After a three-day summit on how to counter violent extremism this week, it’s clear that President Obama is foundering in his efforts to quench the appeal of the Islamic State.
The President has made numerous speeches about Islam since he was elected and yesterday’s address to the summit contained nothing new.
Soon after he was elected he addressed students at Cairo University. His message was two-fold and he has repeated it time and time again. First was a vote of confidence in genuine Islam, a religion of peace. America and Islam, he said, “share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings”. Second was an assurance of America’s desire for peace. “America is not – and never will be – at war with Islam.”
Six years later both messages must seem empty to Muslims. In the 2008 campaign he said that defining when a baby becomes human was “above my pay grade”. If Mr Obama finds that too difficult, what credentials can he have to define genuine Islam? Or even Christianity, for that matter. For him the Qur’an is a tissue of cherry-picked quotes; for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State, it is a divine message which he knows by heart. The appeal of ISIS is precisely its claim to be genuine Islam.
And as for the peaceful intentions of the President, actions speak louder than words. His planes and his allies’ planes bombed Libya in 2011; he did nothing to stop the generals from taking the reins in Egypt after the Muslim Brotherhood won the 2013 election; and he did little to restrain Israel from pounding Gaza into rubble in 2014. Whatever the merits of those decisions, in Muslim eyes his reassurances must be worth very little.
If the President really had any new insights into how to combat ISIS’s appeal to the psychopaths and the devout young Muslims who are flocking to its black flag, he would never have included this sentence in his speech: “No religion is responsible for terrorism. People are responsible for violence and terrorism.” When a rhetorical genius recycles the unofficial slogan of the National Rifle Association, you know that he has run out of ammo.
The problem is lack of insight, not lack of diligence. Audrey Kurth Cronin, of George Mason University, points out in Foreign Affairs that it has been extremely busy in studying the threat:
According to a 2010 investigation by The Washington Post, some 263 US government organizations were created or reorganized in response to the 9/11 attacks… Each year, US intelligence agencies produce some 50,000 reports on terrorism. Fifty-one US federal organizations and military commands track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks.
Despite this massive input, the Administration was blind-sided by the rise of ISIS and as astonished as any reader of the New York Post by its repugnant atrocities. So what confidence can anyone have in Mr Obama’s prescriptions for dealing with ISIS? He said in yesterday’s speech:
“We all know there is no one profile of a violent extremist or terrorist, so there’s no way to predict who will become radicalized. Around the world, and here in the United States, inexcusable acts of violence have been committed against people of different faiths, by people of different faiths — which is, of course, a betrayal of all our faiths. It’s not unique to one group, or to one geography, or one period of time.”
Well, actually, there is, Mr President. Only a very, very, very small proportion of those hundreds of thousand of reports have dealt with Episcopalian terrorism or Confucian terrorism. The strongest predictor is adherence to particular sects of Islam. This is not Islamophobia; this is intellectual rigour.
Understandably, the President is desperate not to give the impression that the United States is at war with Islam. As he rightly says, “the terrorists do not speak for over a billion Muslims who reject their hateful ideology”.
But can’t he at least say that he is at war with the jihadist wing of Salafism? Can’t one of the 263 Federal agencies help him to identify exactly whom the United States is at war with? How can the President hope to defeat terrorism unless he speaks home truths?
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.