The official position of the Obama Administration seems to be that our country is at war with extremism, including but not limited to those who commit acts of terror in the name of Islam. It is also the position of the executive branch that proclaiming war against radical Islam specifically is unjustified, and for two reasons: first, because the differences among various terror groups (al-Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, etc.) are greater than their similarities; second, because those terror groups are unrepresentative of the Muslim faith and Muslims both at home and abroad. That much has been made clear by White House press secretary Josh Earnest, State Department spokeswoman Marie Hart, and to a lesser extent, by President Barack Obama and Secretary John Kerry themselves. Conservative and liberal critics alike have repeatedly pointed out that no other form of extremism holds a candle to the Islamic, though explanations for this are varied.
To say the unpopular thing, I think the Obama Administration is right in more ways than it is wrong. But it is wrong in counterproductive, naïve, even dangerous ways.
The President’s apologists have pointed to the fact that more terrorists have been killed under this Administration than the Bush administration, with particular success in eliminating high-profile targets like Osama bin Laden. Actions speak louder than words, they say, and the Administration has been successful in combating what the right would call Islamic extremism without using such aggressive and (in the words of Ms. Hart) “overly-simplistic” language.
That is true: the Obama Administration has done a good job of carrying out targeted strikes against terrorist operatives and thwarting potential domestic threats. But there is no hope of ending the threat of the specifically Islamic variety of extremism without using that potent language: “radical Islam.”
The simple fact—a fact really so simple we should not have to talk about it—is that extremism is propagated through otherwise “legitimate” power structures in the Muslim faith. In many cases, as with the Tsarnaev brothers (who carried out the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing), it is a matter of children being radicalized by their parents. Also very common is self-radicalization through exposure to Internet propaganda, which appears to be the origin of the Charlie Hebdo and Martin Place shooters. The most visible cause is the cooperation between state and religious authorities, as with Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and, more subtly, modern Pakistan. Some fall under the influence of lay preachers and youth leaders, as with the chilling case of Sydney’s “Street Dawah Movement,” which was banned before a series of raids in 2014 revealed its participants’ connection to terrorist cells. A considerable number of inmates in the United States, most of them African-American, are radicalized by the widespread Nation of Islam presence in our prison system. Then there’s the old cult of personality, like that of Anjem Coudary in the United Kingdom.
Families, church-state relations, public proselytism, prison chaplaincies, and even charismatic lay leadership—all of them are either perfectly neutral or benevolent in and of themselves. But, as with any network or belief system, they can be hijacked by operatives who would use basically humane mediums to inhumane ends. That is not necessarily a reflection on Islam as a religion, but rather on a general tendency in human nature to cloak evil with righteousness or, more ingeniously, neutrality. Yet it is no coincidence that radical Islam is being propagated by certain Muslim chaplaincies, certain Muslim civil groups, and certain persons originating from predominantly Muslim countries, either. Again, this seems mind-numbingly simple. Probably it is. But if we deny the existence of a uniquely Islamic variety of violent radicalism at face value, of course we will be inclined to dismiss these deadly patters of infection as regrettable coincidences.
This means, frankly, that we cannot say we are seriously addressing the threat of terrorism at home unless we are willing to interrogate the social organization of the Islamic faith, which confusingly looks authoritarian from one angle and totally decentralized from another. We have to be willing to monitor suspected clerics, chaplains, and religious congregations. We have to collect background information on immigrants from state sponsors of terrorism and areas with large fundamentalist activity. It is absolutely impossible to solve the problem of radical Islam without looking at how radical Islam spreads–even when it spreads through otherwise legitimate channels.
I think this is the conversation going on the White House: They say “radical Islam” till they are blue in the face behind closed doors, but refuse to do so publicly. This is part of a grand strategy to alienate as few Muslims as possible while carrying out surgical strikes against known radicals. In theory, it is not a bad plan. But it also suggests that the White House believes it holds a monopoly on understanding this nuanced approach to Islamic radicalism. It implies that the American people are too prone to engage in Islamophobia and thus must be excluded from the solution to the problem of Islamic terrorism.
Aside from the patronizing and heavy-handed tone, this is plan is doomed to fail because we absolutely need both the Muslim and the non-Muslim to be involved in curbing the threat of radical Islam. Whether we like it or not, the only way effectively to counter extremism is by placing social and legal pressure on moderate Muslims to “dob in” their extremist co-religionists. Most instances of radicalization are not as obvious as Nicholas Brody’s in Homeland. Usually they are self-radicalized or influenced by radical family members, friends, or neighbors. So where it is possible to catch a terrorist before he strikes, our best ally will be those in his immediate circle.
This approach need not be seen as vindictive or “Islamophobic.” Only in our modern culture could reporting potential threats to public safety be considered a regrettable, or even exceptional, duty. We simply have to hold American Muslims to the same standard to which we hold members of any faith (or no faith at all), adherents of any creed, and members of any organization. Expecting Americans to defend our republic and help keep their fellow citizens out of harm’s way is not bigotry. On the contrary, it is one of the most noble and universal vocations of all—one that any person seriously desiring to live in a democracy would undertake joyfully.
Our system of government demands that each participant take an active interest in each other’s well-being. This has always been the key to our survival. It will be for as long as the republic endures. And it is as true today as it ever will be.
We ask to what degree immigrants should assimilate, and to what degree they should retain their own culture and values. This is the bare minimum of assimilation: Do what one can to ensure no harm comes to one’s fellow citizens. We desperately need the Muslim community’s support in isolating the threat of radical Islam, and the United States has every right to expect such support from those living under her care. The process begins with acknowledging that common arch-enemy by name: Radical Islam.
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