Give Barack Obama credit for a couple of points in his Los Angeles Times op-ed today, part of his new effort to push back on violent extremism. Unlike the summit, Obama actually mentions Islam in the context of violent extremism, and catalogues some of the terror networks and their atrocities in the piece. Boko Haram, ISIL (we use ISIS), al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab, and the Taliban get significant mention, and this time, Obama even notes that the 21 men beheaded by ISIS were “Egyptian Christians,” and not “Egyptian citizens,” as the official White House statement referred to them.
Oddly, though, the only mention of Jewish victims of extremism is a citation about an attack on a Jewish community center in Kansas last year:
This week, we’ll be joined by people of many faiths, including Muslim Americans who make extraordinary contributions to our country every day. It’s a reminder that America is successful because we welcome people of all faiths and backgrounds.
That pluralism has at times been threatened by hateful ideologies and individuals from various religions. We’ve seen tragic killings at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in 2012 and at a Jewish community center in Kansas last year.
It’s true that this attack took place, and that the attacker was a violent extremist — a white supremacist, in fact. That was a one-off attack, though, not the result of organized action and certainly not a global trend. At least we know what transpired there, though, unlike the triple murder in Chapel Hill, which Obama cites as a kinda-sorta example of possible extremism:
We do not yet know why three young people, who were Muslim Americans, were brutally killed in Chapel Hill, N.C. But we know that many Muslim Americans across our country are worried and afraid.
If “we do not yet know why” the three were killed, why include it as part of the argument? Perhaps because the actual incidents of this kind of violence in the US are rare in the first place. Why make mention of this rather than the very real targeting of Jews in Paris and Copenhagen over the last few weeks, as well as those who exercise the right to criticize religion? Shouldn’t the President caution people to not jump to conclusions before an investigation is complete, rather than jump to a conclusion to make a point that actually has nothing to do with defeating ISIL, the Taliban, and al-Qaeda — groups that the President has been specifically tasked with defeating?
Obama doesn’t mention that fight in his essay. Instead, he tells Americans that we need to pitch in to “counter extremists narratives on the Internet,” apparently without identifying them very specifically:
Groups like al Qaeda and ISIL promote a twisted interpretation of religion that is rejected by the overwhelming majority of the world’s Muslims. The world must continue to lift up the voices of Muslim clerics and scholars who teach the true peaceful nature of Islam. We can echo the testimonies of former extremists who know how terrorists betray Islam. We can help Muslim entrepreneurs and youths work with the private sector to develop social media tools to counter extremist narratives on the Internet.
That’s a somewhat improved version of the patter coming from Marie Harf and the rest of the administration these days, and closer to the kind of argument made by George W. Bush after 9/11. Yahoo News’ Olivier Knox reminded us of that effort yesterday:
From the outset, Bush tried to calibrate his rhetoric. Not quite 12 hours after the 9/11 attacks, he had declared a “war against terrorism.” But he took pains not to mention Islam. He hurried to The Islamic Center in Washington a few days later to hammer home the point that al-Qaida did not represent Islam — a message to an overseas audience of nervous Muslim allies and a domestic audience that, his aides worried, might include some willing to target American Muslims.
“Immediately after 9/11, we could not gauge the public reaction in the U.S., nor the reaction in the Muslim world when we began to go after [al-Qaida] and the Taliban,” Elliott Abrams, who advised Bush on Middle East policy, told Yahoo News. “It seemed important to separate those particular actors from all other Muslims, first to head off any possible anti-Muslim backlash at home and second to head off an anti-American backlash in the Islamic world.”
For years, Bush worked to separate al-Qaida from Islam in the public consciousness. It’s a message he sent clearly as early as Sept. 20, 2001.
“The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself,” he said. “The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends; it is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists, and every government that supports them.” …
In 2006, Bush started to refer publicly to “Islamic radicals” or “Islamic fascists,” a term that appears to have originated in a 1979 article in The Washington Post. In that piece, an anonymous State Department official in the Carter administration wondered whether the Iranian Revolution was sweeping an “Islamist fascist” to power.
The message was poorly received in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia’s cabinet declared one week later that the expression was wrong because “terrorism has no religion or nationality.” The “Islamic fascist” comments dwindled to a trickle.
Olivier’s correct — Bush did try to separate Islamist terrorism from the vast majority of Muslims, in part because we’re relying on Muslim allies in the war on terror. Bush tried to rebuild Iraq into a pluralistic, cohesive, and democratic Muslim nation to show it could be done, and both Bush and Obama tried to do the same thing in Afghanistan. Right now, we’re clamoring to arm the Kurds, who are almost all Muslims, because they genuinely embrace pluralistic democracy and are willing to fight for it. Strategically, it doesn’t make any sense to alienate a billion Muslims by making blanket statements about their faith when we’re fighting the dangerous extremists among them.
However, Bush would not have claimed that the victims of the Paris attacks were “randomly selected folks,” nor would he have ignored the nature of the attacks in Copenhagen, either. Needless to say, his instincts for fighting this would include the efforts Obama mentions, but would have also included a lot more action on the part of the US and its allies. Indeed, Bush would have demanded a continuing presence in Iraq in order to keep his project on track, and that could have prevented the genocides that we’ve seen over the past year.
I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have suggested that the extremists have “legitimate grievances,” either:
Governments that deny human rights play into the hands of extremists who claim that violence is the only way to achieve change. Efforts to counter violent extremism will only succeed if citizens can address legitimate grievances through the democratic process and express themselves through strong civil societies.
This seems like a fancier way to make Marie Harf’s argument to Chris Matthews, which is that Islamist extremism is due to a lack of jobs and economic opportunities. That’s absurd; we’ve had poverty since civilization began, and we have it around the world. Yet the violent extremism that threatens the US and the West has a very specific intent — and as Graeme Wood explained this week in The Atlantic, it’s not hijacking Islam at all, but applying the original version of it to today. Fighting it will take a lot more than a hashtag campaign.
Clearly, someone at the White House has been paying attention to the furor over recent remarks made by Obama, Harf, and others in this administration about the nature of the war we are fighting. Too bad they’re still paying more attention to the messaging and not the war itself.