In the furor over President Obama’s remarks last week at the National Prayer Breakfast, where he compared the rise of the Islamic State with the history of Christian extremism, it’s been lost that the president was carefully retreating from the idea that the U.S. is engaged in a grand civilizational war against Islam — a longstanding fallacy which many American politicians are apparently loath to abandon.
After the September 11th attacks in New York and Washington DC, then-President Bush made a memorable rhetorical choice to invoke the Crusades when describing the scope and nature of the coming American military response.
While the implications of such a statement were not evident at the time to many Americans, the same was not true abroad. French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine reacted with alarm, saying: “We have to avoid a clash of civilizations at all costs,” and cautioning that “one has to avoid this huge trap, this monstrous trap.”
Fast forward more than a decade and the “monstrous trap” Vedrine warned of has ensnared the United States. After spending trillions of dollars and killing hundreds of thousands of people in the name of a “War on Terror,” the U.S. today remains mired in a seemingly endless cycle of conflict with an expanding array of religiously-influenced militant groups. The “War on Terror,” paradoxically, has resulted in the problem of terrorism becoming more widespread and virulent than ever.
At least part of the reason for this is that many American officials have continued in Bush’s tradition of defining the U.S. conflict with extremist Middle Eastern groups as a grand civilizational and religious battle, thus playing in to the same sharply polarizing narrative those groups seek to promote.
In the immediate aftermath of Bush’s declaration of a new crusade, Osama bin Laden himself cited Bush’s words in an interview as proof that America was a broadly hostile civilization planning to establish hegemony over the Middle East. Today, both Islamic State’s Dabiq magazine and Al Qaeda’s Inspire have regular sections devoted in part to publishing similarly helpful quotes from hostile Western officials.
Even as he has continued many of his predecessor’s worst policies in the war on terror, Obama appears to be aware of the self-defeating dynamic created by grandstanding about civilizational conflict. Speaking in a recent interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, the president said that while he recognizes the stated ideological motivations of many terrorists, he rejects the “notion that somehow that creates a religious war.”
Citing the overwhelming majority of Muslims who reject the actions of groups such Al Qaeda and ISIS, the President warned against providing “victory to terrorist networks by overinflating their importance.” He also described the Middle East and South Asia as “ground zero for needing to win back hearts and minds [of] young people,” and cautioned against using vague terms such as “radical Islam” which could alienate people in these regions even further.
At last week’s prayer breakfast, the president went on to caution attendees against getting on their “high horse” on the topic of religious extremism, and compared groups such as Islamic State with perpetrators of Christian religious violence from the Crusades up through slavery.
These reasonable comments have inflamed those still devoted to the narrative of clashing civilizations, who seem unconcerned about escalating the present conflict even further. Republican presidential hopeful and Fox News personality Mike Huckabee attacked Obama for his alleged hostility to “Christians [and] Jews in Israel,” as well as what he described as an “undying” support for American Muslims. Rep. John Fleming, a Louisiana Republican, explicitly accused Obama of “defending radical Islam” and suggested that he had referred to Islamic State members as “freedom fighters.”
Republican Senator Lindsay Graham, who has repeatedly and explicitly stated that the U.S. is in a “religious war,” has also criticized the President’s refusal to use religious terminology in defining the conflict, characterizing his decision as a conscious denial of reality. Alabama Republican Congressman Mo Brooks, for his part, suggested that Obama’s refusal to use terms like “Islamic terrorism” is likely “an unfortunate byproduct of the days when he was in a Muslim school.”
But in spite of these increasingly unhinged lamentations, Obama’s comparison of Islamic State to Crusaders and slave owners is not only accurate and historically sound, it makes practical sense as well.
Not only does such rhetoric help demonstrate a more rational and humane side of the U.S. to a generation of young Muslims, it also reinforces the message from Muslim leaders and clergy who have condemned terrorist groups for being radically out of step with Islam. Indeed, many who have defected from Islamic State or managed to escape from its prisons have described it as being markedly different from the exemplar of Islamic civilization it purports to be.
“Obama is right to not use terms such as Islamic terrorism, both for pragmatic reasons and also because it is not a very accurate way to describe this phenomenon,” said Arun Kundnani, a professor at New York University and scholar of terrorism and radicalization. “The more we learn about groups like Islamic State and see how out of step they are with mainstream Islamic beliefs, the more it becomes clear that religion for them more operates more as a form of militarized identity politics than as theology. Referring to them in religious instead of political terms gives them a legitimacy they would not otherwise have.”
With extremist groups like Islamic State waging a desperate battle to validate their narrative and claim the mantle of Islam, it’s bizarre to see American politicians essentially weighing in on their side. After over a decade of disastrously mirroring the rhetoric and behavior of extremists, the time has come to take a more reasoned approach.
Photo: Charles Dharapak/AP