A short but stirring address from this morning’s ceremony at the Pentagon, particularly the second half when he talks about the “blank check” that American service members have written to their country payable with their lives. With the war in Afghanistan soon to enter year 17, that’s never resonated more.
I want to flag his reference to the hijackers, though, because it signals Mattis’s perspective in a dispute that’s dogged Trump’s administration since the beginning. The view held by most Trump voters, I think, is that there’s nothing “false” about jihadists’ understanding of Islam. If anything, they understand it too well. They may be maniacs but it’s the dogma that’s driving their mania, not the mania that’s in search of dogma. And some moderate Muslims agree. Here’s a noteworthy interview published a few days ago in Time magazine with an Islamic scholar from Indonesia:
Western politicians should stop pretending that extremism and terrorism have nothing to do with Islam. There is a clear relationship between fundamentalism, terrorism, and the basic assumptions of Islamic orthodoxy. So long as we lack consensus regarding this matter, we cannot gain victory over fundamentalist violence within Islam.
Radical Islamic movements are nothing new. They’ve appeared again and again throughout our own history in Indonesia. The West must stop ascribing any and all discussion of these issues to “Islamophobia.” Or do people want to accuse me — an Islamic scholar — of being an Islamophobe too?…
[ISIS’s] goal of establishing a global caliphate stands squarely within the orthodox Islamic tradition. But we live in a world of nation-states. Any attempt to create a unified Islamic state in the 21st century can only lead to chaos and violence … Many Muslims assume there is an established and immutable set of Islamic laws, which are often described as shariah. This assumption is in line with Islamic tradition, but it of course leads to serious conflict with the legal system that exists in secular nation-states.
“A problem that is not acknowledged cannot be solved,” he concluded. That’s a perfectly stated summation of the perspective of western critics of Islam like Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
The contrary view, held by most U.S. government officials since 9/11, is that jihadists have “perverted” Islam. That’s the politic line to take: In theory, the more you tell non-violent Muslims that the violent ones understand their faith better than they do, they more you risk either offending them or convincing them. Bad outcome either way, which is how we ended up with “Islam means peace” as the more or less official view of the United States. The most notable proponent of that position within Trump’s administration is H.R. McMaster, who started nudging Trump to drop the phrase “radical Islamic terror” from his speeches (unsuccessfully) from practically the day he became national security advisor. McMaster’s the man who pacified Tal Afar during the Iraq war by encouraging his troops to respect local customs; he’s been a “hearts and minds” proponent ever since, which has led him to try to draw bright lines between Us and Them with moderate Muslims firmly on the “Us” side. Essentially McMaster’s trying to practice counterinsurgency on a global scale, which starts with other-izing jihadis. Critics of Islam naturally think this is dangerous politically correct self-delusion.
What does Mattis think? He doesn’t often address this topic but “maniacs disguised in false religious garb” sounds much closer to the McMaster view than the Hirsi Ali one. Which makes sense, I guess: Anyone who’s been tasked with counterinsurgency in Iraq or Afghanistan knows that the job is easier when the locals think you’re friendly. Mattis probably won’t get one one-hundredth of the heat McMaster gets for holding a similar view, though, partly because of his own legendary “political incorrectness” and partly because he didn’t have the misfortune of replacing Mike Flynn, a favorite of Trump’s base. Here’s today’s speech, which is excellent, as well as two minutes from Mike Pence’s speech in Shanksville about what it was like to be at the Capitol on 9/11 with Flight 93 reportedly inbound.