War, extremism, Islam, and America's language police

The right-wing complaint that Obama isn't emphasizing the 'Islamic' part of the 'Islamic State' enough isn't only misguided, it's dangerous.

John Minchillo/AP/File
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani speaks in New York, May 12, 2014. Giuliani made headlines on Thursday, Feb. 19, 2015, for saying President Obama doesn't love America or its citizens.

New York's former mayor, Rudy Giuliani, made headlines yesterday for saying President Barack Obama doesn't love America or its citizens and that he "wasn't brought up the way you were brought up or I was brought up."

In the process of making his case, Mr. Giuliani joined a rising chorus of language police on the American right, spearheaded by Fox News, who are furious (they say) that the Obama White House tries to avoid smearing all Muslims with the same brush when talking about Islamist jihadis like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda.

This complaint was directed at Mr. Obama during an international summit in Washington on what his administration calls "countering violent extremism." In his remarks, Obama stressed a White House refrain – carried over from the Bush administration – that the US is "not at war with Islam." And this is what apparently infuriates his right-wing opponents.

“Why is this man incapable of saying that? You’ve got to be able to criticize Islam for the parts of Islam that are wrong. You criticize Christianity for the part of Christianity that is wrong. I’m not sure how wrong the Crusades are. The Crusades were kind of an equal battle between two groups of barbarians. The Muslims and the crusading barbarians. What the hell? What’s wrong with this man that he can’t stand up and say there’s a part of Islam that’s sick?” Giuliani said, according to Politico. 

Fox went full-bore on this topic. "President Obama criticized for not calling terrorists 'Islamic,'" was a frequent chyron, usually as Republicans like Karl Rove attacked the administration's language choices, as if semantics hold the key to defeating the likes of Islamic State, known as IS or ISIS. And Fox host Bill O'Reilly took up the language of The Crusades, using the kind of hyperbole that IS relishes, since it fits its own millenarian worldview of a US-led conspiracy to destroy the world's over 1 billion Muslims. 

"There is only one leader with the cache to lead the fight – that reluctant warrior, Barack Obama. This is now a so-called Holy War between radical jihadists and everybody else including peaceful Muslims. The Holy War is here and unfortunately it seems the President will be the last one to acknowledge it,” Mr. O'Reilly said

Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who may run for president next year, told Fox that Obama is an "apologist for radical Islamic terrorists" and accused him of "bizarre, politically correct double-speak." Michael McCaul, the Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, is also exercised by nomenclature. "Americans understand we are not at war with Islam. But, we will not defeat these fanatics if we refuse to define them for what they are – violent Islamist extremists." 

Click your heels

McCaul and other critics are right to point out the US government does not yet have a clear strategy for defeating jihadi groups like IS. Indeed, the US has been grappling for decades, unsuccessfully, to craft a winning strategy in this regard. But these critics tend to glide over the fact that creating such a strategy is really, really hard. And what they're generally offering in its stead is a series of demands to emphasize the word "Islam" in "Islamic State" since, they say, that will help better define and locate what the US is fighting.

Maybe saying it three times – "Islam, Islam, Islam" – while clicking your heels together will make the problem go away. 

This is not to say that jihadis, of whatever flavor, aren't driven and inspired by their particular version of Sunni Islam – a faith that, in practice, assumes dramatically different forms around the world, based on the local consensus of scholars, preachers, and communities. This is why mainstream Islam in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim majority nation, is quite different from the strict and limiting codes of the Wahabbi Islam that prevails in Saudi Arabia, and from which spring the smaller communities that adhere to the ideology of IS or Al Qaeda.

The Islamic State, of course, insists that their path alone is the one true path; all other Islams are false shadows of the real faith. And that's part of the problem for Obama or any Western leader who gets drawn into discussions of what the "true" Islam is or is not: they're unlikely to convince anyone who has left a comfortable life in Cairo or Paris to go wage war in Syria or Iraq. Such rhetoric may actually help legitimize the binary framing of jihadis. You can imagine IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi saying to Obama, "Well, now that you've agreed that there only is one kind of Islam, all we need to do is determine if I'm right or you are." 

J.M. Berger, a fellow at Brookings Project on US Relations with the Islamic World, wrote a good piece earlier this week about the error of focusing on the "Islamic" part of IS. His analysis bounces off a long, widely-shared piece in the latest Atlantic, which makes the case that “the reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic.Very Islamic.” Mr. Berger writes:

The Ku Klux Klan is also white. Very white. The problem with framing discussions of extremism in this manner is that, for many people, it extends into causality and a too-intimate merging of a mainstream demographic with the identity-based extremists who claim to be its exclusive guardians.

...What is the relationship between Christianity and Christian Identity? What does being German mean to Nazi ideology? What about the neo-Nazi movement Golden Dawn, a Greek identity movement heavily influenced by German Nazism? Should we understand that as German or Greek? How does Hinduism inform Abhinav Bharat, and how does Abhinav Bharat inform our understanding of Hinduism?

... Understanding whiteness is relevant to understanding white supremacy, just as understanding Islam is relevant to jihadism. And to be sure, religion matters to ISIS. A lot. But the concept of an exclusive identity matters far more, to the point that ISIS will engage in virtually unlimited theological gymnastics to justify it.

Berger locates the group in the history of millenarian movements, which have been spawned on the fringes of most of the world's major religions down the centuries, and says this is the true key to locating and understanding what drives IS.

"To understand and counter ISIS’s threat and appeal, frame it properly," he writes. "Identity-based extremism and millenarian apocalyptic cults provide a far more useful framework for understanding ISIS than Islam does."

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