Although no one seems to know it, the controversy over President Obama’s treatment of Islam’s responsibility for most modern terrorism arguably took a strange turn during the summit he convened recently on “Countering Violent Extremism.” I say “arguably” because one aspect of Mr. Obama’s thinking seems to have become much more realistic – and may have allayed a major operational concern stemming from his reluctance to finger radical Islam as a prime source of such terrorism. At the same time – indeed, in the same speech – the one of the president’s other ideas left a second major operational problem as serious as ever.
The good news concerns the discussion of radical Islam Mr. Obama offered in his speech closing the summit. The president kept making claims like those in the following passage, which grabbed headlines:
“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. That’s why ISIL presumes to declare itself the ‘Islamic State.’ And they propagate the notion that America — and the West, generally — is at war with Islam. That’s how they recruit. That’s how they try to radicalize young people. We must never accept the premise that they put forward, because it is a lie. Nor should we grant these terrorists the religious legitimacy that they seek. They are not religious leaders — they’re terrorists. And we are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.“
But here are some of the other points the president made:
>“[J]ust as those of us outside Muslim communities need to reject the terrorist narrative that the West and Islam are in conflict, or modern life and Islam are in conflict, I also believe that Muslim communities have a responsibility as well. Al Qaeda and ISIL do draw, selectively, from the Islamic texts.”
>[A] broader narrative…does exist in many Muslim communities around the world that suggests the West is at odds with Islam in some fashion.”
> “[T]here’s a strain of thought that doesn’t embrace ISIL’s tactics, doesn’t embrace violence, but does buy into the notion that the Muslim world has suffered historical grievances — sometimes that’s accurate — does buy into the belief that so many of the ills in the Middle East flow from a history of colonialism or conspiracy; does buy into the idea that Islam is incompatible with modernity or tolerance, or that it’s been polluted by Western values.”
>”[T]hose beliefs exist. In some communities around the world they are widespread….We’ve got to be much more clear about how we’re rejecting certain ideas.”
>”[M]uslim leaders need to do more to discredit the notion that our nations are determined to suppress Islam, that there’s an inherent clash in civilizations.”
I don’t know how you can examine these statements and not conclude that the president doesn’t understand that there’s a very grave terrorist problem nowadays that’s, if not unique to Islam, heavily concentrated in Muslim communities. Certainly he didn’t make similar statements about other faiths and their followers. As a result, I’m much less concerned than I had been that Washington would waste precious time and resources fighting extremism in non-Muslim areas.
That’s partly why it’s so discouraging that much of the rest of this same speech gave the terrorists and, perhaps more important, their potential recruits so many valuable talking points. You don’t have to agree with former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s downright stupid claim that Mr. Obama doesn’t love America to recognize the kind of propaganda bonanza the president gave to the nation’s enemies and potential enemies with statements like:
>”[W]ith the brutal murders in Chapel Hill of three young Muslim Americans, many Muslim Americans are worried and afraid.”
>”[W]hen millions of people — especially youth — are impoverished and have no hope for the future, when corruption inflicts daily humiliations on people, when there are no outlets by which people can express their concerns, resentments fester. The risk of instability and extremism grow. Where young people have no education, they are more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and radical ideas, because it’s not tested against anything else, they’ve got nothing to weigh.”
>”When governments oppress their people, deny human rights, stifle dissent, or marginalize ethnic and religious groups, or favor certain religious groups over others, it sows the seeds of extremism and violence. It makes those communities more vulnerable to recruitment. Terrorist groups claim that change can only come through violence. And if peaceful change is impossible, that plays into extremist propaganda.”
>”I know some Muslim Americans have concerns about working with government, particularly law enforcement. And their reluctance is rooted in the objection to certain practices where Muslim Americans feel they’ve been unfairly targeted. So, in our work, we have to make sure that abuses stop, are not repeated, that we do not stigmatize entire communities. Nobody should be profiled or put under a cloud of suspicion simply because of their faith. Engagement with communities can’t be a cover for surveillance. We can’t ‘securitize’ our relationship with Muslim Americans…dealing with them solely through the prism of law enforcement.”
>”If we’re going to solve these issues, then the people who are most targeted and potentially most affected — Muslim Americans — have to have a seat at the table….”
Mr. Obama’s former senior campaign and White House advisor David Axelrod recently touted the president’s “nuance and…ability to see gray, which is really important in the world in which we live. That’s true on foreign policy and national security. It’s also true on domestic policy.” The problem is that these traits can be millstones during war time, and the more ambivalence the president displays about the intertwined radical Islam and terrorism threats, the more Americans are entitled to wonder if he’s got what it takes to defeat them.