How Should America Handle Religious Extremism?

Gokhan Sahin/Getty Images

Source: Gokhan Sahin/Getty Images

What does Obama really mean by violent extremism?

“We are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam,” President Barack Obama emphasized in his closing remarks at the White House’s February Summit on Countering Violent Extremism. The takeaway message of the his remarks is that Obama believes that greater militarism is not the complete anecdote to terrorism. A different approach, that includes “all nations” and focuses on expanding human rights, religious tolerance and peaceful dialogue, is needed “put an end to the cycle of hate.”

His distinction is by no means new; Obama’s comments echo a speech given by predecessor George W. Bush given just six days after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. “Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger don’t represent the best of America; they represent the worst of humankind, and they should be ashamed of that kind of behavior,” Bush said. “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don’t represent peace. They represent evil and war.” The dual wars he began in the Middle East, as well as his administrations use of the so-called enhanced interrogation methods that critics term torture, are an indelible black marks on his presidential legacy. The fact no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq — among the leading rationales for the 2003 invasion — remains symbolic of government fallibility and of the erstwhile tendency of governments to overstate facts for political expediency. Yet, Bush both refused to indict the Islamic faith itself and defended America’s Muslim community, which came under verbal and physical attack in the wake of 9/11.

Officially the summit was an opportunity to lay out an esoteric plan for developing “concrete steps the United States and its partners can take to develop community-oriented approaches to counter hateful extremist ideologies that radicalize, recruit or incite to violence.” Obama’s remarks also had a far more simple and far more tangible goal; it was essentially a semantics lesson. More than 13 years have passed since the attacks and U.S. officials continue to struggle to find the right words to describe the stateless enemies who cite Islam as their inspiration for terrorism. It easy to speak of terrorism — of the violence in Copenhagen, of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, of the cruel manner with ISIS treats hostages and those in its control, of 9/11, and of all the incidence of terrorism that dot this millennium, in the context of  “Islamofascism,” a controversial term that entered Bush’s lexicon briefly before the protest of Arab leaders prompted him to drop it. Like the Bush administration before it, the Obama White House does not want to conflate terrorists with the Islamic religion but with a deadly dogma, a “warped” version of Islam. The president argued that only through this active change of rhetoric can the United States present an alternate narrative to the only told by groups such as ISIS. More to the point, his administration wants to avoid making its new counter-terrorism initiatives from sounding like a religiously-motivated campaign.

“We must never accept the premise that they put forward because it is a lie,” Obama said at the summit. “They are not religious leaders. They are terrorists. And we are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.”

Why do Republicans think this speech was a waste of time?

That declaration, although it can be dismissed as mere semantics, immediately drew the ire of the president’s Republican critics. Throughout his presidency, Obama’s approach to foreign policy garnered bipartisan and far reaching — from commentators on Fox News to Congressional Republicans to likely Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. Some say Obama’s course of action, based in a strong desire not repeat the mistakes of his predecessor, is misguided; others contend his hesitance to take action internationally is the function of inexperience. But all see his reluctance to use American power a problem. His address on countering violent extremism came as Republicans continue to bash the president for not imposing harsher measures against the Islamic State. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who sits at the extreme end of the spectrum of conservative outrage, has even claimed Obama is “an apologist for radical Islam.” He argued Obama should have labeled this week’s beheading of 21 Coptic Christians in Egypt and the burning of 45 people in Iraq as “radical Islamic terrorism.” Cruz even took issue with the fact that the White House did not explicitly acknowledge those beheaded in Egypt were Christian.

Is Obama choosing the right course of action?

“The solution is the full force of U.S. military power to destroy the leaders of ISIS,” Cruz stated on the Fox News program “The Kelly File” after Obama’s speech. “They have declared war … jihad on the United States. Jihad is another word the president doesn’t say.”

But experts, as well as the Obama administration, argue strategy to combat ISIS needs more nuance than pure, unadulterated military aggression. Distinguishing between those who practice Islam and those whose warped view of the religion justifies terrorism serves an important purpose in official rhetoric. The administration hopes such a dialogue will discredit the recruiters and the leaders of jihadist groups like the Islamic State. The rise of Islamic States, which now controls a region in the Middle East roughly the size of the United Kingdom and with a population of about 8 million, is less like the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and more like the execution of a dystopian alternate reality. Exposing that nature of that dystopia is the unspoken goal of the White House’s countering violent extremism game plan. By to pursue that mission, the Obama administration must both contend with the fact and take advantage of the fact that jihadism has evolved since the pinnacle of al-Qaeda’s strength, which came between 1998 to 2003.

That means tactics to counter violent extremism must change as well. Al-Qaeda employed a “geographically diffuse network of autonomous cells,” noted Graeme Wood in a piece for The Atlantic. “Bin Laden corporatized terror and franchised it out. He requested specific political concessions, such as the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Saudi Arabia,” he added. Unlike its predecessor, ISIS, the Islamic caliphate of which Osama bin Laden dreamed but did not expect to see in his lifetime, needs a state in which to create a seventh-century environment in order to remain legitimate. When Afghanistan was under Taliban rule, it exchanged ambassadors with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates and adhered to its borders, conventions of the modern international system that the Islamic State considers apostasy. With legitimacy of ISIS derived from both its implementation of a strict interpretation of the governing principles embedded in Islam and by showing its leaders as religious figures rather than simply terrorists, the idea that the United States and its allies can attack the organization militarily without addressing the religious appeal of the group does not hold much weight.

Scholars claim that Obama’s decision to call the brand Islam particular to ISIS a distorted version of the actual faith is not quite accurate. Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, an expert on the Islamic State’s theology, told Wood that he regards the claim that the Islamic State has distorted the basic tenets of Islam as preposterous. “People want to absolve Islam,” he said. “It’s this ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ mantra. As if there is such a thing as ‘Islam’! It’s what Muslims do, and how they interpret their texts.” Those texts are shared by all Sunni Muslims, not just the Islamic State. “And these guys have just as much legitimacy as anyone else.” Nearly all Muslims do reject the Islamic State, but that does not mean the West can discount the importance of religious ideology in the territories conquered by ISIS just because in Washington such concerns do not matter much.

“Ideological tools may convince some potential converts that the group’s message is false, and military tools can limit its horrors,” wrote Wood. “But for an organization as impervious to persuasion as the Islamic State, few measures short of these will matter, and the war may be a long one, even if it doesn’t last until the end of time.”

The West generally has met the radicalism of the Islamic States’ theology and practices with incredulity, likely due to the fact that has been centuries since the West has engaged in such religiously motivated wars. While this skepticism is understandable, it has led to what Wood called “dangerous decisions,” including Washington’s judgement of ISIS as an ideological heir to al-Qaeda. So, in a way, Republicans were correct to criticize Obama, at least regarding his woefully shortsighted description of ISIS as the “javee team.” But, with foreign policy morphing into a key campaign issue for the 2016 presidential race, Republicans cannot simply criticize the current administration and push for more aggressive tactics. Favoring the party are recent polls; a CNN survey found that 57% of Americans disapprove of how Obama has handled ISIS. But given that public opinion continues to exhibit a weariness with land wars in the mode of the decade-long conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, potential candidates must show moderation.

Still, almost two full years remain in Obama’s term, and one of the biggest challenges of his presidency was on display at the three-day conference. Since the attacks of September 1, 2001, a fundamental tension has hampered the United States’ response to violent extremism. As he made clear in his February remarks, the president believes radicalism is born out of political and economic grievances. But the problem is that many of the states on which the American leadership depends for intelligence and cooperation to prevent future attacks are most responsible for those grievances. “There is a very profound conceptual disagreement about whether the best way to counter violent extremism is through human rights and civil society or through an iron fist,” Marc Lynch, director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University, told The New York Times. The Obama administration wants “to project the human rights side, but you look at the people they’re working with and fighting alongside, and there’s a lot more to it than that.”

Follow Meghan on Twitter @MFoley_WSCS

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