There was a lively debate on my Twitter feed (@AlanTonelson) today on whether a significant strand of American and western opinion is in denial on the distinctive threat posed by radical Islam and the terror groups it has spawned. President Obama, who has clearly ordered his aides not even to utter the phrase “radical Islam,” is the most prominent case in point, but far from the only example. So for those of you not following me (hint, hint!), here’s a handy dandy guide to some of the main forms taken by radical Islam denialism – and to what seem to me to be screamingly obvious responses.
Before starting, though, I’ll state that the President seems to have a reasonable basis for his position. I consider it mistaken but it’s at least seriously debatable. In the administration’s view, condemning radical Islam as such, and specifying that the faith retains a major strain of brutal intolerance that needs to be eliminated, could unnecessarily alienate too many among the vast majority of peaceful Muslims around the world whose aid in this campaign is vital.
The problem with this belief is that it (logically, anyway) assumes that this Muslim majority’s moderation is so precarious that spotlighting a genuine problem with its religion will be enough to push a large number over the edge into radicalism. If so, that’s an admission that the non-Muslim world has a much bigger Muslim problem than the President acknowledges. But at least Mr. Obama is making a reasoned judgment.
The same can’t be said for others who absolve Islam of any responsibility for terrorism. Here in no particular order are a few of the main denial positions I’ve encountered recently, either on Twitter or in the media, and why they’re so ignorant or downright misleading:
The Vast Majority of Muslims are Peaceful and Oppose Terrorism. This claim unquestionably is true as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go nearly far enough because, alone among the world’s major and minor religions, Islam is officially in control of two powerful countries whose ruling circles have ideologically supported and funded intolerance and terrorist activity – Iran and Saudi Arabia. A third state sponsor of Islamic terrorism – the Taliban – had to be forcibly removed from power in Afghanistan by American and allied militaries, and may stage a comeback now that NATO forces are no longer playing a combat role in that country.
Nor is Saudi Arabia anything like “an exception that proves the rule.” It’s not only the birthplace of Muhammad, but the site of two of Islam’s holiest places. The influence of its state Wahabist religion, moreover, is hardly confined to the Arabian peninsula, as wealthy Saudis, including members of the (huge) royal family, have long sponsored schools throughout the Muslim world that have spread the sect’s often brutal values.
These points, moreover, effectively refute the widespread claim that Islam has been hijacked by many thugs who act in its name but have no valid claim to be Muslims. The resemblance between their atrocities and beliefs and those of Islam’s intolerant theocracies is no coincidence, and directly reflects the latters’ funding and proselytizing.
Much Terrorism is Carried Out by Non-Muslims. Another true claim – but at best misleading and at worst irrelevant. Political violence both nowadays and historically comes from many and varied sources. But Islamic-related terrorism is distinctive in at least four ways. First, as suggested above, much of it enjoys state sponsorship. Largely as a result, Islamic terrorism enjoys access to resources that are simply not available to other terrorist organizations or hate groups.
Second (and this is closely related to the first), much Islamic terrorism operates through and is supported by transnational networks, which greatly complicates all forms of response, including law enforcement and military. The only possible comparisons I can think of are (a) the provisional Irish Republican Army, and two smaller succeeding splinter groups, which received significant funding from some Irish Americans; and (b) the Red Brigades and Red Army Faction groups that operated in Italy and Germany from the late-1960s through the mid-1980s, both of which were aided modestly by the Soviet bloc; and (c), the violent Basque organization ETA, which agitated for independence from Spain, which was especially active from the 1970s through the mid-1990s, and which was aided by states such as Cuba and Algeria, as well as by networks of emigres.
Again, no violent hate groups that invoke Christianity or other religions or ideologies – whose activities are often cited by radical Islam deniers – have been internationalized (no doubt because so many such rightists tend to be xenophobic!).
Third, Islamic terrorism’s scope is in a class by itself. Non-Islamic terrorists, for example, have launched no attacks remotely comparable to the September 11 strikes. Fourth, Islamic terrorism seems unique in attacking those who allegedly blaspheme a religion – as opposed to (of course heinous) strikes on political opponents or on ethnic and racial minorities.
Moreover, does the existence of non-Islamic terrorism mean that governments shouldn’t go after Islamic terrorism? Why should the existence of one weaken the case for fighting the other? Clearly, terrorism of all kinds must be combated. At the same time, priorities need to be set, and because of the aforementioned scale issue, focusing on Islamic terrorism is amply justified.
Other Religions Have Promoted Intolerance and Violence. No quarrel here. But what’s the relevance for current policy? However horrendous the historic record of Christianity in particular, wars of religion ended on the European continent in the 17th century, and in England in the 18th.
Both Catholic and Protestant churches remained strongly intolerant long afterwards. Who can doubt that historic European antisemitism was fueled powerfully by the Christian doctrine that Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus – a claim not officially dropped by Rome until 1965? And the rabid antisemitism of Protestantism’s founder Martin Luther surely contributed to the atmosphere in Germany and elsewhere in 19th and early 20th century Europe in which Nazi genocide developed. Meanwhile, the “blood libel” doctrine was coddled through the 19th century by Russia’s czars, who long officially linked themselves to the Orthodox church. ‘
Thankfully, nowadays, such intolerance and persecution are both rejected by virtually all Christian leaders nowadays, by nearly all those who consider themselves Christians, and certainly by all the major denominations. (And I say this as one who is generally opposed by the efforts of some Christians to reintroduce prayer in public schools, and religious symbols into public spaces.) I can’t think of any other significant world religions responsible for any such abominations in recent centuries. Tragically, the same cannot be said for the Islam.
If I’ve forgotten any especially egregious examples of radical Islam denialism, let me know. Further, I have no doubt that new forms will keep appearing for the foreseeable future. And of course, this post hasn’t examined the important question of why radical Islam denialism is so widespread (a subject to which I’m sure I’ll turn). For now, though, it should be clear that this school of so-called thought has taken root. And although the great majority of the American people seem to reject it, its popularity among the political and especially media classes argues strongly against complacency.