Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Islamism and the US Administration's campaign against "violent extremism"

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Update from AIJAC

February 27, 2015
Number 02/15 #06

US President Barack Obama and his Administration have come under fire from numerous sources for their refusal to identify the Islamist ideology that motivates groups like Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and al-Qaeda - especially in the wake of the Summit on Violent Extremism he convened last week - instead insisting, in President Obama's words, that "there is no one profile of a violent extremist or terrorist. Around the world, and in the United States, inexcusable acts of violence have been committed against people of different faiths, by people of different faiths, which is, of course, betrayal of all of our faiths." Below, we include some of the more informative critiques of the Administration's stance on this issue. (An op-ed based on Obama's speech is here, a similar op-ed from US Secretary of State John Kerry is here.)

We lead with Iranian-born columnist Amir Taheri, who makes the point that the strategy behind President Obama's efforts to insist that terrorism in the name of Islam does not reflect "true Islam" is based on a misunderstanding of that faith. He points out that Islam does not allow President Obama or anyone else to say who is or is not a true Muslim, and that IS and al-Qaeda are in fact "a specific form of terrorism rooted, nurtured and waged in the name of Islam." He goes on to dispute President Obama's contentions that economic growth and education are what the international community should be using to counter the lure of such extremism, calling this "painfully naive." For his full argument, CLICK HERE. Another good general critique of the Administration's semantic approach comes from Jonathan Tobin.

Next up is renowned American columnist Peggy Noonan who draws upon an important and extensive new study of what actually motivates IS by Graeme Wood in the Atlantic. Wood's key finding is that ISIS is indeed "very Islamic" and the religion it preaches and the ideological goals it pursues "derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam." Noonan notes that Wood has some ideas about how the ISIS threat can be contained and eventually ended, but she argues that the US Administration, because it refuses to enunciate clearly about the nature of the Islamist problem not only in terms of semantics but in its internal deliberataions, will not be able to develop a coherent and successful strategy. For the rest of her argument, CLICK HERE. The Wood article, entitled "What ISIS really wants", itself is too long to include in this format but is strongly recommended as essential reading on what actually is behind the explosive growth of ISIS and other Islamist terrorist groups. Another excellent discussion of what can be learned from the Wood article concerning how to think about ISIS comes from Damien Linker.

Finally, we offer up a more historical view of this debate from Prof. Jeffrey Herf, noted academic historian. He agrees that President Obama was correct when he noted that “terrible deeds” have been committed in the name of Christianity in the past, but then argues that there should be no double standards, and it should now be acknowledged that "terrible deeds" are now being committed in the name of Islam - but this is not the Administration's stance. He then offers a learned way of putting the terrible deeds of both faiths into proper historical context without what he calls "the labor of selective tradition" - that is viewing them either via demonisation or idealisation of the whole faith. For this important guide to talking about the problem fairly, without demonising Islam or ignoring the ideology rooted in the Islamic tradition that motivates Islamist terror, CLICK HERE.

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Obama'€™s elementary errors on Islam

"€œThis is not true Islam,"€ President Obama has again insisted of the Islamic State and other terror groups. That he doesn'€™t realize this is not for him to say is only one of his elementary errors here.

The three-day White House conference on "€œviolent extremism"€ exposed anew Obama'€™s inability or unwillingness to understand the challenge of Islamist terrorism, let alone to lead the fight against it.

The conference was billed as a global event bringing together people of different views from more than 60 countries. In practice, however, it acted more as an echo chamber for Obama'€™s politically correct approach.

"€œViolent extremism"€ is misleading, to say the least. (Is there extremism without violence?) The generic term obscures the fact that we face a specific form of terrorism rooted, nurtured and waged in the name of Islam.

Obama did defend his evasion: "€œAl Qaeda and ISIL [a k a ISIS] and groups like it try to portray themselves as religious leaders, holy warriors in defense of Islam,"€ he said. "€œWe must never accept the premise that they put forward, because it is a lie."€ Operatives of al Qaeda and ISIS "€œare not religious leaders -€” they'€™re terrorists,"€ he said.

In fact, these terrorists now call their outfit the Islamic State, or IS, under a caliph. And no higher authority has the legitimacy and power to challenge their claim.

Islam has no mechanism for excommunication. Individuals can leave the ummah and be regarded as apostates (murtad). But no one who swears he is a Muslim can be excluded.

Even very bad Muslims are still Muslims as long as they haven'€™t thrice publicly rejected the two testimonies. (The two testimonies are accepting the oneness of God and that Muhammad is His Prophet.) Thus, neither Obama nor anyone else is qualified to decide who is a Muslim -€” or what is "€œtrue Islam."€

Islam does allow believers to part ways with anyone they deem misguided or deviant. At the theological level, this is known as Itizal (seeking solitude). At a more mundane level, we have Bira'€™ah (self-exoneration). The '€œviolent extremists'€ charge their foes within Islam of Takfir (covering up the truth).

Yet Muslims aren'€™t using any of these three mechanisms to denounce the Islamic State or other Islamist terror groups. We'€™ve seen no Bira'€™ah marches in any Muslim-majority country, nor organized efforts by Muslim '€œcommunities'€ in the West to '€œexonerate'€ themselves from the IS throat-cutters.

If Islamic leaders can bring a million people in the streets of Tehran, Islamabad or Cairo to burn the US flag and Obama effigies, how is it that they do not authorize Bira'€™ah marches against IS?

'€œOrdinary'€ Muslims may feel that, since Obama insists that IS has nothing to do with Islam, there'€™s no need for Bira'€™ah.

Go to any mosque in any democratic country and you'€™ll hear sermons filled with a '€œlite'€ version of the same tale of Muslim victimhood that the '€œCaliph'€ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi churns out in cyberspace.

Obama'€™s analysis has other faults.

At the conference, he said: '€œIf we are going to prevent people from being susceptible to false promises of extremism, then the international community has to offer something better'€ '€” specifically, '€œeconomic growth and devoting more resources on education, including for girls and women.'€

This is painfully naive. The '€œCaliphate'€ isn'€™t recruiting among the world'€™s downtrodden. Its administration is run by highly educated individuals, many from wealthy families in Arab countries as well as Pakistan, Russia, China and Afghanistan.

The '€œcaliph'€ has also attracted at least 15,000 jihadis and volunteers for martyrdom from almost all Western democracies. Indeed, more Western citizens are fighting for the '€œcaliph'€ than against him.

His army, including many women from the West, does not consist of poverty-stricken individuals protesting against Western imperialism and oppression, as Obama implies.

They all seem fairly well-fed and stylishly dressed, bearing smartphones and expensive Swiss watches and cruising in bullet-proof limos.

To say that IS has nothing to do with Islam is disingenuous and dangerous.

IS is part of Islam, though Islam cannot and must not be reduced to IS or any other throat-cutting outfit. Humanity, including the overwhelming majority of '€œordinary Muslims,'€ faces a growing movement dedicated to conquering the world for its brand of Islam.

While humanity is not at war against Islam, a part of Islam is certainly at war against humanity. To ignore that fact amounts to a dereliction of intellectual responsibility.

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An Administration Adrift on Denial

Why won'€™t the president think clearly about the nature of the Islamic State?

Great essays tell big truths. A deeply reported piece in next month'€™s Atlantic magazine does precisely that, and in a way devastating to the Obama administration'€™s thinking on ISIS.

'€œWhat ISIS Really Wants,'€ by contributing editor Graeme Wood, is going to change the debate. (It ought to become a book.)

Mr. Wood describes a dynamic, savage and so far successful organization whose members mean business. Their mettle should not be doubted. ISIS controls an area larger than the United Kingdom and intends to restore, and expand, the caliphate. Mr. Wood interviewed Anjem Choudary of the banned London-based Islamist group Al Muhajiroun, who characterized ISIS'€™ laws of war as policies of mercy, not brutality. '€œHe told me the state has an obligation to terrorize its enemies,'€ Mr. Wood writes, '€œbecause doing so hastens victory and avoids prolonged conflict.'€

ISIS has allure: Tens of thousands of foreign Muslims are believed to have joined. The organization is clear in its objectives: '€œWe can gather that their state rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change.' that it considers itself a harbinger of'€”and headline player in'€”the imminent end of the world.' The Islamic State is committed to purifying the world by killing vast numbers of people.'€

The scale of the savagery is difficult to comprehend and not precisely known. Regional social media posts '€œsuggest that individual executions happen more or less continually, and mass executions every few weeks.'€ Most, not all, of the victims are Muslims.

The West, Mr. Wood argues, has been misled '€œby a well-intentioned but dishonest campaign to deny the Islamic State'€™s medieval religious nature.' The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers,'€ drawn largely from the disaffected. '€œBut the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.'€ Its actions reflect '€œa sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bring about the apocalypse.'€

Mr. Wood acknowledges that ISIS reflects only one, minority strain within Islam. '€œMuslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending it isn'€™t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it.'€

He quotes Princeton'€™s Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on ISIS'€™ theology. The group'€™s fighters, Mr. Haykel says, '€œare smack in the middle of the medieval tradition,'€ and denials of its religious nature spring from embarrassment, political correctness and an '€œinterfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition.'€

The Islamic State is different from al Qaeda and almost all other jihadist movements, according to Mr. Wood, '€œin believing that it is written into God'€™s script as a central character.'€ Its spokesman has vowed: '€œWe will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women.'€ They believe we are in the End of Days. They speak of how '€œthe armies of Rome will mass to meet the armies of Islam in northern Syria.'€ The battle will be Rome'€™s Waterloo. After that, a countdown to the apocalypse.

Who exactly is '€œRome'€? That'€™s unclear. Maybe Turkey, maybe any infidel army. Maybe America.

What should the West do to meet the challenge? Here Mr. Wood'€™s tone turns more tentative. We should help the Islamic State '€œself-immolate.'€

Those urging America to commit tens of thousand of troops '€œshould not be dismissed too quickly.'€ ISIS is, after all, an avowedly genocidal and expansionist organization, and its mystique can be damaged if it loses its grip on the territory it holds. Al Qaeda, from which ISIS is estranged and which it has eclipsed, can operate as an underground network. ISIS cannot, '€œbecause territorial authority is a requirement.'€

But ISIS wants to draw America into the fight. A U.S. invasion and occupation, Mr. Wood argues, would be a propaganda victory for them, because they'€™ve long said the U.S. has always intended to embark on a modern-day crusade against Islam. And if a U.S. ground invasion launched and failed, it would be a disaster.

The best of bad options, Mr. Wood believes, is to '€œslowly bleed'€ ISIS through air strikes and proxy warfare. The Kurds and the Shiites cannot vanquish them, but they can '€œkeep the Islamic State from fulfilling its duty to expand.'€ That would make it look less like '€œthe conquering state of the Prophet Muhammed. '€ As time passed ISIS could '€œstagnate'€ and begin to sink. Word of its cruelties would spread; it could become another failed state.

But that death, as Mr. Wood notes, '€œis unlikely to be quick,'€ and any number of things could go wrong, including a dangerous rapprochement with al Qaeda.

Mr. Wood'€™s piece is bracing because it is fearless'€”he is apparently not afraid of being called a bigot or an Islamophobe. It is important because it gives people, especially political leaders, information they need to understand a phenomenon that may urgently shape U.S. foreign policy for the next 10 years.

In sorry contrast, of course, are the Obama administration'€™s willful delusions and dodges. They reached their height this week when State Department spokesman Marie Harf talked on MSNBC of the '€œroot causes'€ that drive jihadists, such as '€œlack of opportunity for jobs.'€ She later went on CNN to explain: '€œWhere there'€™s a lack of governance, you'€™ve had young men attracted to this terrorist cause where there aren'€™t other opportunities. .' .' . So how do you get at that root causes?'€ She admitted her view '€œmight be too nuanced of an argument for some.'€

Yes, it might.

It isn'€™t about getting a job. They have a job: waging jihad.

The president famously cannot even name the ISIS threat forthrightly, and that is a criticism not of semantics but of his thinking. ISIS isn'€™t the only terrorist group, he says, Christians have committed their own sins over history, what about the Crusades, don'€™t get on your high horse. It'€™s all so evasive. Each speech comes across as an attempt to make up for the previous speech'€™s mistakes in tone and substance. At the '€œviolent extremism'€ summit this week he emphasized Islamic '€œlegitimate grievances'€ and lectured America on the need for tolerance toward American Muslims.

Of extremists he said: '€œThey say they are religious leaders'€”they are not religious leaders, they are terrorists.'€ But ISIS and its followers believe they are religious leaders, prophets who use terrorism to achieve aims they find in religious texts.

On the closing day of the summit the president said, '€œWhen people are oppressed and human rights are denied .' .' . when dissent is silenced, it feeds violent extremism.'€ Yes, sure. But isn'€™t ISIS oppressing people, denying their human rights and silencing dissent?

'€œWhen peaceful democratic change is impossible, it feeds into the terrorist propaganda that violence is the only available answer.'€ Yes, sure. But the young men and women ISIS recruits from Western nations already live in peaceful democracies.

It'€™s not enough. They want something else. It is, ironically, disrespectful not to name what they are, and what they are about.

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One Standard, Not Two, for Christianity and Islam

The American Interest, February 23, 2015

The President spoke the truth recently when he said “terrible deeds” have been committed in the name of Christianity. We should be equally frank in saying that terrible deeds are now being committed in the name of Islam.

For six years, President Obama has refused to connect interpretations of the religion of Islam to the varieties of terror that have emerged in recent decades claiming it as their inspiration. Although anyone who has read or heard about al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, the government of Iran, and now ISIS knows that these various groups are inspired by their interpretations of the religion of Islam, the White House continues to speak in euphemisms about a “war on terror” or unspecified “violent extremism.”

On February 5, however, the President chose to speak clearly and without euphemism about the impact of religion in history at the National Prayer Breakfast. In responding to discussions of the role of radical Islam in this era of terror he said: “Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often were justified in the name of Christ.” Probably because his blunt talk about Christianity contrasted so sharply with White House avoidance of similar frankness regarding Islam, the President received quite a bit of criticism. Some of the criticism appeared to come from those who were reluctant to acknowledge that Obama had simply stated what anyone with a decent knowledge of European and American history knows is the truth.

Yet we must give the President credit for being willing to speak the obvious truth about what intellectual and cultural historians call “the labor of selective tradition.” The British literary critic Raymond Williams coined the phrase in the 1970s. It captures the efforts of succeeding generations to selectively interpret major traditions, actively shaping them by choosing to accentuate some elements and de-emphasize others. For better or worse, these successors selectively draw on texts or parts of texts that already exist, and in so doing can change the meaning of traditions such as Christianity and Islam.

President Obama is right that European and American advocates of slavery and, later, American proponents of segregation selectively read key texts of Christianity to justify those practices. Yet, as the President also knows, the opponents of the slave trade in Britain, abolitionists in the United States before the Civil War, and the black churches during the Civil Rights Movement all selectively read the Christian tradition very differently as they opposed enslavement and racial injustice. Both advocates and opponents of slavery and Jim Crow referred to various texts of the Christian tradition to support their views. Just as it would be complacent to argue that Christianity had nothing to do with racial persecution, so it would be mistaken to neglect the enormously important role Christianity played in the movements that worked to oppose slavery and racism.

The President did not speak about Christianity, anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust but the concept of the labor of selective tradition is just as evident in the massive scholarship on these subjects. Historians have shown that Hitler and the ideological core of the Nazi regime in the SS were contemptuous of key elements of Christianity, especially the idea, which it inherited from Judaism, that all human beings were God’s creation. That religious belief was, they understood, incompatible with biological racism and the notion of a master race. The anti-Christian elements of Nazism were an important aspect of its revolt against Western civilization and played a key role in justifying biologically based racial ideology and policy.

Yet historians have also thoroughly documented that Nazism drew sustenance from the long-standing anti-Jewish hatreds that had been constitutive elements of Christianity in both its Catholic and Protestant forms. In Germany, Martin Luther’s The Jews and Their Lies played a notorious role in embedding anti-Semitism into the traditions of German nationalism and Protestantism. The notion of an international Jewish conspiracy aimed at the destruction of the Germans that took shape before and during World War II was a secularization and radicalization of the idea of Jews as Christ killers. No serious historian of Nazism and the Holocaust today would deny that along with its pagan, anti-Christians themes, the Nazis’ labors of selective tradition also mobilized elements of the Christian tradition in service of their efforts to exterminate Europe’s Jews. There is a sober consensus among historians of the Nazi regime along the following lines: Christianity was the most important source of hatred of the Jews in European history. The traditions of anti-Semitism it engendered were essential but not sufficient preconditions for the Holocaust in Europe. Rather, it was only in the historically specific situation created by the Nazi regime in World War II that these specific interpretations of Christianity coalesced into a hatred of unprecedented dimensions. It would be as mistaken to argue that Christianity had nothing to do with Nazism and the Holocaust as it would be to suggest that it was their primary cause.

Yet the Nazis did not have a monopoly on the interpretation of Christianity. Among its many other aspects, World War II was also a war about the meaning of Christianity. For both Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, the war was fought in the name of Christian values which they believed the Nazi regime violated. The idea of a “Judeo-Christian tradition” entered into American culture during and after the war to underscore the connections between Judaism and Christianity and to point to those elements of the Christian tradition that opposed the persecution of the Jews. Indeed, after the signing of the Atlantic Charter off the coast of Newfoundland in 1941, Churchill selected a song for Roosevelt and the assembled military leaders of Britain and the United States to sing together. The song was “Onward Christian Soldiers.” Churchill and Roosevelt believed in a Christianity that stood for implacable opposition to Nazi racism and anti-Semitism.

Unfortunately, since September 11 the United States government has been unwilling to apply the same standard of criticisms that we have applied to Christianity to the religion of Islam. Yet as with any other large tradition, the labors of selective tradition can be applied to Islam as well. Western governments have tied themselves in knots to the point of foolishness because they refuse to state what is obvious to many millions of people about the importance not of the religion of Islam per se but of interpretations of Islam in this era of terror. Just as it makes no historical sense to discuss slavery or the Holocaust without examining Christianity’s contributions, so it is ridiculous to assert that the Islamic State, the Hamas Covenant, the fanaticism of the Iranian mullahs, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and the Muslim Brotherhood have nothing to do with Islam. It amounts to saying that its adherents either do not mean what they say or that they don’t know what they are doing. Both assumptions are condescending. To be sure, these varieties of Islamism differ from one another, but they all engage in the labors of selective tradition. They did not invent the texts that they quote but they have selected and emphasized some rather than other components of the tradition. They can all point to passages in the Koran and in the commentaries about it that in their view justify attacks on the Jews, on Muslims of whom they disapprove, on Christians and on other assorted “infidels.” Bassam Tibi, the author of Islamism and Islam, has described Islamism as an invented tradition. He does not mean that Islamists have invented quotations that do not in fact exist in the Koran and its commentaries. Rather, he means that in selecting some and neglecting other aspects of key texts, they invented a distinctive 20th- and now 21st-century ideology that has fostered fanaticism and violence.

Just as historians of Christianity and Western culture have been accused of de-emphasizing faults in Christian doctrine, Tibi and those of us who draw attention to the importance of Islamism have been criticized by people who think we are too soft on Islam. They argue that the main thrust of Islam indeed lends support to the infamous activities of this era’s fanatics. Such critics ignore the labor of selective tradition that produced Islamism in our time as well as those many Muslims who reject the message of radical Islam. That said, Western policymakers look like fools when they refuse to state the obvious about the link between some of the traditions of Islam and modern terror. They use terms like “hijack” or “distort” to suggest that the terrorists of ISIS and the others have no connection to any traditions of Islam. They are thus at a loss to explain why the horrific message of hatred has struck a nerve with thousands of radicalized Muslims. They refer to unemployment and poverty but many millions of unemployed and impoverished people around the world do not turn to terrorism while many of those who do are neither unemployed nor impoverished.

In the aftermath of the massacre of the staff of Charlie Hebdo and the Jews shopping at the Hyper Cacher market in Paris, France’s Prime Minister Manual Valls earned the distinction of being the first Western leader since September 11 other than Benjamin Netanyahu to speak the truth about the cause of such attacks. He did so when he said that France was at war with radical Islam. In other words, France was not at war with Islam but with a distinct interpretation of the religion that inspired these murderers. In making that statement, Valls was applying the same standard of critique that we historians have applied to the history of the West and of Christianity.

The refusal by the President and other Western leaders to speak frankly in public about the link between Islamism and terror and the labor of selective tradition that has made it possible has established a double standard in the way we examine religion in history. One standard of sharp criticism is now applied to Christianity while another of excuse, apologia, euphemism, and avoidance is applied to the traditions of Islam. Islamists invented a concept called “Islamophobia” to deflect such criticism. Some have gone further and called for laws that describe any effort to connect Islamism to terror as a form of “blasphemy.” Our response to them should be that in our scholarship and in our politics we will adopt the same standard of critique towards the traditions of Islam and Islamism as we have adopted towards Christianity. As a practical matter, we cannot defeat an enemy that we refuse to describe accurately. We should expect that our public discussion of Islam, Islamism, and terror should be no more and no less frank and disconcerting than are the works of historians of Europe and the United States. In speaking frankly about Christianity’s contribution to injustice and persecution, President Obama unintentionally reminded us that the application of a single standard calls for equally frank public discussion about Islam, Islamism, and terror.

Jeffrey Herf is Distinguished University Professor in the Department of History at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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