You surely know of the brutal murder of captive American journalist James Foley by the Muslim extremist group ISIS (I’ll call them that, though it’s also known as IS as well as ISIL, as Obama calls it below). Foley was kidnapped in November of 2012 and was held hostage until his murder a few days ago. Apparently his family received a message from ISIS that if the U.S. did not stop its recent bombing attacks on the group, they would kill Foley. And that they did, through a brutal beheading. He was 40 years old.
Although Foley’s death got special attention, as he was an American, a reporter, and because ISIS murdered him in a particularly public way, we mustn’t forget that he’s only one of thousands of people murdered by this gang of faithful but soulless religious thugs. It’s easy to find photos of people in Iraq and Syria being led away in groups for execution: shooting or beheading.
The solution to this problem eludes me. Bombing is not a long term solution. Sending American troops to Iraq won’t work, as new militants will simply spring up to replace the ones we eliminate, and Americans will no longer tolerate a futile Middle East intervention.
Obama, after calling Foley’s family with a message of condolence, made some eloquent remarks about him that are reported in the Washington Post. The video is below. I applaud his resolve, but am concerned about how he uses this speech to avoid laying any blame on Islam.
If you parse this statement carefully, you’ll find two ways that Obama tries to exculpate religion for the brutal deeds of ISIS. And this despite ISIS’s repeated and explicit claims that they are completely motivated by Islam—by the desire to extablish the Caliphate, impose sharia law on the lands they conquer, and to extirpate “apostates” (non-Muslims). They often offer their captives the choice to convert to Islam or die, with many choosing the latter. Despite that, Obama says both implicitly and explicitly that Islam is not to blame. This, of course, is a political statement designed to avoid offending Muslims, especially those who don’t share ISIS’s “values.”
First, Obama calls the group “nihilists”:
There has to be a clear rejection of this kind of nihilistic ideologies.
But if you know what nihilism is, you’ll know clearly that ISIS is not nihilistic, for nihilism rejects religion. Here’s the definition from the Oxford English Dictionary:
Nihlism: Total rejection of prevailing religious beliefs, moral principles, laws, etc., often from a sense of despair and the belief that life is devoid of meaning. Also more generally (merging with extended use of sense 3) [“the doctrines or principles of the Russian nihilists”]: negativity, destructivenes, hostility to accepted beliefs or established institutions.”
Now most Americans don’t know that definition, but surely the speechwriter did. And surely if ISIS is anything, it is not nihilistic, for they kill in the name of a religious ideology—an Islamist ideology.
More important, Obama takes a bit of time to argue that ISIS “speaks for no religion”:
Let’s be clear about ISIL. They have rampaged across cities and villages killing innocent, unarmed civilians in cowardly acts of violence. They abduct women and children and subject them to torture and rape and slavery. They have murdered Muslims, both Sunni and Shia, by the thousands. They target Christians and religious minorities, driving them from their homes, murdering them when they can, for no other reason than they practice a different religion.
They declared their ambition to commit genocide against an ancient people. So ISIL speaks for no religion. Their victims are overwhelmingly Muslim, and no faith teaches people to massacre innocents. No just god would stand for what they did yesterday and what they do every single day.
But surely ISIS speaks for a religion: its own interpretation of Islam. That interpretation isn’t, of course, shared by many other Muslims, but the group is still speaking and acting on the basis of religious beliefs, and is killing and conquering in the name of Islam. What Obama is doing here is arguing that ISIS’s form of faith is not “proper” or “real” faith. It is “not Islam.” But of course it is, just as Pentecostals are Christians. And just because ISIS kills Shiite Muslims and those of other faiths doesn’t mean that they are not motivated by Islam. They’re simply members of an extremist Sunni group. In fact, when Obama says they kill Christians and others because “they practice a different religion,” he’s tacitly admitting this.
Finally, when Obama asserts that “no just god would stand for what [ISIL] did,” I’m confused. One interpretation is that there is no God, just or otherwise. But that’s clearly not what Obama, who professes faith, means. If Obama believes in God, as do over 90% of Americans, then he’s implying one of two things. Either God is not just (after all, ISIS is pretty successful), or the American people must exact God’s revenge for Him. Since Obama must maintain that God is just, we’re left with the message that America must go after ISIS on God’s behalf. And, in fact, the President’s message clearly states that we will hold the group, and Foley’s murderers, to account.
We know why Obama says these things. He’s trying to avoid blaming religion for any of the world’s malfeasance. In fact, I doubt that, as President, he’s ever blamed religion for anything bad. It’s political suicide to go after religion even when, as in the case of ISIS, religious belief is clearly behind acts of violence. But did he have to make the claims that “ISIS stands for no religion” and is “nihilistic”? Why couldn’t he have at least remained silent about their motivations?
In effect, Obama has given religion a pass here, even in its most brutal and deadly form. Just once in my life I’d like to hear an American President tell it like it is. Ideology can be based on many things, and religion is one of them.
If we deny the true motivations of our enemies, can we really fight them effectively—even in the war of ideas?