On Wednesday, Obama gave the nation exactly what it never knew it needed: Another self-indulgent, pedagogical lecture from the president on the roots of religious violence.
In that approximately 30-minute speech, Obama meandered aimlessly all over the theistic and sociological map, touching on a number subjects or theories popular in the faculty lounge but never for so long as to fully articulate a comprehensive philosophy. If that verdict sounds harsh, it should. There was no reason to engage in this solipsistic example of streaming consciousness but for the president to flatter himself, bare his inner professor, and indulge in what he apparently believes are his superior intellectual faculties. In the process, he might have made things worse.
The president’s refusal to acknowledge that the epidemic of violence spreading across the world today has its roots in a dangerous strain of Islam has been conspicuous. In fact, he seems inclined to go out of his way in order to assure the public that no self-described Islamic terrorist is representative of Islam. That’s a fine sentiment; it is one that has been said many times in the past by a variety of political actors from across the ideological spectrum. Obama certainly is not the first American political figure to engage in theatrical displays so as to convey that America is not participating in a religious conflict.
Obama added that the logic for his decision to avoid calling the Islamic State and its loyalists “Islamic” is based on his belief that ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other Islamist terrorist groups would like nothing more than to be portrayed “religious leaders.” That is a depiction that they should be denied. This, too, is a pleasant and rather anodyne statement, and one which is broadly shared. The popular press seems disinclined to play along, however. Hell, the media won’t even call them “ISIL” despite the president’s months-long effort to lead by example. So, the White House can make all the theological judgments about ISIS’s fealty to the Islamic faith all it wants. It seems a vain pursuit, but it’s also relatively harmless.
But Obama went on to make another comment that is less innocuous. “We are not at war with Islam,” Obama insisted, a statement that has become a constant refrain from American political leaders over the last 13 years. But he added a novel twist on that old phrase: “We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.”
There it was. This was the culmination of Obama’s colloquiums on religious violence, his op-eds in major urban newspapers expounding on the phenomenon, and a rambling speech on the subject before a rapt audience of supporters. It just so happens that ISIS would say precisely the same thing.
To return to Graeme Wood’s essay in The Atlantic briefly, devout followers of that messianic cult would contend that they are at war with takfiri, those who have sinned and are now apostate. What’s more, they have a rather expansive definition of who qualifies for that designation.
“Muslim ‘apostates’ are the most common victims,” he wrote. “Being a Shiite, as most Iraqi Arabs are, meets the standard as well, because the Islamic State regards Shiism as innovation, and to innovate on the Koran is to deny its initial perfection… That means roughly 200 million Shia are marked for death.”
ISIS, too, would contend theirs is a war against those who pervert Islam. If the president has determined that this organization is itself a perverter of the Muslim faith, we’ve now entered a rhetorical realm where we can contend that the West and ISIS are in a war over the only valid interpretation of Islam. That surely was not the president’s intention, but that would serve ISIS’s propagandistic purposes quite nicely.
If the President of the United States has a preferred interpretation of the Islamic faith, one which does not comport with that embraced by ISIS, he is waging a war with a religious component. Did it never occur to the president or any of his advisors that articulating that judgment contradicted all of his many claims that the war he is fighting is a wholly secular one? Obama and his surrogates have bent over backwards to avoid creating the impression that America has taken sides in a theological debate. If his administration hadn’t given in to their conceit that the president’s oratory prowess can move mountains, perhaps they wouldn’t have stumbled blindly into this dialectal minefield.
Whether or not that interpretation of Obama’s comments sounds right to you, it is undeniable that the United States is not in a more advantageous position today as a result of Obama’s sybaritic speech. It is unlikely that America stands on more strategic ground in the global war against Islamic radicalism because of Obama’s tortured attempts to obscure the precise nature of the enemy. Now, he has given America’s adversaries a brand new propagandistic tool. The world and the nation might be better served if the president stopped talking and instead focused on his responsibilities as commander-in-chief.