President Obama’s prime-time address on terrorism last night shows that he’s deeply conflicted about the role played by Islam in fostering these attacks. Which is good news, and not only because it’s a complicated issue. It’s good news because, as the president’s critics have been insisting, “words matter” in America’s efforts to counter this threat. That’s true whether you believe, like me, that the key to success versus ISIS and similar groups is securing the nation’s borders because they are eminently controllable. And it’s true whether you believe, like Mr. Obama and almost everyone else (including his critics), that the key is some form of improved intervention in the Middle East.
His most recent presidential statement on the terror threat shows that the president is still trafficking in the largely straw man argument that “We cannot turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam” and that “ISIL does not speak for Islam.” Of course, relatively few Americans believe that an entire religion and all of its adherents should be stigmatized.
More encouragingly, however, the president also specified that a refusal to condemn all Muslims and their faith “does not mean denying the fact that an extremist ideology has spread within some Muslim communities. This is a real problem that Muslims must confront, without excuse.” Moreover, it’s consistent with remarks he made in his otherwise petulant press conference following the G20 economic summit in Turkey last month. They’re worth quoting in full:
“…I do think that Muslims around the world — religious leaders, political leaders, ordinary people — have to ask very serious questions about how did these extremist ideologies take root, even if it’s only affecting a very small fraction of the population. It is real and it is dangerous. And it has built up over time, and with social media it has now accelerated.
“And so I think, on the one hand, non-Muslims cannot stereotype, but I also think the Muslim community has to think about how we make sure that children are not being infected with this twisted notion that somehow they can kill innocent people and that that is justified by religion. And to some degree, that is something that has to come from within the Muslim community itself. And I think there have been times where there has not been enough pushback against extremism. There’s been pushback — there are some who say, well, we don’t believe in violence, but are not as willing to challenge some of the extremist thoughts or rationales for why Muslims feel oppressed. And I think those ideas have to be challenged.”
So however reluctant he is to cast matters this way, the president has accused the world’s Muslim community of failing to counter extremist variants of Islam vigorously enough. And other than fear for their own lives (which would be understandable, if not praiseworthy) what else could explain this unwillingness, especially on the part of Muslim clerics and Muslim theocratic governments, than their conviction that the religious pitches being made by ISIS and similar groups contain important elements that they find neither entirely alien nor entirely repellent?
As just implied, acknowledging that Islam in particular, as opposed to violent extremism as such, presents special problems in the fight against terror means that America’s current anti-ISIS campaign will need at least one major change of emphasis. After all, today’s strategy relies heavily on the belief that the Sunni Arab world (including those theocracies) will (eventually) contribute the bulk of the ground forces needed to defeat ISIS militarily. If many of these putative allies, and the populations they rule, have mixed feelings about what the terrorists stand for, then something dramatic will need to be done to convince them that their stakes in the fight warrant assuming major commitments and risks. The only other option is to send into the fray enough U.S. ground troops to accomplish the mission, a step that even most of Mr. Obama’s hawkish critics are reluctant to endorse. (This explains much of their enthusiasm for the Sunni option).
Of course, a more realistic take on Islam’s responsibility for ISIS-style terrorism would involve recognizing how fatally it undermines the case for the Sunni option and other interventionist-centered approaches, and strengthens that for a borders-focused anti-ISIS strategy. But the importance of acknowledging Islam-related problems doesn’t stop there. Most important, it also militates for concentrating restrictions on entry into the United States on the Muslim world, or at least certain parts of it.
Which countries justify the most concern is legitimately debatable. But certainly it’s hard to understand why any American not affiliated with a legitimate international aid organization or the U.S. government should want to or be able travel to Syria nowadays (and come back), and similar questions need to be raised about Iraq and Pakistan (though commerce with those countries so far is much more extensive). Another possibility: tighter curbs on travel to theocracies.
Interestingly, the President and Congressional Republicans reportedly will both back legislation containing some such country-specific restrictions on travel – though not on refugees. Even Kentucky Republican Senator and presidential candidate Rand Paul, a libertarian stalwart, recently introduced a bill that would suspend the resettlement of refugees from 34 “high-risk” countries – mainly from the Muslim world.
And as I tweeted yesterday, it’s not too difficult to imagine a compromise that handles the refugee – and a related – matter: Mr. Obama and his party agree to suspending the admission of Middle East refugees until vetting and screening procedures have been acceptably tightened, in exchange for Republicans agreeing to bar anyone on a government No-Fly List from legally buying a gun once the process of creating these lists gets more precise.
No doubt these decisions and proposals will be greeted with cries of “profiling!” from both political fringes. But the country’s reasonable middle has clearly been roused and the above are signs that it is pulling a critical mass of Democrats and Republicans toward a common sense consensus on domestic security. As Winston Churchill reportedly said, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing — after they’ve tried everything else.”