In yesterday’s post on the Orlando terror attack, I criticized President Obama for ignoring the Islamic extremism angle even after it was confirmed by a senior FBI official. Earlier today, he made some follow-up remarks addressing the issue. Unfortunately, although Mr. Obama took some modest steps toward linking yesterday’s shootings and similar outrages to a strand of intolerance in Islam that is anything but fringe, his gingerly treatment of the subject still indicates a strong reluctance to recognize the problem. Therefore, it’s hard to imagine him starting to support the full mix of measures likeliest to keep Americans safe.
Speaking to reporters today, the president acknowledged that “It does appear that at the last minute, [murderer Omar Mateen] announced allegiance to ISIL….” So he’s now on record as placing the atrocity in categories other than “hate crime” and “gun violence/mass shooting.” Mr. Obama also noted that ISIS and similar groups – which he has long accused of “perverting Islam” – have targeted “gays and lesbians because they believe that they do not abide by their attitudes towards sexuality.”
In addition, the president denounced – rightly in my view – those voices who seem determined to treat the policy choices facing the nation as “either/or” and who suggest that “either we think about something as terrorism and we ignore the problems with easy access to firearms or it’s all about firearms and we ignore the role, the very real role, that organizations like ISIL have in generating extremist views inside this country.”
The key question, however, is whether Mr. Obama’s analysis can justify the fundamentally new preventive measures toward which the Islamist connection unmistakably points – like more restrictive immigration policies that target (or “profile,” if you will) newcomers and visitors from heavily Muslim countries, a pause in admissions of refugees from the war-torn Middle East, and markedly greater surveillance of America’s domestic Muslim community.
The string of qualifiers that accompanied this statement signals that none of these changes is on his mind. Mr. Obama said that Mateen’s allegiance to ISIS “appeared” to have reflected a “last minute” decision. He also stated that “at this stage, we see no clear evidence that he was directed externally” and that “also, at this stage, there’s no direct evidence that he was part of a larger plot.” All these comments unavoidably – and no doubt deliberately – suggested that the link between Mateen and Islamism was the flimsiest, shallowest sort possible, and thus virtually irrelevant to his actions.
Moreover, despite the president’s realistic description of ISIS’ propaganda and recruiting capabilities inside the United States, he seems unwilling to take the next step and conclude that the terrorists’ main targets – and likeliest converts – aren’t just randomly sprinkled throughout the American population.
Mr. Obama characterized these targets as “troubled individuals or weak individuals” – which obviously is true. But ISIS and similar groups have a much more specific focus, and their successes are equally particular. They’re individuals who either are Muslim by background, who are engaged in or actively contemplating conversion, or who identify with the faith, or with certain of its precepts. Which means that America’s counter-terror approaches need to concentrate on this community. And the reality of limited resources makes some form of strategic prioritization all the more essential.
Revealingly, as I’ve previously pointed out, President Obama has admitted that extremist ideologies have resonated to a disturbing degree within mainstream Islam, and that the world’s mainstream Muslims – including presumably those in the United States – have not responded adequately. These views, expressed at a press conference in Turkey shortly after the November, 2015 Paris attacks, deserve to be presented at length:
“…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.”
The president is correct in warning of stereotyping’s dangers. But the Orlando shooting reminds devastatingly that his record on balancing the protection of domestic Muslims’ essential liberties and the protection of all Americans’ security – by fostering such anti-extremist pushback from that community, stepping up monitoring, and strengthening immigration controls – has fallen way short.