escape blame for murdering innocent aid workers — once they have provoked their opponents into speaking the language of a religious conflict.