If you’ve heard the speeches and comments about terrorism that President Obama has issued over the past week, you’ll have noticed an obvious omission: there’s virtually no mention of religion or Islam as a factor in the terrorist acts of individuals or groups like ISIS. When the President does mention religion, he disavows that it has any connection with terrorism, and avers that the supposedly Islamic motivations of terrorists “aren’t really Islamic.” The three-day conference on terrorism that Obama convened this week was called “Countering violent extremism.” The word “religious” might have been inserted before the last word.
After that conference, Obama gave a good example of his circumlocution, which I find not only embarrassing but duplicitous:
“Leading up to this summit, there’s been a fair amount of debate in the press and among pundits about the words we use to describe and frame this challenge, so I want to be very clear about how I see it,” the president said. “Al Qaeda and ISIL and groups like it are desperate for legitimacy. They try to portray themselves as religious leaders, holy warriors in defense of Islam.”
But Mr. Obama said that “we must never accept the premise that they put forward, because it is a lie.” The operatives of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, “are not religious leaders — they’re terrorists,” he said.
The lie here is not from ISIS, but from Obama. This mendacity is starting to anger me, for it’s an obvious avoidance of an obvious cause. ISIS and the murderers in Denmark and Paris are palpably motivated largely—if not solely—by their religious beliefs. They say so! And ISIS and Al-Qaeda are indeed “holy warriors in defense of Islam,” even if we don’t like how they conceive of Islam or what they’re doing to defend it.
Yet Obama won’t admit it this out of either deference for religion or, as noted below, fear of angering Muslim states that are our allies; and it’s all starting to look pretty ridiculous. The ex-mayor of New York City, Rudy Gulianai, described Obama as “not loving America” because of this avoidance, and while that’s completely stupid, even cooler heads are beginning to fault the President for studiously avoiding the topic of Islam. The criticism has become so pervasive that the New York Times had a front-page article about it yesterday, “Faulted for avoiding ‘Islamic’ labels to describe terrorism, White House cites a strategic logic.”
[Obama] and his aides have avoided labeling acts of brutal violence by Al Qaeda, the so-called Islamic State and their allies as “Muslim” terrorism or describing their ideology as “Islamic” or “jihadist.”
With remarkable consistency — including at a high-profile White House meeting this week, “Countering Violent Extremism” — they have favored bland, generic terms over anything that explicitly connects attacks or plots to Islam.
Obama aides say there is a strategic logic to his vocabulary: Labeling noxious beliefs and mass murder as “Islamic” would play right into the hands of terrorists who claim that the United States is at war with Islam itself. The last thing the president should do, they say, is imply that the United States lumps the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims with vicious terrorist groups.
The other reason, of course, is that we don’t want to piss off our Muslim “allies” like Lebanon, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia by supposedly impugning the dominant religion of those nations.
Both reasons seem nonsensical to me. The second can easily be defused if Obama just called such terrorism a manifestation of “a murderous and brutal strain of Islam,” which lets all the non-murderous and non-brutal Muslims off the hook. The first rationale—that if we call ISIS a form of Islamic terrorism it will further inflame them and bring them recruits—is equally ludicrous. ISIS already admits that it’s an Islamic organization. Are we supposed to believe that if Obama states that ISIS is what it admits to being, but then qualifies that by saying that most Muslims deplore its violence, his statement will nevertheless bring a stream of recruits to ISIS and other organizations?
But what is gained by calling a Muslim a Muslim? The critics make these arguments:
But Mr. Obama’s verbal tactics have become a target for a growing chorus of critics who believe the evasive language is a sign that he is failing to look squarely at the threat from militant Islam. The vague phrasing, they say, projects uncertainty and weakness at a time when extremists claiming to fight for Islam threaten America and its interests around the world.
“Part of this is a semantic battle, but it’s a semantic battle that goes to deeper issues,” said Peter Wehner, a veteran of the past three Republican administrations and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “Self-deception is not a good idea in politics or international affairs. We’re lying to ourselves, and the world knows it.”
While the most vehement criticism has come from Mr. Obama’s political opponents on the right, a few liberals and former security officials have begun to echo the criticism.
“You cannot defeat an enemy that you do not admit exists,” Michael T. Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general and director of the Defense Intelligence Agency from 2012 to 2014, told a House hearing last week. “I really, really strongly believe that the American public needs and wants moral, intellectual and really strategic clarity and courage on this threat.”
Akbar Ahmed, chairman of Islamic studies at American University and author of a book on Islam in America, said he supported the Obama administration’s care in avoiding a counterproductive smear of all Muslims. But he said the president sometimes seemed to bring an academic approach to a visceral, highly politicized discussion.
“Obama’s reaching a point where he may have to ditch this almost scholastic position,” Mr. Ahmed said. “He sounds like a distinguished professor in the ivory tower, and he may have to come down into the hurly-burly of politics.”
I also agree that we shouldn’t smear all Muslims in this battle, for most Muslims say they deplore this violence. (I have to add, though, that many who don’t participate in the violence nevertheless seem to celebrate it, as evidenced by celebrations in much of the Arab world after terrorist attacks on the West. It’s only when the Islamic violence hits close to home, as it did with the Egyptian Copts murdered in Libya and the Jordanian pilot burned alive, that these states swing into action.)
Obama has turned into a political Reza Aslan, denying the obvious.
So if we admit that we’re fighting extremist Islam, will that help us defeat them? I’m not sure, though Graeme Wood argues that we can’t defeat an enemy if we don’t understand or admit what’s motivating them. But I do value truth above lies, or at least Obama’s deceptive circumlocutions, and it’s not clear that admitting who we’re fighting, and what they’re fighting for (they want a caliphate, for crying out loud!) will hurt us. Further as Peter Bergen notes in the CNN piece described below, admitting that terrorism has an Islamic cause makes it more urgent for us to press Muslim nations to address that explicitly and criticize the forms of Islam that breed violence and hatred.
And there’s a greater issue: the coddling of religion by refusing to admit that it can spawn horrors like ISIS. If we keep imputing the bad things that religion does to other causes, like colonialism or poverty, we’ll never make progress toward ridding the world of harmful superstition. (And, as I always argue, to rid the world of superstition we must also rid it of the social dysfunction that breeds religion.) It is those on the fence about faith who need to clearly see its consequences, and the more we point out the connection between faith and harmful behavior, the faster we’ll rid the world of those delusions.
Speaking of the supposed nonreligious causes of terrorism, you can read a frank analysis that issue, and of of the religious roots of Islamic terrorism, in an article by CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen: “Nonsense about terrorism’s ‘root causes‘”. After showing that terrorism (and the leadership of organizations like ISIS) is by and large a middle-class operation, not usually driven by poverty or disenfranchisement, Bergen goes after Obama’s duplicity:
So if it’s clearly not deprivation that is driving much Islamist terrorism, what is?
For that we must turn to ideology, specifically religious ideology. And this is where the Obama administration has to perform some pretzel logic. It is careful to explain that the war on ISIS is not a war on Islam and that ISIS’ ideology is a perversion of the religion. Fair enough. But the administration seems uncomfortable with making the connection between Islamist terrorism and ultra-fundamentalist forms of Islam that are intolerant of other religions and of other Muslims who don’t share their views to the letter.
ISIS may be a perversion of Islam, but Islamic it is, just as Christian beliefs about the sanctity of the unborn child explain why some Christian fundamentalists attack abortion clinics and doctors. But, of course, murderous Christian fundamentalists are not killing many thousands of civilians a year. More than 80% of the world’s terrorist attacks take place in five Muslim-majority countries — Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan and Syria — and are largely carried out by groups with Islamist beliefs.
. . . The Taliban and other Islamist terrorist groups are not, of course, secular organizations. To treat them as if they were springs from some combination of wishful thinking, PC gone crazy and a failure to accept, in an increasingly secularized era, that some will kill in the name of their god, an all-too-common phenomenon across human history.
Bergen is clear about the implication of this recognition for our foreign policy:
ISIS sees itself as the vanguard army that is bringing back true Islam to the world. This project is of such cosmic importance that they will break any number of eggs to make this omelet, which accounts for their murderous campaign against every ethnic group, religious group and nationality that they perceive as standing in their way. ISIS recruits also believe that we are in the end times, and they are best understood as members of an Islamist apocalyptic death cult.
What does that mean for policy makers? It means that the only truly effective challenges to this reasoning must come from Islamic leaders and scholars who can make the theological case that ISIS is an aberration. This, too, is an Islamic project; it is not a jobs project.