President Obama’s condemnation of the attack on the Charlie Hebdo office today in Paris rightly referred to the perpetrators as “terrorists” and expressed solidarity with France even if it did come in a tone expressed with his usual lack of emotion. The official statement issued later also properly labeled it an act of terrorism. But the problem isn’t whether the administration is ready, as it was initially reluctant to do after Benghazi, to speak of terrorism, as it is the president’s refusal to discuss the motivation of the attackers and readiness to speak of it as the “senseless violence of the few.” This wasn’t senseless, Mr. President. Indeed, based on the administration’s past lukewarm defense of freedom of speech against Islamist attacks, it made a great deal of sense for terrorists to think they could get away with this atrocity.
Throughout the last two decades during which Islamist terrorists have been waging a war against the West, the United States government has always been properly reluctant to speak of the conflict as one between the American people and the religion of Islam. The U.S. has no argument with its millions of loyal Muslim citizens or with any faith per se. Nor does it have a brief for conflict with the many Muslim countries with which it enjoys warm relations. The arguments of both al-Qaeda and ISIS and their sympathizers, which speak of American wars “against Muslims,” are vicious libels. The wars, in which the U.S. has engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention in Bosnia before that, were waged to free Muslims. It is the terrorists who wish to silence and enslave Muslims in their nightmare vision of a new caliphate, not the Americans.
But that sensible reluctance to grant the terrorists their wish by allowing them to make this a war of Muslim versus non-Muslim should not extend to blindness about what is motivating the terrorists. As much as we may hope that Islamists don’t represent the views of most Muslims, it is ridiculous for the president or any other American official to be issuing statements (as they have at times) in which Washington pretends to be the authority on what is or is not authentic Islam. Suffice it to say that Islamists appear to have the support of tens of millions of Muslims in the Middle East as well as elsewhere and it is futile for any American president to be declaring them mistaken about their faith.
But more important than that is the steadfast refusal of the U.S. to state what is obvious. Ignoring the fact that the motivations of those who committed the act of terrorism in Paris were religious isn’t helping anyone.
For Islamists, silencing those who offend their religious sensibilities makes perfect sense. More to the point, doing so has worked very nicely to silence critics and opponents who rightly fear to call down the wrath of jihadists on their heads. As I noted earlier today, there is no cost to mounting a Broadway musical mocking Mormons, a peaceful and productive American minority group that took the insults lobbed at them with good humor and patience. But there is potentially a very great price to be paid if you wish to skewer the religious motivations of terrorists with the blood of countless Muslims as well as non-Muslims on their hands.
By cowering and apologizing every time radical believers in Islam express outrage at some actual or perceived slight to their faith, the U.S. has strengthened the conviction of the extremists that no one may offend them with impunity.
The social media campaigns spreading across the Internet today, as people express solidarity with the Charlie Hebdo satirists, is commendable. But what is needed even more is a universal condemnation of Islamists and calls for Muslims, both in the West and throughout the Middle East, to acknowledge that a sizable percentage of their co-religionists—and not just the tiny minority that the president spoke of—are laboring under the delusion that they can tell Europeans or Americans what they may or may not read or watch.
Islamist terrorists have proliferated precisely because they have been perceived as both the “strong horse” that can only be opposed at the risk of one’s life and because Westerners have so often purposely misunderstood the nature of the challenge they face. They are likely to remain a deadly problem until our leaders stop acting as if the successful tactics of the opponents of freedom are pointless or not rooted in a theological worldview that is shared by many of their co-religionists. Pretending that they are not a significant force in the Muslim world is what is senseless, Mr. President, not the actions of the terrorists.