On Wednesday and Thursday last week, President Barack Obama gave two speeches at the White House Conference on Violent Extremism, attended by representatives from some 60 nations. His purpose was to focus attention, both domestically and internationally, on fighting the sources of violent extremism. What are those sources? Obama answered, “By ‘violent extremism,’ we don’t just mean the terrorists who are killing innocent people. We also mean the ideologies, the infrastructure of extremists…”
This is exactly right. The terrorists are animated by an ideology, and we cannot understand what Obama called “the nature of the enemy” without knowing this ideology. You cannot go into a war of ideas without understanding the ideas you are at war with. Yet, throughout the two speeches, he never mentions the substance of the enemy’s ideas once.
Since Obama did not refer to the ideology we are fighting, I began to hope that he was cleverly employing the ancient Greek rhetorical technique of paralepsis – which is emphasizing something by not mentioning it, or by passing over it. In other words, if there is an elephant in the room and you want to call everyone’s attention to it, you may do so by not mentioning the elephant, which calls all the more attention to it. In Obama’s case, however, it was more a matter that he apparently did not see the elephant at all.
This is like saying, in World War II, that we were fighting the Nazi ideology, but never mentioning the thoughts of Friedrich Nietzsche, Alfred Rosenberg or Adolph Hitler. Or, during the Cold War, saying we are fighting the ideology of Communism, but never mentioning the ideas of Karl Marx, Lenin, or Stalin.
Even worse, Obama does not even have a name for the ideology – like “Nazi” or “Communist”. He only knows that it produces violent extremism. But what is the purpose of the violence? What is it supposed to accomplish? The Nazis and the Communists were very frank in respect to what massive violence would achieve for them. And, it turns out, the theoreticians and practitioners of this ideology-with-no-name have also been equally as frank. The trinity of thinkers behind it was Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sayyid Qutb, the chief ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Pakistani thinker and founder of Jamaat-e-Islami, Maulana Maududi.
Curiously, these three were themselves sympathetic with the Nazi and Communist ideologies. “In such a[n Islamic] state,” said Mawdudi, “no one can regard any field of his affairs as personal and private. Considered from this aspect the Islamic state bears a kind of resemblance to the Fascist and Communist states.” It is, he remarked, “the very antithesis of secular Western democracy.” Al-Banna regarded the Soviet Union under Stalin as the model of a successful one-party system, which the Islamists were seeking. In a line worthy of Robespierre, Qutb said that this “just dictatorship” would “grant political liberties to the virtuous alone”. The Muslim Brotherhood’s erstwhile motto was: “Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. The Qur’an is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.” By the way, the Muslim Brotherhood is also the mother organization that has spawned almost every other form of what is called radical Islam or Islamism, including Hamas and Al Qaeda.
Yet Obama assured his audience that, “No religion is responsible for terrorism. People are responsible for violence and terrorism.” What is this supposed to help us understand? Of course, Nazism and Communism were substitute or ersatz religions, and can only be correctly understood in this way. Were we to say, Nazism does not put people in concentration camps, people put people in concentration camps, or that Communism does not put people in the Gulag, people put people in the Gulag, we would be at a complete loss for the reasons for which people behaved in that way. Likewise, if we are afraid, or refuse, to look at the religious roots of today’s “violent extremism,” we shall similarly be at a loss.
Needless to say, the three pillars of the ideology-with-no-name go unmentioned by Obama. Why? The reason is that Obama, from the beginning of his administration, has had a pro-Muslim Brotherhood policy. He still does. In late January, several members of the Muslim Brotherhood were hosted by the US State Department, where they met with members of the State Department and White House staffs. According to the Muslim Brotherhood reports, the purpose of the meeting was to recruit support for their opposition to the ‘Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi regime in Egypt. (See the MEMRI online report.). Understandably, the Egyptian government, which is on the frontline fighting against ISIS and Al Qaeda terrorists in Libya and the Sinai, was considerably upset by this.
In a speech delivered at Al-Azhar on December 28, Egyptian President Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi gave a set of remarks the profundity of which easily eclipse anything Obama said in his two speeches regarding the nature of the serious threat in the Muslim world. They are worth quoting at length:
“We must take a long, hard look at the situation we are in. It is inconceivable that the ideology we sanctify should make our entire nation a source of concern, danger, killing, and destruction all over the world. It is inconceivable that this ideology… I am referring not to ‘religion,’ but to ‘ideology’ – the body of ideas and texts that we have sanctified in the course of centuries, to the point that challenging them has become very difficult.
It has reached the point that [this ideology] is hostile to the entire world. Is it conceivable that 1.6 billion [Muslims] would kill the world’s population of seven billion, so that they could live [on their own]? This is inconceivable. I say these things here, at Al-Azhar, before religious clerics and scholars… You cannot see things clearly when you are locked [in this ideology]. You must emerge from it and look from outside, in order to get closer to a truly enlightened ideology. You must oppose it with resolve.
Let me say it again: We need to revolutionize our religion. Honorable Imam [the Grand Sheik of Al-Azhar], you bear responsibility before Allah. The world in its entirety awaits your words, because the Islamic nation is being torn apart, destroyed, and is heading to perdition. We ourselves are bringing it to perdition.”
What is the ideology that al-Sisi is referring to? In part, that of the Muslim Brotherhood, which al-Sisi has suppressed after its presidential leader, Mohammed Morsi, was stopped from taking Egypt down the path to al-Banna’s dream of a totalitarian state. For this, the Obama administration has shunned al-Sisi, instead of thanking him for saving US strategic interests in the area.
How, then, are we supposed to fight the ideology-with-no-name, when Obama supports the organization out of which it was initially launched in 1928, and remains in support of today? The answer is several-fold and highly imaginary. First, says Obama, we should not “grant these terrorists the religious legitimacy that they seek.” But let us suppose that we actually wanted to grant such religious legitimacy. How exactly would we, as non-Muslims, do that? We could not, any more than we could deny them such legitimacy. Obama is continuing to foster the fantasy that Muslims actually care what non-Muslims think is legitimate or illegitimate in Islam. They don’t, any more than Christians care what Muslims think about the Donatist controversy. It is Muslim leaders who must do this, and it is the scorned al-Sisi who has most powerfully and courageously done so – no doubt, at the risk of his own life. He, of course, goes unmentioned by Obama.
Obama obviously thinks that Al Qaeda and ISIS are vulnerable because they “are desperate for legitimacy.” What they are actually desperate for is the restoration of the supremacy of Islam, which is what so many other Muslims yearn for, and why they are flocking to join ISIS. Obama is right to point out that “the terrorists do not speak for over 1 billion Muslims.” But then, in a very interesting twist, he purports to speak for them himself. Where did he get the idea he could do this? Is he Imam Obama? Who is he to say who represents Muslims and who does not? All he should say is that we will support the side within the civil war raging inside Islam that rejects the ideology behind the violence. That would be al-Sisi’s side.
During the rest of his discourse, Obama offers more bromides. He says we should reject the terrorist narrative, and then goes on to concede the legitimacy of some of the grievances giving rise to the narrative. “The Muslim world has suffered historical grievances – sometimes that’s accurate…” This means colonialism, the result of which is responsible for many of the woes in the Middle East.
Otherwise, Obama said, “When governments oppress their people, deny human rights, stifle dissent or marginalize ethnic and religious groups, or favor certain religious groups over others, it sows the seeds of extremism and violence. It makes those communities more vulnerable to recruitment.” What Obama is actually describing here is the Middle East and North Africa over the course of many centuries, during which terrorism was not a prominent feature of life. Most interestingly, what he said could serve exactly as a description of the Islamic State today. Obama is providing a list of things which he thinks naturally repel people. And in much of the world they do. His understanding of Islam and the Middle East, however, is so deficient that he cannot comprehend that those are the very things that attract the ample ISIS recruits (which is not to suggest that it attracts the majority of Muslims there).
This is why his prescription of democracy as the solution for these problems is delusional. Isn’t that what we tried in Afghanistan and Iraq? It will not work because the fundamental, underlying principle of democratic, constitutional rule is not yet accepted within the general population. For instance, recall, these results from a 2010 Pew Research Center poll. It revealed that 82 percent of the Egyptian people favor stoning people who commit adultery; 77 percent support amputation of hands for theft and robbery; and 84 percent favor the death penalty for people who leave the Islamic religion.
How many in Egypt, or in any Arab country, would accept the principle that all people are created equal? In Islamic Theology, Constitutionalism, and the State, Swiss scholar Lucas Wick examines an assortment of important, contemporary Muslim thinkers from the Islamist to the more orthodox persuasion to see if, within this variety, any one of them is more disposed than the others to the legitimacy of constitutional rule. Despite their significant differences, none of them are. Why this should be so, I tried to spell out in my book, The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis.
There are so many more misconceptions, but so little room to address them. Obama’s diagnosis of the problem never once considers that it is theological at its roots. This is what al-Sisi was intimating. If you address a theological problem with economic and social programs, you will get nowhere – which is why we have gotten nowhere.
One thing I heartily approve of is Obama’s recommendation that we amplify the voices of peace in the Muslim world. But because of his allegiance to the Muslim Brotherhood, he has no idea who these voices really are. If you want a fair look at them, go to the MEMRI website that features them. Or pick up a copy of the new book, Reforming Islam: Progressive Voices From the Arab Muslim World, which is a result of the al-Muslih (the reformer) website. I serve on the board of both of the organizations that produced these works, and I can guarantee you that the US government, under either Republican or Democratic administrations, has never helped these people, and I can state with certainty that, as a result of Obama’s Conference on Violent Extremism, no support will now be forthcoming.
Laudably enough, President Obama seeks to undermine the hatred behind the ideology-with-no-name. Toward the end of his Wednesday speech, he read from a Valentine he received from an 11-year-old, fifth grade Muslim-American student, named Sabrina. She wrote, “I am worried about people hating Muslims… If some Muslims do bad things, that doesn’t mean all of them do. Please tell everyone that we are good people and were just like everyone else.”
Obama’s response was: “That’s how we discredit violent ideologies, by making sure her voice is lifted up…” But exactly which violent ideology is undermined by Sabrina’s Valentine? Certainly not the one-with-no-name, which just happens to animate the “Muslims [who] do bad things.” I think, like al-Sisi, Obama should be more worried about the Muslims who hate and why they hate. As an example of such, here is former Egyptian President Morsi’s campaign speech in a 2010 appearance at a rally in his hometown in the Nile Delta. Morsi said: “We must never forget, brothers, to nurse our children and our grandchildren on hatred for them: for Zionists, for Jews.” Morsi added that Egyptian children “must feed on hatred; hatred must continue… The hatred must go on for God and as a form of worshiping him.”
This is one source of the ideology-with-no-name that Obama needed to address, but he daren’t go there, and we know why. He is in denial, which, as they say, is not a river in Egypt. Early in his Wednesday speech, he proclaimed, “First, we have to confront squarely and honestly the twisted ideologies that these terrorist groups use to incite people to violence.” I hope someday he does. Despite Sabrina’s Valentine, if Obama continues to refuse to designate the ideology-with-no-name, it will keep growing in strength. It is the elephant in the room that gets larger when its presence is ignored.
Robert R. Reilly is the author of The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis (2011).