FPI Bulletin: San Bernardino, Terror, and Islam

December 15, 2015

The aftermath of San Bernardino attack provides a stark reminder that the United States has not yet learned how to have a constructive debate about the ideas that motivate organizations like the Islamic State and al Qaeda. We know that the United States is engaged in a war against adversaries who see themselves as the vanguard of Islam. Yet we cannot move beyond an increasingly polarized argument regarding whether to apply the adjective “Islamic” to our adversaries’ extremism. As a result, we are incapable of having a more practical debate about why tens of thousands of young Muslims perceive the doctrines of the Islamic State as authentically Islamic – and how to prevent that perception from spreading.  

President Obama has long denied that there is anything “Islamic” about our adversaries, offering two primary justifications for his position. The first is that the description of our adversaries’ beliefs as Islamic in any way, shape, or form amounts to a validation of their effort “to portray themselves as religious leaders – holy warriors in defense of Islam.” By extension, this allows ISIS and al Qaeda to say that the United States is at war with Islam. “That’s how they recruit,” Obama explains, “That’s how they try to radicalize young people.”

The President’s second concern is that any association of our adversaries with an authentic version of Islam will promote divisive prejudices at home that advance the extremist agenda abroad. Thus in his address to the nation after the shooting in San Bernardino , Obama said, “it is the responsibility of all Americans – of every faith – to reject discrimination.”  If we fail this test, “that betrayal of our values plays into the hands of groups like ISIL.”

Although the President’s intentions are honorable, his refusal to acknowledge any substantive relationship between Islam and extremism is both factually deficient and likely to cultivate precisely those exaggerated fears that he seeks to assuage.

Leading scholars observe that extremist ideologies do indeed intersect with major currents in Islamic thinking. As Dr. Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution writes, “ISIS draws on, and draws strength from, ideas that have broad resonance among Muslim-majority populations.” He notes, for example, that overwhelming majorities in a number of Arab countries favor the death penalty as a punishment for apostasy. While it may be undiplomatic for the President to raise that particular point, he should open the door to a discussion of how certain Islamic traditions may be more easily expropriated by ISIS or al Qaeda.

In fairness to President Obama, he is correct to say that his position on these issues does not differ substantially from that of his predecessor. Just days after the devastating attacks of September 11, 2001, Bush spoke at the Islamic Center of Washington D.C., where he declared that “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam.  That's not what Islam is all about.  Islam is peace.  These terrorists don't represent peace.  They represent evil and war.” Bush employed the phrase “Islamic radicalism” later in his presidency, yet portrayed Islam in essentially the same manner as Obama does now.

Regardless of how the President balances the imperatives of diplomatic courtesy and analytic precision, the public discussion of the relationship between Islam and terrorism should begin with an emphasis on the school of thought that leading scholars describe as jihadi-salafism, radical jihadism, or simply jihadism. The leaders of both al Qaeda and the Islamic State adhere explicitly to this movement. In a Brookings Institution analysis paper, Princeton’s Cole Bunzel explains that while jihadi-salafi thinking may be extreme, it is based on a “reading of Islamic scripture that is also textually rigorous, deeply rooted in a premodern theological tradition, and extensively elaborated by a recognized cadre of religious authorities.”

While salafism may not directly encourage extremism, it has elements that are suitable for legitimizing an extremist interpretation of Islam. As Bunzel notes, “Salafis view themselves as the only true Muslims” and consider the practitioners of “major idolatry” – including all Shi’ites – to be apostates. In addition, many consider democratic government to be a form of apostasy. Jacob Olidort, also of Princeton, observes that since all Salafis share “the same theological DNA,” the transition from non-violent to jihadist interpretations of the faith is “not a big conceptual leap.”

For countries with a strong commitment to freedom of speech and freedom of conscience, it may be difficult to address a threat posed by ideas rather than behavior. It is necessary, however, when a certain community of belief is more likely to generate extremism and extremists.

In his address to the nation, President Obama briefly mentioned that the U.S. government is cooperating “with our Muslim communities here at home to counter the vicious ideology that ISIL promotes online.” But rather than describe those efforts, why they are necessary, or what can be done to ensure their success, he quickly pivoted to proposals for gun control and immigration reform that would not have restrained the killers in San Bernardino.

Nonetheless, the President was right on Sunday to reiterate the importance of rejecting anti-Muslim prejudice and bigotry. “It is the responsibility of all Americans – of every faith – to reject discrimination,” he said. This is true. In light of recent suggestions that the government may need to register its Muslim citizens or ban foreign Muslims from entering the United States, such a reminder was necessary.  Yet it should set the conditions for a serious debate about Islam and extremism, not an alternative to acknowledging their interactions.

Refusing to acknowledge the relationship between terrorism and Islam “isn’t even effective at countering Islamophobia,” writes Brookings’ Hamid, since “claims that ISIS and Islam are unrelated sound entirely divorced from reality.” Rather, by describing how certain Islamic traditions are conducive to extremism under certain circumstances, the President could show that Islam itself is not a threat while encouraging productive discussions about how to prevent further attacks.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
Read More