In his speech to the American people last night outlining his strategy (finally!) for combating ISIL, President Obama made a statement which has been cited as an example of his stupidity, ignorance, treason, or deceit:
ISIL is not Islamic. No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim.
How can ISIL not be “Islamic” when Islamic is the first word in the acronym? Twitchy gives a short round up of some of the Twitter reactions to this statement, which are overwhelmingly negative.
This rhetoric is not a sign of cowardliness. It is a sign that the war on terror is–at its core–public relations work.Whatever you might think of Obama, he is intelligent. He understands quite well that ISIL presents itself and believes itself to be the true followers of Islam on a divinely ordained mission to create an Islamic State. So then is he lying?
I believe the simplest and most accurate answer is: No. He’s simply choosing a definition of Islam that he knows will reduce terrorist recruitment and damage ISIL’s rhetoric. There is nothing that ISIL would like more than to see Western powers, particularly the US, openly declare war on Islam. And whatever you think about Islam, it’s not hard to see why this would be such a successful recruitment tool. If you believe every superpower in the world is out to destroy your people, it suddenly becomes a lot easier to justify horrific acts of violence. Obviously these acts are never justified. But it’s easier for the radicalized Muslim to imagine they’re so when believing that nearly the entire world is bent on slaughtering him and his family.
This is exactly the narrative sold in terrorist propaganda: The US/West is out to kill Muslims and steal their lands and goods. This is why Bush famously (or infamously, in some circles) called Islam a “religion of peace.” Arguing such tactics don’t follow true Islam delegitimizes the motives for Islamic terrorism. This PR strategy is so effective that Bin Laden considered changing his organization’s name to escape it. In a letter we found after he was killed,
Bin Laden regrets that his organization’s original name, “Qa’ida al-Jihad”, has come to be known as simply “al-Qa’ida.” The abridgement, he writes, “reduces the feeling of Muslims that we belong to them, and allows the enemies to claim deceptively that they are not at war with Islam and Muslims.” Rather, the United States could claim that it was at war only with the al-Qaida organization, which it depicted as “an outside entity from the teachings of Islam.” Bin Laden complains that Obama has “repeatedly” made this argument. Therefore, he concluded, if al-Qaida adopted a new name, which included a reference to Islam, “it would be difficult for him to say” that he wasn’t at war with Islam. (Slate)
Note that, because it is tremendously important: Islamic terrorists, the most vile and hateful leaders of Islamic terrorists, need to tell their people that the US is at war with Islam. They depend on “the feeling of Muslims that we belong to them,” but if these terrorists are seen as pariahs, heretics, they lose their appeal.
But, someone might add, ISIL is true Islam. History and the Koran make it clear that true Islam looks like this: it is a horrifically violent force which must be utterly destroyed or it will subjugate all non-believers. But this begs the question. It assumes a definition of Islam in order to prove the evils of this violence. But how do we know ISIL does or does not reflect Islam? Who gets to decide what is True Islam and what is outside of the religion? Are we to trust the large number of Muslim leaders who have been vocally condemning ISIL, or those who leave western countries to join up with ISIL?
Perhaps I’m being too pragmatic, but I am not confident we can make such a distinction, particularly those of us outside of the Islamic community. Obama here, as he and Bush before him have done numerous times, is trying to do what he can to shift the identity of Islam globally, to validate the Islamic traditions which can exist and flourish in a modern, multicultural world.
Obama knows that many Muslims believe ISIL represents True Islam, but he also knows that nothing would please these radicals more than for him and other world leaders to validate them as representatives of Islam. So long as they are fringe extremists, they don’t have the clout they desire.
This view doesn’t mean we have to ignore the way Islam is used to motivate and justify terrorism, or to deny the history of violence and oppression committed in the name of Islam. Nor does it mean, for Christians, that Islam is anything other than a false religion. This is still a realistic view of Islam, but it’s one that recognizes there are alternatives for Muslims, and the way we speak about and treat Muslims, the version of Islam that we validate, will help determine the viability of those alternatives. If we claim that it is a fundamentally and necessarily violent, intolerant, bloodthirsty cult that is utterly incompatible with the modern West and therefore must be destroyed, we cannot be surprised when radical Islam seems to be a necessary response to the threat of Western domination. By denying the validity of this version of Islam, we undermine the very justification of their violence. Of course, this rhetoric is not going to end the war on terror. But it will have a significant influence.
So remember, the next time a politician frames Islam or describes Muslims as peaceful members of society, don’t accuse them of just being “politically correct.” This rhetoric is not a sign of cowardliness. It is a sign that the war on terror is–at its core–public relations work.