A key tactic of President Obama’s campaign against Islamic State has been to reframe how the world views the group. He speaks mainly of IS in terms of what it is not (“un-Islamic”) or simply by what it does (“violent extremism” and oppression). He does say it has an ideology, as he told Congress last week in requesting new war-powers authority. But the ideology is one that is “depraved,” or morally corrupt and thus outside any theology.
This painting of IS as a void of humanity rather than a voice of Islam lies at the heart of this week’s White House summit on countering “violent extremism.” Officials from some 60 nations have gathered to devise new ways of preventing IS “from radicalizing, recruiting, or inspiring” individuals.
Most of the summit’s work is focused on positive alternatives for potential IS recruits while also exposing the emptiness of the group’s vision and the likelihood of it collapsing from within.
Mr. Obama’s critics would prefer that he blame Islam itself, or at least the literal or out-of-context interpretations of the faith’s early writings, even if that might offend nonviolent Muslims. But even as a presidential candidate in 2007, Obama made a choice to see groups like Al Qaeda as built on an illusion that needs to be shattered even as much as their hideouts had to be hit by military means. And he now more strongly refutes his critics. His latest National Security Strategy, unveiled on Feb. 6, declares, “We reject the lie that America and its allies are at war with Islam.”
Back in 2007, Obama spoke of the need to deal with “pockets of extremism that follow religion to violence.” Such places have weak states, little justice, and high resentments. At a deeper level, he refers to them as places “where the light of hope has grown dark.”
Applying the metaphor of darkness to groups like IS rather than as just another variant of Islam remains the best way to defeat these groups. After each new atrocity by IS, such as the beheading of Christian Egyptians or the immolation of a Jordanian fighter pilot, Muslim countries within the international coalition have stiffened their campaign against IS.
The roots of terrorist acts, even those committed by those from faiths other than Islam, have long been difficult to pin down. Rather than give them substance, the better course remains in shining light on their darkness. If there is a struggle, it may be in choosing the best light. But there is no debate about the darkness.