Commentary Magazine


Topic: Islamism

After Garland, Don’t Change the Subject to Islamophobia

Almost immediately after the news of last night’s shooting in Garland, Texas broke many in the chattering class started to blame the intended victims of the attack. The group that had sponsored a contest to draw pictures of the Prophet Muhammad and two of the controversial speakers at the event were quickly depicted as having invited violence by their willingness to offend Muslims. But whether or not you agree with Dutch politician Geert Wilders or American activist Pam Geller, the failed attempt to slaughter them or those who chose to hear their words illustrated one of their main contentions. You can offend any other religion with impunity but dare to speak rudely or even truthfully about Islamist intolerance and you’d better pay for heavy security and/or hope the police are doing their job (as, thank Heaven, they were in Texas). That, and not whether or not Wilders or Geller are right about some things or even anything, remains the only question to discuss when it comes to talk about Islamophobia.

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Almost immediately after the news of last night’s shooting in Garland, Texas broke many in the chattering class started to blame the intended victims of the attack. The group that had sponsored a contest to draw pictures of the Prophet Muhammad and two of the controversial speakers at the event were quickly depicted as having invited violence by their willingness to offend Muslims. But whether or not you agree with Dutch politician Geert Wilders or American activist Pam Geller, the failed attempt to slaughter them or those who chose to hear their words illustrated one of their main contentions. You can offend any other religion with impunity but dare to speak rudely or even truthfully about Islamist intolerance and you’d better pay for heavy security and/or hope the police are doing their job (as, thank Heaven, they were in Texas). That, and not whether or not Wilders or Geller are right about some things or even anything, remains the only question to discuss when it comes to talk about Islamophobia.

Let’s specify that not all Muslims, especially here in the United States, are violent or intolerant. Most are hard working, decent people and deserve the same respect as any other American.

But there is a reason why humorists fear to skewer Islam or its holy book the same way they do Catholics or Mormons. You can mock Christian symbols, call it art and then expect cultural elites to lionize you and denounce those who are offended as fascists. You can stage an opera rationalizing Palestinian terrorism and the murder of Jews and be lionized as a courageous defender of artistic freedom and call those who denounce your bad taste Philistines. Write a play wittily trashing the Mormon faith and you can become immensely rich. None of those activities are particularly commendable but they are safe. But speak ill of Islam and you take your life into your hands.

Talk about Islamophobia in the United States is misleading since there is little or no evidence that the years that followed 9/11 or even now after the rise of ISIS that Muslims have suffered discrimination or violence. To the contrary, anti-Semitic attacks have always far outnumbered those despicable incidents in which Muslims were targeted. But the attempt to distract us from Muslim intolerance also misses the point.

You may say it is bad that some people are drawing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad specifically to offend Muslims who believe such drawings are forbidden. But the problem is that unlike other faiths that have learned to express outrage about those who show them disrespect without violence, a great many Muslims throughout the world still take it as a given that they are entitled to kill those who commit what they call blasphemy. The attacks on the Danish newspaper that first thought to publish Muhammad cartoons and then Charlie Hebdo illustrated this distorted principle.

The editors of Charlie Hebdo, Wilders and Geller need to be defended not because they are right about everything they say, write or draw. They aren’t right about everything as is inevitable with anyone who ignores nuances and seeks to inflame rather than analyze and illuminate. But, contrary to many of the talking heads on television today, they aren’t the problem. The problem is that a variant of Islam that commands the loyalty of hundreds of millions around the globe thinks it is okay to kill those who blaspheme against Islam. It is that faith that leads terrorists to cut off the heads of non-believers and to wage a war of conquest across the Middle East that threatens the security of the region and the United States. Nor is it a coincidence that this same not insignificant splinter of Islam is also promoting vicious anti-Semitism and helped fuel a rising tide of Jew hatred across Europe.

So, just as it is offensive to speak of the slain editors of Charlie Hebdo as being unworthy of our defense because of their harsh views, it is just as inadmissible for today’s discussion to center on whether or not Wilders or Geller are too provocative or show bad taste in their attacks on Islam. That may be hard for some in the Muslim world to accept. It may also be equally hard for many on the left, both here and in Europe, who have wrongly come to accept the idea that Islam may not be offended because it is a victim of imperialism and the West or the Jews who must always be seen as the villain. But the struggle against intolerant Islamism is one that hinges on the right and even the necessity to make it clear to the world that Muslims must learn to tolerate other views of their faith. Free speech can’t be sacrificed to Islamist sensibilities. Until it is safe for Wilders and Geller to speak without massive security measures, let us hear no more about the evils of Islamophobia.

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An Island of Normalization in the Mideast?

An imploding Middle East would seem an unlikely setting for finally realizing the Zionist dream of progress toward normalization with Israel’s neighbors. So I had to rub my eyes when I read the following report: Last week, Israel and Egypt ran a joint booth at the world’s biggest apparel trade fair, in Las Vegas. In addition, they’re discussing plans to double textile exports from the Egyptian-Israeli Qualifying Industrial Zone, and also to expand the zone to other products, like foodstuffs and plastics. Given that normalization with Israel has long been anathema in Egypt, this is an astounding turnabout.

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An imploding Middle East would seem an unlikely setting for finally realizing the Zionist dream of progress toward normalization with Israel’s neighbors. So I had to rub my eyes when I read the following report: Last week, Israel and Egypt ran a joint booth at the world’s biggest apparel trade fair, in Las Vegas. In addition, they’re discussing plans to double textile exports from the Egyptian-Israeli Qualifying Industrial Zone, and also to expand the zone to other products, like foodstuffs and plastics. Given that normalization with Israel has long been anathema in Egypt, this is an astounding turnabout.

The QIZ, which the U.S. created 10 years ago in order to bolster Egyptian-Israeli peace by encouraging economic collaboration, allows Egypt to export textiles to America duty-free if Israel contributes a certain percentage of their value. But until now, Egypt has kept its cooperation with Israel as low-profile and limited as possible due to the sweeping consensus against normalization.

After all, this is a country where a leading author was expelled from the writers’ union and saw his books banned for the “crime” of traveling to Israel and writing about his experiences. It’s a country where translated Israeli books sparked such outrage that the culture minister had to defend himself from accusations of “normalization” by saying the translations were intended only to enable Egyptians to “know their enemy” and promising that the project would involve no contact with Israeli publishers, but only with the Israeli authors’ foreign publishers. It’s a country where every candidate in the 2012 presidential election vowed to either scrap or “renegotiate” the peace treaty with Israel. And none of this was long ago.

Yet now, suddenly, Egypt is running a joint booth with Israel at a trade fair and discussing ways to expand the QIZ.

In part, this may indicate that Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi is more serious about trying to improve his country’s battered economy than he’s often given credit for–to the point that he’s even willing to bolster cooperate with Israel to do so, despite the risk of antagonizing the anti-normalization trolls, who quite definitely still exist.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine this happening without the growing recognition that Egypt and Israel face a common enemy: the Islamist terrorists in the Sinai and their Palestinian collaborators from Gaza. As a result, not only has security cooperation between the two defense establishments never been closer, but attitudes have also begun changing among ordinary Egyptians. During last summer’s war in Gaza, for instance, some Egyptian media commentators openly rooted for Israel to defeat Hamas (which an Egyptian court has since declared a terrorist organization).

Just how much Egypt’s enemy list has changed in recent years was somewhat ironically highlighted by a front-page article in the daily Al Ahram last week, after ISIS killed 21 Egyptian Copts in Libya and the Obama administration refused to support Egypt’s retaliatory airstrikes. In the best tradition of Egyptian conspiracy theories, the article accused Qatar, Turkey, and the U.S. of collaborating to sow “chaos and destruction” in Egypt. Notably absent from the list was the usual suspect–the one that used to routinely figure as the villain in every Egyptian conspiracy theory, like the 2010 classic that blamed the Mossad for shark attacks on Sinai beaches.

Having long since despaired of the dream that the cold peace with Egypt would someday thaw into normalization, most Israelis figured the new and improved security coordination was as good as it gets and expected nothing more. And yet, improbably, more seems to be happening. After all, it’s hard to imagine anything more “normalized” than a joint booth at a trade fair. And it offers hope that just maybe, something good can emerge from the current Mideast madness.

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Obama Misses the Point About Fighting ISIS

President Obama has just convened a conference on “Countering Violent Extremism,” his preferred euphemism for Islamist terrorism. His call for confronting “squarely and honestly the twisted ideologies that these terrorist groups use to incite people to violence” was good enough as far as it went–although it would have been more compelling if he himself would be willing to utter the word “Islam” in connection with the terrorist threat.

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President Obama has just convened a conference on “Countering Violent Extremism,” his preferred euphemism for Islamist terrorism. His call for confronting “squarely and honestly the twisted ideologies that these terrorist groups use to incite people to violence” was good enough as far as it went–although it would have been more compelling if he himself would be willing to utter the word “Islam” in connection with the terrorist threat.

The president was right to say, “We need to find new ways to amplify the voices of peace and tolerance and inclusion.” But what he neglected to do entirely was to mention the most important way to counter the violent message of what is now the world’s most successful (and most threatening) terrorist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

In the new issue of The Atlantic, Graeme Wood offers a long and invaluable analysis of what it is that ISIS wants and how to counter it. In the first place, he refutes the canard, popularized in good faith by President Obama, that ISIS is somehow “un-Islamic.” In point of fact, as Wood notes, ISIS leaders “insist that they will not—cannot—waver from governing precepts that were embedded in Islam by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers. They often speak in codes and allusions that sound odd or old-fashioned to non-Muslims, but refer to specific traditions and texts of early Islam.”

There is no doubt that, mercifully, ISIS’s is a minority reading of Islam but that does not change the fact that its ideology is rooted in Islam and has legitimacy among some Muslims. A refusal to confront that reality will not help us defeat ISIS.

What will help defeat ISIS? Wood makes an important point here:

One way to un-cast the Islamic State’s spell over its adherents would be to overpower it militarily and occupy the parts of Syria and Iraq now under caliphate rule. Al‑Qaeda is ineradicable because it can survive, cockroach-like, by going underground. The Islamic State cannot. If it loses its grip on its territory in Syria and Iraq, it will cease to be a caliphate. Caliphates cannot exist as underground movements, because territorial authority is a requirement: take away its command of territory, and all those oaths of allegiance are no longer binding.

In short, if we can roll back ISIS’s territorial control, we will dissipate its appeal. How we can do that is subject to debate. Wood himself writes that suggestions from some analysts, such as Fred Kagan and me, to deploy tens of thousands of troops to fight ISIS are misguided and will backfire. He writes: “Given everything we know about the Islamic State, continuing to slowly bleed it, through air strikes and proxy warfare, appears the best of bad military options.”

And yet many months of those air strikes have failed to dislodge ISIS from the vast majority of its territory in Syria and Iraq–which, as Wood notes, is the only way to defeat this evil organization. At best those air strikes have blunted ISIS’ momentum in Iraq. In Syria they have not done even that much: ISIS has continued to expand its territorial control even while being bombed. This means, as Wood writes, that “an avowedly genocidal organization is on its potential victims’ front lawn, and it is committing daily atrocities in the territory it already controls.”

Wood is compelling in analyzing the ISIS threat–less so in suggesting a solution. His work points to the imperative for the US to do more to deny ISIS territorial control. That is why I have suggested the new for more than 10,000 US personnel to be deployed, primarily in an advise and assist capacity, so as to galvanize opposition to ISIS primarily among Sunnis in Iraq and Syria. Yes, this carries risks–but so does allowing ISIS to continue expanding, not only in the Levant, but also as far afield as Libya and Afghanistan.

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Nothing ‘Random’ About Copenhagen Attacks

Many media accounts are referring to last night’s shootings in Copenhagen as a “copycat” episode in which the perpetrator sought to emulate the atrocities committed by Islamists last month in Paris. But whether or not the Copenhagen shooter was specifically motivated by the ones who committed the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo offices and the Hyper Cacher market, this crime must be understood as being one more example of the twin trends of Islamist violence and anti-Semitism that have spread across Europe. Even more importantly, it demonstrates the folly of the mindset of the Obama administration that continues to be resolute in its unwillingness to confront the sources of terrorism and the reality of its role in violent Jew-hatred.

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Many media accounts are referring to last night’s shootings in Copenhagen as a “copycat” episode in which the perpetrator sought to emulate the atrocities committed by Islamists last month in Paris. But whether or not the Copenhagen shooter was specifically motivated by the ones who committed the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo offices and the Hyper Cacher market, this crime must be understood as being one more example of the twin trends of Islamist violence and anti-Semitism that have spread across Europe. Even more importantly, it demonstrates the folly of the mindset of the Obama administration that continues to be resolute in its unwillingness to confront the sources of terrorism and the reality of its role in violent Jew-hatred.

The Copenhagen shootings provide important context for the interview of President Obama published last week in Vox. In it, he acknowledged that it was legitimate for people to be concerned about terrorism, but he spoke of it as a secondary concern that gained headlines merely because of the lurid nature of the crimes committed by those involved. Likening his job to that of a “big city mayor” who needs to keep crime rates low, he spoke of terrorism as merely one more problem on his plate and not the most serious one. Obama not only refuses to acknowledge that the spread of ISIS in the Middle East is fueled by a form of religious fundamentalism that has strong support in the Muslim world; he also quite deliberately refused to label what happened in Paris last month an act of anti-Semitism, a stand that was echoed by the press spokespersons for both the White House and the State Department last week.

I wrote last week that, contrary to Obama, there was nothing “random” about an attack on a kosher market in Paris: the assailants were clearly seeking out a place where they could kill Jews and succeeded in that respect. The same is true of the Copenhagen shooter’s decision to attack a synagogue after spraying bullets at a café where a cartoonist who had drawn images of the Prophet Muhammad was speaking. One person was killed at the café and a Jewish voluntary security guard at the synagogue (who was there protecting the celebrants at a bat mitzvah being held at the time).

The Copenhagen attacks are one more reminder that the debate about whether there is such a thing as Islamist terrorism or if attacks on Jews are “random” isn’t about semantics. The refusal to address the religious sources of terrorism—a point on which some Arab leaders have begun to be heard—inevitably renders American efforts to do something about the problem ineffective. Just as importantly, denying the connection between this form of Islam and anti-Semitism seems to be causing the administration to also refuse to acknowledge that Jews in Europe are being targeted because of their identity and not simply due to being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

If the U.S. were to begin to tell the truth about the Islamist roots of terror and the connection with anti-Semitism, that might be the start of a re-examination of mistaken policies that have, albeit unwittingly, led to the rise of ISIS as well as a determination to retreat from the Middle East. The administration’s obsession with creating a new détente with Iran is not merely about pulling back from a confrontation with Tehran about their nuclear-weapons program. It is part of a mindset that mistakenly views the Islamist regime’s bid for regional hegemony as no threat to the West. At the same time it also seems to regard worries about the defense of Jews, whether in an Israel threatened with extinction by Iranian nuclear weapons and Palestinian terror groups, or in Europe, as complications that need to be either argued down or ignored.

The West needs the sort of moral leadership from the White House that would galvanize world opinion against Islamists, whether in the form of ISIS barbarians in Syria and Iraq, Islamist tyrants in Tehran, or murderers bent on suppressing free speech and killing Jews in European cities. Instead, it has a man who provides misleading and inaccurate analogies between Islamist crimes and the history of the West while seeing himself as beset by demands to address issues of terror and anti-Semitism that don’t hold his interest. When the leader of the free world isn’t terribly interested in the need to defeat freedom’s enemies, the world must tremble.

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We Have to Talk About Obama’s Ignorance

In the wake of the controversy over President Obama’s offensive labeling of anti-Semitic violence as “random,” it became clear that regardless of whether he chose his words carefully, he certainly chose his audience carefully. He was not challenged by his interviewer at Vox for his undeniably false characterization of the Paris attacks. And now, having given an interview to BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith, he has continued exposing his own ignorance in the hope that he would continue not to be called on it by his interviewers. He was in luck yet again.

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In the wake of the controversy over President Obama’s offensive labeling of anti-Semitic violence as “random,” it became clear that regardless of whether he chose his words carefully, he certainly chose his audience carefully. He was not challenged by his interviewer at Vox for his undeniably false characterization of the Paris attacks. And now, having given an interview to BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith, he has continued exposing his own ignorance in the hope that he would continue not to be called on it by his interviewers. He was in luck yet again.

BuzzFeed has posted the transcript of the interview, and when the subject turns to Russia, Obama said this:

You know, I don’t want to psychoanalyze Mr. Putin. I will say that he has a foot very much in the Soviet past. That’s how he came of age. He ran the KGB. Those were his formative experiences. So I think he looks at problems through this Cold War lens, and, as a consequence, I think he’s missed some opportunities for Russia to diversify its economy, to strengthen its relationship with its neighbors, to represent something different than the old Soviet-style aggression. You know, I continue to hold out the prospect of Russia taking a diplomatic offering from what they’ve done in Ukraine. I think, to their credit, they’ve been able to compartmentalize and continue to work with us on issues like Iran’s nuclear program.

As people pointed out immediately, Obama is wrong about Putin and the KGB. Ben Judah, a journalist who recently wrote a book on Putin’s Russia, responded: “The interesting and informative thing about Obama’s view on Putin is how uninsightful and uniformed it is.”

Putin ran the FSB–the successor agency to the KGB–and the difference matters. But what also matters is the emerging pattern for Obama’s view of the world: he has no idea what he’s talking about. The president, as Sam Cooke sang, don’t know much about history. And it’s evident in each major area of conflict the president seeks to solve and ends up only exacerbating.

It is not my intention to run down a list of all Obama’s flubs. Everybody makes mistakes, and any politician whose words are as scrutinized as the president’s is going to have their share of slip-ups. Yes, Obama is a clumsy public speaker; but that’s not the problem, nor is it worth spending much time on.

The problem is that Obama tends to make mistakes that stem from a worldview often at odds with reality. Russia is a good example. Does it matter that Obama doesn’t know the basics of Vladimir Putin’s biography and the transition of post-Soviet state security? Yes, it does, because Obama’s habit of misreading Putin has been at the center of his administration’s failed Russia policy. And it matters with regard not only to Russia but to his broader foreign policy because Obama has a habit of not listening to anyone not named Jarrett. Obama appointed among the most qualified American ambassadors ever to represent the U.S. abroad in sending Michael McFaul to Moscow. But with or without McFaul, Obama let his own naïveté guide him.

Obama has also run into some trouble with history in the Middle East, where history is both exceedingly important and practically weaponized. The legitimacy of the Jewish state is of particular relevance to the conflict. So Obama was criticized widely for undermining that legitimacy in his famous 2009 Cairo speech, puzzling even Israel’s strident leftists. The speech was harder to defend than either his remarks to BuzzFeed or Vox because such speeches are not off the cuff; they are carefully scrutinized by the administration. When Obama could say exactly what he meant to say, in other words, this is what he chose to say.

It wasn’t the only time Obama revealed his ignorance of the Middle East and especially Israeli history, of course. And that ignorance has had consequences. Obama has learned nothing from the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a fact which was reflected quite clearly in his disastrous mishandling of the negotiations and their bloody aftermath. He didn’t understand Palestinian intentions, Israeli political reality, or the lessons from when the U.S. has played a beneficial role in the conflict in the past. The president can simply move on, but Israelis and Palestinians have to pay the price for his learning curve.

And the Vox errors echo throughout the president’s mishandling of the other great security challenge: Islamic terrorism. Such terrorism has contributed a great deal to the undoing of many of the gains in Iraq and the international state system. Here, for example, is a map tweeted out last week by Ian Bremmer, which shows, in his words, “Statelessness overlapping with radical Islam.” We can certainly argue over the chicken-or-egg quality to such an overlap, but the threat radical Islamic violence poses to global order is fairly obvious.

Yet it’s not just the history of Islam and of anti-Semitism that the president gets wrong when trying to spin away the threat of Islamist terror. He also created a firestorm with his faux history of the Crusades in order to draw a false moral equivalence that only obscures the threat.

In other words, it’s a comprehensive historical ignorance. And on matters of great significance–the major world religions, the Middle East, Russia. And the president’s unwillingness to grasp the past certainly gives reason for concern with Iran as well–a country whose government has used the façade of negotiations to its own anti-American ends for long enough to see the pattern.

They’re not just minor gaffes or verbal blunders. They serve as a window into the mind of a president who acts as if a history of the world before yesterday could fit on a postcard. We talk a lot about the defects of the president’s ideology, but not about his ignorance. The two are related, but the latter is lately the one causing a disproportionate amount of damage.

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What Obama Should Have Said at the Prayer Breakfast

At first, I was prepared to defend President Obama’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast from conservatives who excoriated him for comparing (as the New York Times account put it) “the atrocities of the Islamic State to the bloodshed committed in the name of Christianity in centuries past.”

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At first, I was prepared to defend President Obama’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast from conservatives who excoriated him for comparing (as the New York Times account put it) “the atrocities of the Islamic State to the bloodshed committed in the name of Christianity in centuries past.”

There are legitimate comparisons to be made. Indeed, just as Southern slaveowners once cited the Bible to defend slavery, so now ISIS cites Islamic law to defend its own form of slavery. Just as the Spanish Inquisition once burned heretics at the stake, so now ISIS burns alive a Jordanian pilot. More broadly the religious zealotry, bloodthirstiness, and intolerance of ISIS is indeed reminiscent in many ways, as Obama noted, of the Crusades.

But then I read the actual text of his speech and saw that his message wasn’t: Christianity was once intolerant but it has now reformed itself and Islam should do likewise. That’s an important message similar to the one that Egypt’s President Sisi recently delivered when he called for a “religious revolution” within Islam.

Alas, that’s not what President Obama said. What he actually said was: “And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”

He also said: “From a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris, we have seen violence and terror perpetrated by those who profess to stand up for faith, their faith, professed to stand up for Islam, but, in fact, are betraying it.”

Neither statement is true or helpful.

When we see ISIS beheading and burning hostages, and “selling, crucifying, burying children alive,” I’d say we have every right to get on our “high horse” about that–even if Christians in centuries past committed their share of atrocities. In fact we have an obligation to get on our “high horse”–to make clear that ISIS’s conduct violates every norm of civilized behavior and will not be tolerated. To shrug our shoulders and say “everybody does it” is untrue and immoral.

And it is no more likely to succeed as a rhetorical gambit than Obama’s previous forays into moral relativism, such as his 2009 Cairo speech (which I defended at the time), in which he equated Iranian “hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians” with the role the U.S. played in 1953 “in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government.” Such comparisons do not win the U.S. any friends–they don’t make the Iranian mullahs (or even the Iranian people) think what a great guy Obama is for disowning the conduct of the Eisenhower administration, just as ISIS (or even the ordinary people of Syria and Iraq) won’t think he is a great guy for disowning the conduct of the Crusaders. They just think he’s weak, that he’s unwilling to stand up and defend the United States, that he can be taken advantage of.

As for Obama’s claim that ISIS’s actions “are betraying” Islam–a claim he has made in the past–that too is a dubious statement and a presumptuous one for a non-Muslim to make. More accurate would be to say that ISIS’s actions are a betrayal of what we want Islam to be–but just as Christianity could be interpreted in centuries past to justify slavery and burning at the stake, so too Islam can be interpreted today to justify beheading of hostages and the enslaving of children. It does no good to deny the fact–indeed it is hard to imagine us fighting and defeating these Islamist extremists if we don’t recognize that their conduct has some grounding in Muslim tradition and has some support in the Muslim world.

No, that doesn’t mean that most Muslims are jihadists; the vast majority are not. But we need to be honest enough to recognize that ISIS’s actions, however reprehensible, have some real appeal to a minority of the Muslim world (see, for example, this article about Tunisia, which is one of the most moderate and stable corners of the Middle East), and we won’t change that fact by denying it away.

Obama’s speech reveals the fuzzy thinking behind his strategy in what used to be called “the war on terror.” Little wonder that across the greater Middle East–in countries such as Nigeria, Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen–we are losing the struggle. If the president can’t even think clearly on these major issues, he certainly can’t act effectively.

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Stop Debating Terminology; Just Defeat the Enemy

When I worked at the Pentagon as a low-level functionary a decade ago, I sat in on a meeting with a senior official who was ruminating about what to call insurgents in Iraq. Calling those fighting Americans “insurgents,” he argued, bestowed too much legitimacy on the group. Hence, the term “anti-Iraqi forces” was born. Some writers picked up on the “newspeak” and rightly dismissed it as a distraction, albeit one that represented hundreds of man hours before its first utterance. Labeling Iraqi insurgents “anti-Iraqi forces” did absolutely nothing to bring about their defeat.

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When I worked at the Pentagon as a low-level functionary a decade ago, I sat in on a meeting with a senior official who was ruminating about what to call insurgents in Iraq. Calling those fighting Americans “insurgents,” he argued, bestowed too much legitimacy on the group. Hence, the term “anti-Iraqi forces” was born. Some writers picked up on the “newspeak” and rightly dismissed it as a distraction, albeit one that represented hundreds of man hours before its first utterance. Labeling Iraqi insurgents “anti-Iraqi forces” did absolutely nothing to bring about their defeat.

Alas, the pattern continues. I have sat through numerous lectures in which scholars and military officers warn against the term “jihadist” to describe those who wage violent jihad. (And, yes, throughout much of Islamic history, jihad was understood to mean violent holy war, not simply internal struggle as some theological revisionists contend.) The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim Brotherhood-oriented group and advocacy organization popular with the White House, has suggested banning the word “jihadist” and simply call those waging violent jihad “criminals” instead. This New York Times op-ed went so far as to suggest that by using the term “jihadists,” Americans were effectively endorsing their mission just as much as “if Franklin D. Roosevelt had taken to calling Adolf Hitler the ‘leader of the National Socialist Aryan patriots’ or dubbed Japanese soldiers fighting in World War II as the ‘defenders of Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.’”

Ultimately, the George W. Bush administration agreed, and sought to ban government officials from using both “jihadists” and “mujahideen.” Its logic?

U.S. officials may be “unintentionally portraying terrorists, who lack moral and religious legitimacy, as brave fighters, legitimate soldiers or spokesmen for ordinary Muslims,” says a Homeland Security report. It’s entitled “Terminology to Define the Terrorists: Recommendations from American Muslims.” “Regarding ‘jihad,’ even if it is accurate to reference the term, it may not be strategic because it glamorizes terrorism, imbues terrorists with religious authority they do not have and damages relations with Muslims around the world,” the report says.

This, of course, is nonsense. Islamists no more look to the United States government to bless what is or is not Islamic than they would defer to the theological opinion of the owners of a Wiccan pig farm. If forced to decide what Islam justifies, Islamists will listen to a radical imam or their recruiter, not an anodyne U.S. Department of Homeland Security report.

Debates over the term “terrorism” are their own circle of hell. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano got off to a rocky start when she referred to terrorism as “man-caused disasters.” She explained:

“I referred to ‘man-caused’ disasters. That is perhaps only a nuance, but it demonstrates that we want to move away from the politics of fear toward a policy of being prepared for all risks that can occur.”

Sometimes moral equivalence infuses the debate. Terrorism, after all, can be judgmental term. Hence the BBC banned the use of the word “terrorist” to describe the perpetrators of last month’s massacre at the headquarters of the French satirical journal Charlie Hebdo. The head of BBC Arabic explained:

“Terrorism is such a loaded word. The UN has been struggling for more than a decade to define the word and they can’t. It is very difficult to. We know what political violence is, we know what murder, bombings and shootings are and we describe them. That’s much more revealing, we believe, than using a word like terrorist which people will see as value-laden.”

The problem is that redefining the word “terrorist” or omitting it from the lexicon altogether no more eliminates the problem of terrorism any more than Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s decision to transform “rogue regimes” into “states of concern” transformed North Korea or the Islamic Republic of Iran into liberal, progressive, peace-loving utopias.

Enter the debate about the Islamic State. On September 10, 2014, President Obama cast dispersion on the term “Islamic State”:

Now let’s make two things clear:  ISIL is not “Islamic.”  No religion condones the killing of innocents.  And the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim.  And ISIL is certainly not a state.  It was formerly al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq, and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria’s civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border.  It is recognized by no government, nor by the people it subjugates.

Secretary of State John Kerry has likewise said that the Islamic State is neither “a state nor truly Islamic,” and his French counterpart Laurent Fabius joined in to, advising against referring to the Islamic State as either Islamic or a state, the former because it offends Muslims and the latter because it bestows too much legitimacy. The Pentagon, of course, didn’t want to be left out of the wordplay games. It urged its personnel to use the term Daesh. Lt. Gen. James Terry, commander of the U.S. effort in Iraq and Syria, explained:

“Our partners, at least the ones that I work with, ask us to use that, because they feel that if you use ISIL, that you legitimize a self-declared caliphate. … They feel pretty strongly that we should not be doing that.”

The Boston Globe made much the same argument. Here’s the problem: Daesh is simply the Arabic acronym for al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham which literally means the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.” So, all the Pentagon fuss is the equivalent of saying the word “duck” is offensive to the French, so use “canard” instead.

White House political operatives love their polls just as the Pentagon embraces its metrics. Perhaps the biggest indicator of success or failure against external threats, however, is the inverse relationship between defeat of the enemy and a desire to debate terminology. Debate about what to call the Islamic State doesn’t advance its defeat one nanosecond. It is nothing more than a distraction—one that costs lives by substituting political correctness for progress and bureaucratic machination for battlefield success.

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Tunisia Busts Through Arab Glass Ceiling

There isn’t much good news coming out of the Arab world nowadays—civil war in Syria and Libya, state failure in Yemen, sectarian repression in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and the struggle against the Islamic State and radical Shi’ite militias in Iraq—but Tunisia is increasingly becoming a consistent exception to the rule.

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There isn’t much good news coming out of the Arab world nowadays—civil war in Syria and Libya, state failure in Yemen, sectarian repression in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and the struggle against the Islamic State and radical Shi’ite militias in Iraq—but Tunisia is increasingly becoming a consistent exception to the rule.

Tunisia was the birthplace of the Arab Spring. After overthrowing dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisians had a rough couple of years: Ben Ali stole billions, and it has been a constant struggle to recover even a fraction of those lost resources. The root of the Arab Spring was a desire for economic and political accountability, but the achievement of that is easier said than done. Throw into the mix the collapse of state control in Libya and the flood of Libyan weapons and refugees throughout the region, and Tunisia seemed to be buffeted by, if not in the midst, of a perfect storm. As the Egyptian-American sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim characterized it, in the decades before the Arab Spring, political organization devolved into a competition between the autocrats and theocrats; any more liberal group that sought to occupy the space in between ended up attacked by both sides.

Perhaps, then, it shouldn’t have surprised that Ennahda, a staunch Islamist grouping, won an initial victory in post-Arab Spring Tunisia, taking 89 of 217 seats in the October 2011 assembly elections; the next highest vote-getter won only 29 seats. This raised concern both inside Tunisia and abroad that Tunisia would be but the latest example of the “one man, one vote, one time” dynamic so common in the Middle East. But Tunisians kept up the pressure. In this brilliant stunt, a Tunisian NGO reminded people what the cost of apathy might be.

However, unlike Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated president who became Egypt’s first democratically elected ruler as the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties dominated Egypt’s initial elections, Ennahda to its credit learned that Tunisians had no desire to experience tyranny of the majority and have religious precepts shoved down their throats. Accordingly, it agreed to power sharing and eventually new elections. COMMENTARY’s own Max Boot was an election observer last autumn in Tunisia, as Tunisians flocked to the polls to elect a new parliament; he wrote up his experience here. In the months since, Tunisians have flocked to the polls to elect a president, and then a run-off to confirm the victor.

Now it appears that the Tunisians are getting further recognition for their gains. Freedom House recently released its new freedom in the world ranking, and Tunisia has made history as the first Arab country to be granted a “free” ranking. (In the past, the freest Muslim majority state was actually Mali, but the coup and civil war there ended that streak.) That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement; there most certainly is, as Freedom House itself notes. That said, it’s important to give credit where credit is due—and much is due to the Tunisian people.

Many observers and diplomats dismiss the idea of Arab democracy as impossible; they embrace cultural relativism and suggest that Arab culture simply doesn’t allow and won’t tolerate freedom. At best, they warn, it will descend into extremism and violence as in Gaza, Syria, and Libya. Diplomats often point to such examples as an excuse to never push for reform in the first place.

But Tunisia is an exception to the rule and can no longer be so easily dismissed. Rather than embrace the mediocre, it is a reminder that Arab states should be held to the same standards as non-Arab states; they should be pressured to reform and supported when they do. Who knows? Tunisia may be first, but there is no reason why it should be last.

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Blasphemy’s New Friends

Innocent victims of violence and injustice often attract the opposite of fair-weather friends: when they are at a low point, they become a cause. The surviving staffers of Charlie Hebdo, the satirical French magazine at which twelve were murdered by Islamist terrorists for publishing Muhammad cartoons, would probably be surprised by some of their new friends. And in fact, some of those new friends might be surprised themselves.

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Innocent victims of violence and injustice often attract the opposite of fair-weather friends: when they are at a low point, they become a cause. The surviving staffers of Charlie Hebdo, the satirical French magazine at which twelve were murdered by Islamist terrorists for publishing Muhammad cartoons, would probably be surprised by some of their new friends. And in fact, some of those new friends might be surprised themselves.

Over at his new perch at the Atlantic, former New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier has written a piece about the choice now facing the Jews of France. It’s headlined “We Are Hyper Cacher,” a reference to the kosher market whose shoppers were taken hostage by the perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, who then killed four of the Jewish hostages. In discussing the history of French Jews, Wieseltier pairs the religious shoppers at Hyper Cacher and the secular satirists of Charlie Hebdo this way:

The mockers at Charlie Hebdo had no place in their hearts for the believers who shopped at Hyper Cacher, and the pious consumers at Hyper Cacher were not readers of the witheringly anticlerical Charlie Hebdo, but they were unlikely partners in the same project: a society of freedoms and rights. In striking at them both, the killers struck at the same thing. The cartoons and the challahs both were talismans of democracy, which is Islamism’s nightmare.

When cartoons and challahs occupy the same bunker in a culture war, one of them has either been sacralized or demoted. In this case, the cartoons have been sacralized.

What’s interesting about this is the clarifying moment the mass murder at Charlie Hebdo now appears to have been. The cartoons don’t suddenly possess new meaning; if such meaning is present, it predated the massacre. Wieseltier, though, didn’t seem to think so the last time they were in the news.

In the fall of 2012, Charlie Hebdo was a topic of conversation around the time of the terrorist attack on the American mission in Benghazi and the administration’s ham-handed attempt to blame it on the obscure anti-Islam video Innocence of Muslims. Right after the attack, Charlie Hebdo published more cartoons making fun of Muhammad, raising fears of more attacks and calls to tone down anti-Islam “art,” such as it was.

The Washington Post’s Charles Lane was having none of it. In a column decrying “censorship-by-riot,” Lane wrote: “I say: One cheer for Charlie Hebdo. I doubt that its cartoons are either laudable or responsible. In fact, I’m sure that they are neither. But if free speech means anything, it’s the right to say and publish things that other people find objectionable and irresponsible, even blasphemous.”

Lane was right about the attempted censorship through violence (or fear of violence). Wieseltier didn’t think so. And he particularly didn’t care for Lane’s bestowal of the term “blasphemous” on Charlie Hebdo’s antics. He shot back at Lane:

When the cartoons of Mohammed were published by Charlie Hebdo in Paris, it was another exercise in pseudo-blasphemy, even if they did give real offense, because the right of a French magazine to publish them was never in doubt. The constitutional freedoms of Pastor Jones were never imperiled by General Dempsey when he implored the odious cleric not to circulate “Innocence of Muslims,” the Islamophobic garbage that led ineluctably to violence in the Muslim world. It is not “censorship-by-riot,” as Charles Lane indignantly put it, to attempt to prevent innocent people, Americans among them, from dying. Is this video not crying fire in a crowded theater, or providing theater for a crowded fire?

Here we have two points that seem to have dissipated with the massacre at Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher. First is Wieseltier’s suggestion that what Charlie Hebdo’s editors were doing wasn’t real blasphemy, and it wasn’t brave. It was the empty gesturing of ungrateful nogoodniks. This is because, according to Wieseltier, the cartoons were protected by law.

But law had no helping hand to lend when the terrorists came for the cartoonists and murdered them in cold blood. And the law certainly permitted Western newspapers from republishing examples of the subject matter that some felt was worth dying for. But the hasty and obsessive self-censorship in the wake of that attack had nothing to do with the law, because it wasn’t the law anyone was worried about. It was censorship-by-riot.

And it’s not censorship, Wieseltier said, to lean on cartoonists and filmmakers to take it easy on Muslims because lives are at stake. Once upon a time, Charlie Hebdo deserved mention alongside Innocence of Muslims while Wieseltier decried the latter as shouting fire in a crowded theater–arguably unprotected speech. Today, however, Charlie Hebdo has been promoted. It is speech that ought to be protected, it is essential to democracy, it is analogous to the bread Jews bless and eat to signify their miraculous survival by God’s grace in the wilderness.

It appears the 2012 set of incidents were the exception in Wieseltier’s worldview. In 1989, he castigated fellow Western writers for not immediately stepping up to defend Salman Rushdie from the latter’s censorship-by-fatwa. And those who found some dark irony in writers like Rushdie having opposed the free world’s democrats whose support and protection he now requires, Wieseltier called “mean and grudging and partisan.”

I don’t think so, but on the rest he was surely right then, as he is right now. And it would be mean and grudging and partisan to ignore the fact that some writers, Charles Lane among them, were right all along.

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The West’s Anti-Sharia Hysteria

Fox News has some egg on its face after repeatedly airing the claim that there are hundreds of areas in Europe–including the entire city of Birmingham!–that are “no go” areas for non-Muslims. David Cameron, the British prime minister, said, “When I heard this, frankly, I choked on my porridge.” Fox has now wisely retracted this ludicrous claim, but why where so many willing to accept as “facts” claims that are not remotely factual?

The underlying basis for this controversy is the fear, widespread among many but not usually aired in public because it is so politically incorrect, that Muslims are taking over Europe and even North America. There is a widespread strain on the right, mainly in Europe but also to some extent in the U.S. and Canada, that is in an uproar over the emergence of “Eurabia” and the imposition of Sharia law in the West. The flipside of this is the alarmism heard from some Muslims who contend that widespread “Islamophobia” is a danger to them.
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Fox News has some egg on its face after repeatedly airing the claim that there are hundreds of areas in Europe–including the entire city of Birmingham!–that are “no go” areas for non-Muslims. David Cameron, the British prime minister, said, “When I heard this, frankly, I choked on my porridge.” Fox has now wisely retracted this ludicrous claim, but why where so many willing to accept as “facts” claims that are not remotely factual?

The underlying basis for this controversy is the fear, widespread among many but not usually aired in public because it is so politically incorrect, that Muslims are taking over Europe and even North America. There is a widespread strain on the right, mainly in Europe but also to some extent in the U.S. and Canada, that is in an uproar over the emergence of “Eurabia” and the imposition of Sharia law in the West. The flipside of this is the alarmism heard from some Muslims who contend that widespread “Islamophobia” is a danger to them.
So which is it? Is the West being taken over by Muslims or is it blatantly discriminating against them?

The answer, not surprisingly, is neither. While there is undoubtedly some anti-Muslim prejudice throughout the West, it is tiny compared to the anti-Jewish, anti-Christian, anti-Western, and general anti-minority prejudice rampant in the Muslim world. Moreover, there are relatively few instances in the West of Muslims being attacked for their beliefs–there is no strain of attacks on Muslims remotely comparable to anti-Semitic attacks in France and other Western nations, most recently manifested in the hostage-taking and murder in a kosher market in Paris.

Although there is certainly virulent anti-Muslim sentiment expressed by the likes of Marine Le Pen, on the whole the nations of the West have been tolerant to a fault. The problem is that they have not done a very good job of assimilating Muslim immigrants who, like many other immigrants (think of the Irish or the Jews in turn-of-the-century America), tend to live in their own closed communities. This societal shortcoming–rather than any kind of Jim Crow like system–is what has bred so much resentment particularly among second-generation immigrants. To say that Europeans, in particular, need to do a better job of providing jobs and opportunities for immigrants is not to say, however, that Muslims face any officially sanctioned system of discrimination that could be termed “Islamophobic.”

What about the opposing claim–that Muslims are taking over? This is an even more ridiculous claim given what a small percentage of Europe is actually Muslim. The country with the largest Muslim population is Russia where Muslims constitute 10 percent of the total. In Western Europe the highest total is in France–7.5 percent, followed by the Netherlands (6 percent), Belgium (5.9 percent), Germany (5.8 percent), Austria (5.4 percent), and the UK (4.8 percent). Some predict that these percentages will go up dramatically in years to come while native-born Europeans will die out because of a plummeting birth rate. But such claims are not credible–they ignore the fact, for example, that Muslim birth rates are dropping in both Muslim-majority countries and in Europe. Nor are European countries likely to allow unchecked immigration from Muslim nations.

Given what a small percentage of Europe’s population–to say nothing of the U.S. or Canada–is actually Muslim, it would be hardly likely that this minority could impose its will on the majority and create some kind of fundamentalist Sharia law as so many seem to fear. And indeed, contrary to unsupported assertions by some alarmists, there is in fact no evidence of any such Islamic fundamentalist law being imposed in the West.

The one very limited exception is the area of family law where the U.S. and other Western states have long made it possible for arbitration to be used to settle disputes over divorce and the like. As the Economist has noted, rabbinic courts and Christian mediation services have arbitrated family law disputes, and now some Muslim outfits are doing the same. But this is a long way from suggesting that these Muslim arbitration services will be able to legalize medieval punishments such as stoning or flogging for “crimes” such as blasphemy or adultery. Any Muslims who try to carry out such penalties in the West will face criminal charges, and it’s hard to imagine that ever changing.

The threat from Islamist terrorism is serious and growing, but let’s not exaggerate by suggesting that an ISIS-like state is about to take over Europe or North America. That’s not going to happen. If nothing else, the widespread revulsion against the Charlie Hebdo killings–which drew monumental crowds into the streets of France–shows that the West has plenty of fight in it and is not about to roll over for its enemies.

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Terror War Comes to Europe

Many European countries decided they would have nothing to do with the war on terror. Of course, they made the argument for not intervening in the Middle East on moral and legal grounds, but no doubt they also wagered that they would be safer at home if they kept out of it and left the unpleasant work to others. Yet as the events of recent weeks have demonstrated, none of this has kept Europeans any safer, and now Europe is rapidly turning into a flashpoint in radical Islam’s war with the West.

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Many European countries decided they would have nothing to do with the war on terror. Of course, they made the argument for not intervening in the Middle East on moral and legal grounds, but no doubt they also wagered that they would be safer at home if they kept out of it and left the unpleasant work to others. Yet as the events of recent weeks have demonstrated, none of this has kept Europeans any safer, and now Europe is rapidly turning into a flashpoint in radical Islam’s war with the West.

Following last week’s four terror incidents in France (the shooting at the Charlie Hebdo offices, the shooting of a female police officer in Paris, the hostage taking at the printing works, and the attack on the kosher supermarket), there have now been a series of terror raids across Europe. Most dramatic were the events in the small Belgian town of Verviers. There the police intervened to prevent an imminent attack—what some have called a “second Paris”—and a gun battle ensued in which two of the terror suspects were killed and a third was injured and arrested.

Meanwhile in Germany a whole series of anti-terror raids took place. Already on Saturday night there had been the firebombing of the Hamburger Morgenpost, when once again Islamist extremists moved to shut down the free press. Now the German authorities have arrested several with alleged links to ISIS, with 250 police being involved in raids on eleven residences in Berlin, and a further unrelated raid and arrest of a man linked to ISIS in Wolfsburg, west of Berlin. Back in France, twelve people were detained by police for their association with Amedy Coulibaly, the kosher supermarket attacker. Additionally, French police also closed the Gare de l’Est station in Paris on account of a bomb scare there.

There can be little doubt that the terror war has come to Europe, in spite of—and perhaps even because of—Europe’s refusal to play a significant role in the war against radical Islam. For while most European countries have attempted to avoid getting involved in the wars of the Middle East, the turmoil currently rocking the Islamic world has come to the streets of Europe nonetheless. As Simon Gordon remarks in an important new piece for Mosaic, “rather than the West exporting liberal democracy to the Middle East, as many had fantasized during the late lamented ‘Arab Spring,’ it is the Middle East that is exporting Islamism to the free world.”

As Islamism has increasingly gained a foothold in Europe, so the future of Europe’s Jews has become increasingly imperiled. France may have resisted deploying troops to Iraq, but now in a ridiculous and unsustainable move it has been forced to put boots on the ground in Jewish schools. And following last night’s incident in Belgium, Jewish schools across Brussels and Antwerp have been closed for the time being, as have a synagogue and a Jewish school in Amsterdam. In Sweden, Jewish communal leaders are reporting that the already high threat to Jews there has now doubled in the wake of Paris; apparently these attacks have galvanized radicals, rather than convincing them of the horror that their extremism unleashes. It is also noteworthy that in Britain a report released this week by the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism found that 45 percent of Jews there believe they and their families are at risk from Islamists.

Just like Nazism and Communism before it, the nihilistic and anti-Western forces of radical Islam know that ending the Jews must be a core pillar of their efforts to turn the world upside-down. Understanding where Jews fit into the Islamist worldview is an essential part to understanding their war with the West and current events in Europe. Yet maddeningly, while Jews are being murdered in Europe, the left-liberal media is primarily concerned with handwringing over a possible anti-Muslim backlash. A backlash which apparently, and thankfully, never seems to come. Yet somehow Europe’s Muslims have gained the status of victims in waiting. So while extremists from their community terrorize society and specifically target the Jews, publications such as the New York Times have prioritized coverage of fears among European Muslims, as Liel Leibovitz has exposed so brilliantly.

Once again in Europe, Western democracy is under attack. Indeed, one cannot help but wonder if that continent hasn’t been identified by Islamists as a soft target, as the West’s weakest link. Europe’s security services are now springing into belated action, but they have let radical Islam fester in their cities for so long that they have a lot of catching up to do. And more than anything, it is not at all clear that Europeans and their politicians even fully recognize the battlefield that they are on. Yes, freedom and democracy are valued by many in Europe. But the values of wealth redistribution, multicultural tolerance, and even pacifistic dialogue are still so strong in Europe that it remains unclear whether these societies can even muster the willpower to have this fight.

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Terror Motivated by “Foreign Occupation”? The Data Says Otherwise.

I was shocked and disturbed by one of the passages Seth Mandel quoted Wednesday from a book by a well-regarded scholar of comparative religion. According to Karen Armstrong, ascribing Islamist terror mainly to religious motivations is wrong; “Terrorism experts agree that the denial of a people’s right to national self-determination and the occupation of its homeland by foreign forces has historically been the most powerful recruiting agent of terrorist organizations.” As Seth correctly noted, that claim ignores some pretty glaring historical evidence. But it also ignores the latest hard data, published just this month by the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

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I was shocked and disturbed by one of the passages Seth Mandel quoted Wednesday from a book by a well-regarded scholar of comparative religion. According to Karen Armstrong, ascribing Islamist terror mainly to religious motivations is wrong; “Terrorism experts agree that the denial of a people’s right to national self-determination and the occupation of its homeland by foreign forces has historically been the most powerful recruiting agent of terrorist organizations.” As Seth correctly noted, that claim ignores some pretty glaring historical evidence. But it also ignores the latest hard data, published just this month by the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

According to INSS, only 3 percent of all suicide bombings in 2014 were carried out against foreign armies. The vast majority targeted home-grown governments, militaries, and security services or rival ethnic and religious groups. And needless to say, almost all were carried out by Muslim extremists.

Nor can Armstrong and her unnamed experts be excused on the grounds that the world has changed since her book was published. A decade ago, before the explosive rise of Sunni-versus-Shi’ite violence in places like Iraq and Syria, the collapse of several Arab states and resulting internecine violence in places like Syria, Libya, and Yemen, and the upsurge of violence by groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria or the Pakistani Taliban in Pakistan, perhaps their thesis might have been more tenable. But Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence was published in 2014–the same year in which “foreign occupation” accounted for a mere 3 percent of all suicide bombings.

One can understand why experts might prefer to view Islamist terror as a response to “foreign occupation,” because if that were true, the whole problem would be within the West’s power to solve: Withdraw all Western forces from Iraq, Afghanistan, Mali, and other countries; force Israel to withdraw from the West Bank, India from Kashmir, China from Xinjiang, and so forth; and presto, no more Islamist terror.

Nevertheless, this view has two big problems even aside from the fact that it belies the data. First, it denies Muslim extremists any agency, refusing to acknowledge that they could possibly have dreams and aspirations of their own. All the goals the extremists claim to desire–restoring the caliphate, imposing Sharia law, defeating the West, eradicating Israel, reconquering Andalusia–are dismissed as mere window-dressing.

Indeed, this view reduces Muslims to mere human versions of Pavlov’s dog, responding automatically to the stimulus of “foreign occupation” with no possibility of doing otherwise. And it ought to go without saying that any theory that reduces some human beings to puppets dancing on a string pulled by others–i.e., that ascribes agency to Westerners alone while denying it to Muslims–is liable to be a poor explanation of reality.

Second, because it is a poor explanation of reality, this theory not only precludes any possibility of dealing with the real problem posed by Islamic extremism, but is liable to lead to counterproductive solutions. For instance, if “foreign occupation” were really the problem, then withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan might be productive. But if the problem is that Muslim extremists want to restore the global caliphate, Western withdrawals are actually counterproductive. Withdrawing leaves behind weak governments that the extremists can easily topple, giving them control of more territory and resources; it also makes the extremists look like they’re winning, which attracts more supporters to their banner.

The best way to defeat an extremist ideology is to show its potential adherents that it’s a dead end incapable of producing any real-world gains. But to do that, the West must first recognize that the problem is the ideology, not the straw man of “foreign occupation.”

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When Islamic Terror Confounds a Narrative

The Obama administration is once again hearing the criticism that President Obama and his advisors and spokesmen, in an attempt to avoid offending Islamists, are self-censoring their use of the term “Islamic” to the point of absurdity. And the criticism is correct.

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The Obama administration is once again hearing the criticism that President Obama and his advisors and spokesmen, in an attempt to avoid offending Islamists, are self-censoring their use of the term “Islamic” to the point of absurdity. And the criticism is correct.

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the Obama administration has decided that self-censorship is a more comfortable fit for this president than intellectual honesty or defending the West. Obama would make a great editor of the New York Times, but at this moment the free world could really use a leader. Unfortunately, his reaction has been twofold: to pretend he knows anything about Islam and declare many Muslims to be fake Muslims, and to stop using the term “Islamic” when describing things involving Islam.

It has made for some awkward moments. Although the president is the one who sets the tone, it’s the spokesmen who have to go out everyday and express these amateurish notions on camera. On Monday, it was State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf’s turn. The administration will be holding a summit on the generic threat of violent extremism instead of the obvious and immediate and ongoing threat of Islamic terrorism, and Fox’s Martha MacCallum asked her a pretty fair question:

MACCALLUM: Tell me, what other forms of extremism are particularly troubling and compelling to you right now?

HARF: Well, look, there are people out there who want to kill other people in the name of a variety of causes. Of course, Martha, we are most focused on people doing this in the name of Islam. And we’ve talked about with ISIL, part of our strategy to counter this extremism is to have other moderate Muslim voices stand up and say they don’t represent our religion. They speak for their religion more than we do certainly and we need those voices to stand up. In addition to all the other efforts we’re undertaking.

Harf was asked to name another kind of extremism vexing the administration. She wouldn’t. Only Islam. So, the administration can then at least address the fact that radical Islam poses a threat, right? Wrong. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, as the Washington Times reported (via Hot Air), explained why administration officials will not be using “Islam” when Islam is involved unless the actions meet the administration’s guidelines for Koranic faithfulness:

“I certainly wouldn’t want to be in a position where I’m repeating the justification they have cited that I think is illegitimate. They had invoked Islam to justify their attacks,” he told reporters. “I think what I’m trying to do is to describe to you what happened and what they did. These individuals are terrorists. … We have chosen not to use that label [of radical Islam] because it doesn’t seem to accurately describe what happened.”

From the administration’s perspective, then, here is what happened in Paris: angry, boom, yelling, bang, very bad. Is that a sufficiently clear description? Do the administration’s genius advisors think scribbling pictures on the wall of a cave would be safer? Is there a single adult anywhere in the White House?

On a more serious note, this is a problem not just for clearly incompetent officials in Washington but also for scholars. The most maddening element of Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence is that it combines fluid writing and broad scholarship with glaring errors whenever history doesn’t conform to Armstrong’s thesis. And as is so often the case, that tends to happen when modern-day Islamic terror confounds the narrative.

Armstrong sets out to make an important, if anodyne and pedestrian, point: you cannot judge the prospective violence of a government or a people by whether they are “religious” or “secular.” Both can be, and have been, peaceful; both can be, and have been, violent. Much of the book is a fascinating exploration of just how intertwined religion and politics have always been, even when the politics appear, or try to appear, secular. Modern society, she writes, “has made a scapegoat of faith.”

But when we get to the latter half of the 20th century, Armstrong tries to show that Islam isn’t the cause of violence it’s being made out to be. And so we get this remarkable passage about Hezbollah:

By 1986, however, the resistance leaders had decided that Hizbollah must change direction, since its operations were too often irresponsible and counterproductive; it was suffering heavy casualties and dividing the Shii community. There was tension between Hizbollah and AMAL, and the villages resisted Hizbollah’s attempts to impose Islamic rules. By this time Fadl Allah had concluded that violence, after all, did not bring results: What had the PLO achieved with the terrorism that had shocked the world? Lebanese Shii must take a new path, he argued, working “from within the objective and actual circumstances” in which they found themselves. …

Hizbollah, therefore, renounced terrorism and became a political party answerable to the electorate, focusing on social activism and a grassroots transformation.

Holy moly. Does it even need to be pointed out that Hezbollah engages in global terrorism outside of Lebanon and rules in southern Lebanon by force? If you have to argue that Hezbollah is basically a group of community organizers-turned-legislators, you should probably rethink the point you’re trying to make.

Elsewhere, we get this: “Terrorism experts agree that the denial of a people’s right to national self-determination and the occupation of its homeland by foreign forces has historically been the most powerful recruiting agent of terrorist organizations, whether their ideology is religious (the Lebanese Shii) or secular (the PLO).”

Even on its most secular days (which are far, far behind us), the PLO’s terrorism was still directed at the Jews in the hope of extinguishing the Jewish state. It is quite a stretch to describe any such terror as secular.

It is comforting to believe that the world is not a complicated place–that it’s divided between extremists and non-extremists, and that religion or other ideologies we either respect or adhere to are wholly on the right side of that dividing line. But the truth, as always, is more complex. And we do ourselves no favors by pretending otherwise.

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Terror, Israel, and France’s False Unity

The narrative of “unity” in Paris yesterday was quickly punctured by reports that French President Francois Hollande tried to prevent Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s participation in the rally against terror. According to Haaretz, Hollande’s national security advisor relayed the message to his Israeli counterpart. There are, clearly, several things wrong with this picture, foremost among them the gratuitous insult to a Jewish community in mourning that the head of the Jewish state is not welcome in Paris. But if the report is correct, the reasons given for the attempted exclusion compound the offense.

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The narrative of “unity” in Paris yesterday was quickly punctured by reports that French President Francois Hollande tried to prevent Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s participation in the rally against terror. According to Haaretz, Hollande’s national security advisor relayed the message to his Israeli counterpart. There are, clearly, several things wrong with this picture, foremost among them the gratuitous insult to a Jewish community in mourning that the head of the Jewish state is not welcome in Paris. But if the report is correct, the reasons given for the attempted exclusion compound the offense.

First, there is the following explanation, relayed by Haaretz, for why Hollande didn’t want Netanyahu there:

Audibert explained that Hollande wanted the event to focus on demonstrating solidarity with France, and to avoid anything liable to divert attention to other controversial issues, like Jewish-Muslim relations or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Audibert said that Hollande hoped that Netanyahu would understand the difficulties his arrival might pose and would announce that he would not be attending.

Anyone who hoped the French might get serious about the terrorism and anti-Semitism plaguing their country will have their hopes dashed by that paragraph. A refresher: the march for unity was held after a two-pronged terror attack, the latter half of which centered on Islamic extremists specifically targeting Jews. In the wake of that attack, Jews were warned to hide any outward appearance of their Judaism and the famed Jewish quarter of the Marais became a ghetto regulated by fear.

To this, the French president says that he doesn’t want the response to include “other controversial issues, like Jewish-Muslim relations.” In fact, “Jewish-Muslim relations”–a mild way of describing French Islamists’ murderous anti-Semitism and pogromist instincts–is currently tearing Paris apart. What Hollande doesn’t want to talk about is what’s actually happening to his country. If the Jewish presence atop the Islamists’ target list can’t be acknowledged even in the wake of terror, then Hollande is really making no room for it at all. Hollande’s head is still in the sand.

Netanyahu was at first open to Hollande’s unreasonable request. But then he changed his mind, and informed Hollande he would attend. Here is the apparent response from the French government:

According to the source, when Cohen informed Audibert that Netanyahu would be attending the event after all, Audibert angrily told Cohen that the prime minister’s conduct would have an adverse effect on ties between the two countries as long as Hollande was president of France and Netanyahu was prime minister of Israel.

But the foot stomping wasn’t over. Hollande had to publicly convey his opposition to Israel’s head of government participating in a “unity” event. Both attended an event at the Grand Synagogue: “Hollande sat through most of the ceremony, but when Netanyahu’s turn at the podium arrived, the French president got up from his seat and made an early exit.”

There is another explanation, however, for Hollande’s decision to disrespect the Jews in the Grand Synagogue. In an unsigned piece at Tablet, a video is provided of the arrival first of Hollande and then of Netanyahu at the Grand Synagogue. Netanyahu receives a hero’s welcome.

This is not all that surprising. I recommend watching the video of Netanyahu’s entrance into the synagogue; it is more compelling than it might appear. The simple fact is that Netanyahu’s presence is a reminder to the Jews of Paris and the Jews of the world that when their home countries repay their love and loyalty with hatred and abuse, the existence of Israel provides an inspirational counterpoint–even for Jews with no intention of making aliyah. Tablet notes:

One of the great lessons of the Holocaust for the Jewish people and for all other peoples who have since been threatened with genocide by fanatics—Cambodians under Pol Pot, Bosnian Muslims, and the Tutsi of Rwanda—is that the world will always talk a good game but will do precious little to save you. If you don’t stick together, you will die alone. The fact that the State of Israel exists means that the Jewish people will never be radically alone. That’s why the people in the Grand Synagogue of Paris are cheering.

And thus it is also something of a reproof to the host country. The presence of an Israeli prime minister in a Western capital that has proved incapable of protecting its Jews provides a contrast that does not benefit Hollande. In that sense, though Hollande’s behavior is not defensible, neither is it incomprehensible.

But the attempt to prevent Netanyahu from attending the march is also delegitimizing to the Jewish state. Jews were killed because they were Jews, and with the partial pretext of the Jewish state’s self-defense. Excluding the Israeli leader is a divisive act–literally, as it divides the Jewish people–and also treats Israel, which is a Western country on the front lines of fighting such terror, as an outsider looking in on the free world. Netanyahu was right to attend, and by the looks of it, the besieged Jews of Paris agreed.

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No “Clash of Civilizations”

The terrorists who carried out the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris–Saïd and Chérif Kouachi–were of course Muslims, born in Paris to parents of Algerian origin. So too Amedy Coulibaly, who shot hostages in a kosher supermarket before being killed by police, was a Muslim, in his case of African origin. Their acts were applauded by various jihadists and fellow travelers around the world who praised them for “avenging the prophet.”

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The terrorists who carried out the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris–Saïd and Chérif Kouachi–were of course Muslims, born in Paris to parents of Algerian origin. So too Amedy Coulibaly, who shot hostages in a kosher supermarket before being killed by police, was a Muslim, in his case of African origin. Their acts were applauded by various jihadists and fellow travelers around the world who praised them for “avenging the prophet.”

It would be easy, therefore, to conclude that this terrorist atrocity, the latest of many, is symptomatic of a general Muslim assault on the West–that the world is dividing, as Samuel Huntington famously predicted, into a battle of civilizations and that “our” civilization is destined to be at war with “theirs.” But that easy us-vs.-them narrative is complicated by a few facts.

Such as the fact that Ahmed Merabet, a police officer gunned down during the Charlie Hebdo attack, was himself a Muslim of Algerian origin. His brother said: “My brother was Muslim and he was killed by two terrorists, by two false Muslims. Islam is a religion of peace and love. As far as my brother’s death is concerned it was a waste. He was very proud of the name Ahmed Merabet, proud to represent the police and of defending the values of the Republic – liberty, equality, fraternity.”

So too Lassana Bathily of Mali, the employee who hid 15 people at the kosher supermarket from Coulibaly, was a Muslim. As was Mohamed Douhane, one of the senior police commanders directing the response to the attacks. He even visited Israel in 2008 along with a delegation of other French Muslim leaders.

What to make of these contrasting facts? Is Islam a religion of peace, as many claim, or is it a religion dedicated to making war on unbelievers and infidels, as others assert? Are the terrorists the true Muslims–or are the law-abiding French Muslims truer to their faith?

The answer is “yes.” Both are true at once. Islam, like every other broad-based religion, is subject to numerous conflicting interpretations. Some use it to justify hateful violence; others use it to justify a path of nonviolence. It is impossible to say which is the true version because Islam is a decentralized faith that, unlike Catholicism, has no pope to rule on matters of theology.

Surveys indicate that the broad majority of Muslims around the world are not in the violent, jihadist camp. A Pew poll in 2013, for example, found that across 11 Muslim countries, 67 percent of those surveyed said they are somewhat or very concerned about Islamic extremism and 57 percent said they had an unfavorable view of al-Qaeda while 51 percent had an unfavorable view of the Taliban. Moreover, “about three-quarters or more in Pakistan (89%), Indonesia (81%), Nigeria (78%) and Tunisia (77%), say suicide bombings or other acts of violence that target civilians are never justified.” Indeed the only place where a majority of Muslims justified suicide bombings was in the Palestinian territories.

It seems safe, then, to say that most Muslims around the world are moderate. But there is a substantial minority of extremists which, in absolute numbers, pose a serious threat, given the fact that there are an estimated 1.2 billion Muslims in the world. While those extremists pose a substantial threat to the West, they present an even bigger threat to fellow Muslims. The vast majority of victims of Islamist terrorist organization such as the Taliban, ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Hezbollah have been fellow Muslims. Such organizations, after all, are principally bent on dominating their own societies, thus by definition oppressing and killing fellow Muslims; they generally attack the West only as an auxiliary line of operations. One of the truly disturbing aspects of modern-day Islamist movements is the ease with which they declare their Muslim enemies to be “takfir” (i.e. apostates) and therefore liable to be killed.

What is going on, then, is not a war between civilizations but a war within Islamic civilization pitting an armed, militant minority against a peaceful but easily cowed majority. Any talk of waging “war on Islam” is thus deeply misguided and harmful. What we in the West need to do is to help moderate Muslims wage war on the radicals. Sound impossible? Far from it. Just look at how successfully (if brutally) Muslim states such as Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia, and Algeria have fought to repress Islamist movements–or how courageously so many Iraqi and Afghan security officers have fought against Islamist extremists. (They would fight even more effectively if their own organizations were less corrupt and more effective.)

The “us-vs.-them” narrative only distracts from what needs to be done while playing into the terrorists’ hands–that is after all, precisely the narrative they seek to promulgate to rally Muslims to their side.

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Obama Should Have Called Paris Market Attack What It Is: Anti-Semitism

This week’s bloody events in France have shocked the civilized world. But shock and sadness are not a sufficient response from those entrusted with the responsibility to defend us against Islamist terrorism. That’s why President Obama’s initial statement in response to today’s news was so disappointing. The conspicuous absence of any acknowledgement of the motive of the terrorists or their targets made his remarks empty platitudes rather than a meaningful call for solidarity against a common enemy. The continued refusal of the president to identify Islamist ideology as the foe is undermining efforts to combat this dangerous virus. But the fact that he also failed to label the attack at the Parisian kosher market where four hostages were slaughtered was a case of anti-Semitism sent exactly the wrong signal to a world that is looking to the U.S. for leadership in this struggle and getting precious little of it from this president.

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This week’s bloody events in France have shocked the civilized world. But shock and sadness are not a sufficient response from those entrusted with the responsibility to defend us against Islamist terrorism. That’s why President Obama’s initial statement in response to today’s news was so disappointing. The conspicuous absence of any acknowledgement of the motive of the terrorists or their targets made his remarks empty platitudes rather than a meaningful call for solidarity against a common enemy. The continued refusal of the president to identify Islamist ideology as the foe is undermining efforts to combat this dangerous virus. But the fact that he also failed to label the attack at the Parisian kosher market where four hostages were slaughtered was a case of anti-Semitism sent exactly the wrong signal to a world that is looking to the U.S. for leadership in this struggle and getting precious little of it from this president.

The president did well to express solidarity with France as our oldest ally as well as condemnation of the actions of the terrorists that he characterized as standing for “hatred and suffering.” But the sensible reluctance on the part of Western leaders from casting this conflict as one between all Muslims and the rest of the world is no excuse for his determination to ignore the fact that these crimes are rooted in a form of political Islam that is supported by tens if not hundreds of millions of people around the globe. Pretending that these armed killers are not connected to a worldwide movement, even as information about their connections to such groups continues to trickle out, does nothing to avoid antagonizing those who already hate Western values and culture. It also serves to help unilaterally disarm both Muslims and non-Muslims who understand that we must directly confront the corrupt and evil source of this violence within the spectrum of Islamic belief.

Just as wrongheaded was the president’s conspicuous omission of a mention of anti-Semitism.

As the president well knows, his own State Department has already labeled the increase in incidents of Jew hatred as being part of a “rising tide of anti-Semitism” throughout Europe. This trend can be traced in part to the crude Jew hatred that has become a routine element of the culture of the Muslim and Arab worlds and which has been brought to Europe by immigrants from the Middle East. Though some of this antagonism is a function of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians — a point on which European intellectual elites have made common cause with Islamists — the distinction between traditional anti-Semitism and the new variety that is tied to hostility to the Jewish state is essentially meaningless.

Not mentioning anti-Semitism when Islamist killers specifically seek out Jews to slaughter — as if anyone could possibly believe a terrorist assault on a kosher market in Paris could be mere happenstance — is more than insensitive. It is a sign that this administration does not take the many attacks on French and European Jews seriously. It is also a message to the Muslim world that the United States does not take the issue of anti-Semitic violence seriously. To his credit, French President Francois Hollande did specifically condemn the attack as an act of anti-Semitism, a statement President Obama should have echoed.

In essence, while the president rightly wishes to embrace France, the Jews there are essentially on their own as far as the U.S. is concerned.

This administration has conducted a vigorous campaign of drone attacks on terrorist targets, his eagerness to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan created a void that gave rise to ISIS even as its al-Qaeda rivals were far from destroyed as the president claimed in his re-election campaign. But his appetite for outreach and engagement has also undermined the ability of the U.S. to rally allies against Islamist radicals. His avoidance of anti-Semitism in his comments today sent the same message. More such mistakes can only encourage the very elements that the United States must defeat if it is to protect our freedom and those of other peoples.

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Fear of a Backlash Doesn’t Make Islam the Victim of Charlie Hebdo Attack

The blood of the victims of the Charlie Hebdo terror attack in Paris yesterday hadn’t yet been washed away from the floor of the newsroom before a persistent meme started working its way into the coverage of this atrocity. Even as people around the world reacted with shock and horror to the murder of 10 journalists and two police officers by Islamist terrorists, some in the media began speaking of a possible backlash against Muslims as the most important consequence of the crime. While such fears are not entirely unreasonable, it is important to understand that much of the discussion about a backlash has less to do with the actual plight of Muslims in the West as it does with an effort to reshape the narrative of this event to one in which political Islam is taken off the hook for what it has wrought. As much as we ought to condemn any actions that seek to target innocent Muslims, the impulse to treat Islamist beliefs as the victim rather than part of the problem is a terrible mistake.

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The blood of the victims of the Charlie Hebdo terror attack in Paris yesterday hadn’t yet been washed away from the floor of the newsroom before a persistent meme started working its way into the coverage of this atrocity. Even as people around the world reacted with shock and horror to the murder of 10 journalists and two police officers by Islamist terrorists, some in the media began speaking of a possible backlash against Muslims as the most important consequence of the crime. While such fears are not entirely unreasonable, it is important to understand that much of the discussion about a backlash has less to do with the actual plight of Muslims in the West as it does with an effort to reshape the narrative of this event to one in which political Islam is taken off the hook for what it has wrought. As much as we ought to condemn any actions that seek to target innocent Muslims, the impulse to treat Islamist beliefs as the victim rather than part of the problem is a terrible mistake.

Talk about a backlash should have a ring of inauthenticity to Americans. Many here rightly understand that the notion of a post-9/11 backlash is largely a myth that has been promoted by those who wish to change the subject from that of the very real threat from Islamism to a non-existent threat to U.S. Muslims from their fellow citizens. There is no statistical proof of a surge in attacks on Muslims after 9/11. If anything, both the country’s political leadership and those who guide popular culture have gone overboard in their attempts to disassociate Islam from those who kill in its name.

But Europe is very different from the United States. That is not just because the continent has always been fertile ground for hatred of minorities in a way that is not true of America. The huge influx of immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa has roiled societies that did not have good records in dealing with minorities (such as Jews) in the past. French society has been especially disturbed by the creation of large no-go zones for non-Muslims and immigrants who have created what may well be called “Islamist mini-states” in Parisian suburbs where neither police nor other Frenchmen dare trespass. In response, the rise of anti-immigrant parties such as the Front National led by Marine Le Pen (who succeeded her even more extreme father) have created a hostile atmosphere in which it is hard for Muslims from North Africa to assimilate into French society even if they wish to do so.

Thus, to dismiss fears of a backlash or at least a spike in anti-Muslim incidents in France or elsewhere in Europe would be foolish. But the immediate pivot from outrage about the Charlie Hebdo attack to even more vociferous denunciations of any effort to pin the blame for this crime on Islamist beliefs is about something other than concern for innocent Muslims. When writers like the New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof write a piece comparing the connection between Islam and the terror attack to one between Christianity and atrocities committed in the former Yugoslavia they are doing more than making a specious analogy. The purpose is to obscure the clear connection between a branch of Islam that has the support of tens of millions of people around the world. Contrary to Yale’s Jason Stanley, the Islam mocked by Charlie Hebdo is not, as he also wrote in the Times, that of an “oppressed minority” but of an aggressive worldwide faith that actively oppresses non-Muslims and seeks to eradicate the only non-Muslim majority state in the region.

While the vast majority of Muslims in the West may abhor terrorism, many living in the no-go zones or attending mosques with radical imams are not so fastidious. Even worse, large percentages of the population of Muslim and Arab countries, and the governments of more than a couple, actively subscribe to Islamism. The problem is that Islamist movements are clear threats to the security of many Muslim countries such as Egypt and in control in other places like Iran. To pretend that Islamist terrorists have beliefs that are not shared to a considerable degree by huge percentages of the populations of such countries is to engage in a deception whose goal is to distract us from a horrible truth and not to defend it.

Western governments and media figures that refuse to identify the Charlie Hebdo terrorists or al-Qaeda or ISIS killers as Islamist in nature are also making it harder for us to deal with a genuine threat. Their motive may be to rightly avoid casting the conflict as one between the West and all Muslims. But to ignore the fact that Islam motivates terrorists is to unilaterally disarm the West against a lethal foe.

We should by all means discourage any acts of violence or expressions of prejudice against individual Muslims. But at the same time we must not engage in a pretense that these crimes were not manufactured by a particularly noxious brand of Islam. Rather than cloaking themselves in the guise of victims, Muslims must finally embrace an opportunity to join the fight against Islamist killers that kill more of their co-religionists than Westerners. If instead they join efforts to preemptively recast the narrative of Charlie Hebdo to one about an anti-Muslim backlash, they will be giving the terrorists valuable assistance and discarding a chance to help isolate the killers and their supporters.

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Paris Attack Wasn’t “Senseless Violence”

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.

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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.

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The Mormons, Benghazi, and Charlie Hebdo

The biggest hit on Broadway for the last few years has been The Book of Mormon, a satirical musical comedy that mocks the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But rather than venting outrage, organizing protests, or seeking to shut down the play in New York or on its national tour, Mormons have commendably turned the other cheek. Unfortunately, many Muslims around the world are not as easygoing or wise. As the terror attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo reminds us today, Islamists are determined to enforce a ban on offenses to their sensibilities. Those who draw mocking cartoons about Islam’s prophet or leaders of terror groups understand that they are taking their lives into their hands. There is a reason that the same team that produced the South Park television series chose the Mormons as the butt of their Broadway joke rather than Muslims. But while that choice was understandable, the question we need to be asking ourselves today is whether the West is prepared to go on tolerating the offense to our values of free speech that lies behind the tragedy in Paris.

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The biggest hit on Broadway for the last few years has been The Book of Mormon, a satirical musical comedy that mocks the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But rather than venting outrage, organizing protests, or seeking to shut down the play in New York or on its national tour, Mormons have commendably turned the other cheek. Unfortunately, many Muslims around the world are not as easygoing or wise. As the terror attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo reminds us today, Islamists are determined to enforce a ban on offenses to their sensibilities. Those who draw mocking cartoons about Islam’s prophet or leaders of terror groups understand that they are taking their lives into their hands. There is a reason that the same team that produced the South Park television series chose the Mormons as the butt of their Broadway joke rather than Muslims. But while that choice was understandable, the question we need to be asking ourselves today is whether the West is prepared to go on tolerating the offense to our values of free speech that lies behind the tragedy in Paris.

All faiths and creeds are entitled to a degree of respect. Yet the conundrum at the heart of this issue is the belief on the part of Westerners that anyone may question or insult their faiths but that many Muslims seem to take it as a given that they should be exempt from such treatment. While Muslim nations may unfortunately be prepared to suppress criticism or mockery of Islam in their own societies, the issue in the last decade has increasingly been one of whether they are entitled or will be allowed to extend that ban to the West.

This issue first came to the world’s attention in 2005 when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten decided to try to do something about the efforts of Muslims to force Westerns to observe their religious taboos. But their decision to publish 12 satirical cartoons about the Prophet Mohammad proved their point in an unfortunate manner. The violence throughout the Muslim world about something printed in a Danish newspaper and the fact that those involved in the publication were forced into hiding showed us that far from being willing to stand up to Islamic censorship, most of the West preferred to kowtow to it.

Since then the same drama has been played out over and over again as the Islamist campaign against free speech about Islam in the West has won more battles than it has lost. In particular, the willingness of the Obama administration and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to apologize for the creation of a video about Islam’s founder and to wrongly focus the blame for the September 11, 2012 terror attack on American diplomats in Benghazi, Libya on this bogus issue was another indication that the Islamists were winning. When Clinton reportedly promised that the maker of the video would be punished (he was subsequently arrested on an unrelated charge), it sent a signal to the world that even the United States was more worried about offending Islam than in defending the basic right of all Americans to free speech.

While the controversy about the Benghazi attack has become mired in American partisan politics and the Obama administration’s ability to deflect criticism for its failures, we should have gleaned something else that was important from that tragedy. It was that when push came to shove, the instincts of the leaders of the free world were quicker to apologize for Western freedoms than they were to defend it.

That is what brings us to today’s tragedy. One needn’t approve of offensive videos about a faith practiced by more than a billion people. Nor should we insist that satirists skewer Muslims rather than Mormons. But the plain fact of the matter is that French editors and writers who were brave enough to mock Islamists who threaten the freedoms of the world were gunned down today in Paris while those who take aim at easier targets rake in profits without fear of being attacked. If that doesn’t constitute a clear and present danger to free speech, then nothing does.

The proper response to the attack on Charlie Hebdo involves greater vigilance in the West about homegrown Islamist terror. The effort by some, especially in the liberal mainstream media, to shut down discussions about the danger from Islamists living in the West has helped create an atmosphere in which police and intelligence officials may be deterred from doing what is necessary to defend us. The myth of a post-9/11 backlash against American Muslims has played a role in promoting a false narrative in which radical Islam is made the victim of the story rather than the religious inspiration for terrorism. But we need more than better police work. What the West needs more than ever is a willingness on the part of our leaders and opinion makers to tell the truth about the danger from radical Islam. We should make it clear that while we are not at war with Islam, neither will we tolerate a war on democracy and free speech by European Islamists or their allies in the Middle East.

What we should be thinking about today is whether at long last the West is prepared to stand up and defend its civilization and its values against a growing sense on the part of the Muslim world that it has the right to censure speech with which it disagrees. Until Europe and America stop apologizing and engaging in self-censorship out of fear of offending Islamists, the slaughter in Paris won’t be the last such outrage.

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Erdoğan’s Willing Enablers

Over the past decade, I’ve written a great deal about Turkey and chronicled its turn from an aspiring if imperfect democracy back into an authoritarian, repressive regime. When I began writing on the issue back in 2004, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was still the toast of Washington policymakers who saw in the Turkish leader the perfect example of a man who combined religious conservatism with democracy, the type of Islamist who could serve as a model for the broader region if not entire Islamic world. He was embraced by a multitude of former U.S. ambassadors to Turkey and Clinton-era State Department policy planning staff members, and shepherded through Washington by former Reagan administration officials who, frankly, should have known better. Meanwhile, Erdoğan quietly moved to rework the bureaucracy, replace technocrats, build slush funds, and insert his own protégés in positions of immense power, even if still cloaked in shadows.

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Over the past decade, I’ve written a great deal about Turkey and chronicled its turn from an aspiring if imperfect democracy back into an authoritarian, repressive regime. When I began writing on the issue back in 2004, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was still the toast of Washington policymakers who saw in the Turkish leader the perfect example of a man who combined religious conservatism with democracy, the type of Islamist who could serve as a model for the broader region if not entire Islamic world. He was embraced by a multitude of former U.S. ambassadors to Turkey and Clinton-era State Department policy planning staff members, and shepherded through Washington by former Reagan administration officials who, frankly, should have known better. Meanwhile, Erdoğan quietly moved to rework the bureaucracy, replace technocrats, build slush funds, and insert his own protégés in positions of immense power, even if still cloaked in shadows.

Erdoğan and his supporters, both within his Justice and Development Party (AKP) and among the followers of Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen, crafted a false choice: To support Erdoğan and his agenda was to support democracy; to question Erdoğan was to support military fascism. Among diplomats, intellectuals, and academics, anti-military bias was a major factor: Certainly, no aspiring democracy should have such a prominent domestic political role for the military as pre-Erdoğan Turkey did. But to turn a blind eye toward persecution of officers simply because they served their country and abided by their mandate to protect the constitution was wrong. So too was the rush by Erdoğan’s external supporters to cheer his dis-empowerment of the military without first creating an alternate system of checks and balances to the constitutional order. Erdoğan had ambition, and took advantage of the naivete of Western diplomats, Turkish liberals, and businessmen who just wanted quiet while Turkey’s economy boomed.

Criticism of Erdoğan brought with it a flood of bile, if not ad hominem demonization. This itself should have been an indicator, for the ad hominem attack is often the strategy of choice for those unable to counter arguments on fact. At times, however, libel seemed to be a deliberate strategy. Mustafa Akyol, a columnist for the Hürriyet Daily News, often wrote favorably toward Erdoğan’s early agenda and criticized those raising questions about it. Here, for example, he suggested that I had labeled Erdoğan’s government as an “example of so-called Islamo-fascism.” I had done nothing of the sort and when I challenged Akyol or the Hürriyet Daily News to show any instance where I used that term, I got neither response nor correction. Akyol apparently wanted to dismiss criticism as rooted in anti-Muslim bigotry rather than have to address criticism head-on. He has since come around, but his writing is influential and the damage he did by holding water for the AKP helped blind Washington-area policymakers toward Erdoğan’s true agenda until it was too late.

Another prime example of Turkish journalists publishing outright propaganda in order to win access and privilege was this beauty, by Cengiz Çandar, a Turkish journalist who has a reputation for trading praise for access across Turkish administrations. Here, for example, is Çandar taking umbrage in The Guardian about criticism of Turkey’s crackdown on his fellow journalists. In the years since Çandar’s ad hominem response, press freedom organizations have declared Turkey “the world’s biggest prison for journalists.” Had Çandar used his pen to stand up for freedom and liberty rather than sweep abuses under the rug, Turkish civil society might not be in such a lamentable state today. Alas, no amount of indignation in papers like The Guardian can change reality. Even those on the far left care about imprisoned journalists and don’t buy into the notion that Erdoğan only punishes criminals.

Those spreading hate to ingratiate themselves to Erdoğan also paved the way for the West to turn a blind eye. Former Ambassador Mark Parris—while working at two Washington-area think tanks—started a whispering campaign accusing me and a number of Jewish Americans critical of Erdoğan of plotting a coup against him, a plot which his interlocutor, columnist Fehmi Koru (who also writes under the pseudonym Taha Kıvanç), unfurled in a series of Yeni Şafak columns reminiscent of Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Parris subsequently became a non-executive director in one of Turkey’s top oil companies. Parris’s colleague at Brookings was Omer Taspinar who would write with a moderate tone in English, but would lose all semblance of balance or scholarly detachment in Turkish. Here, for example, was Taspinar ranting in the Turkish press (Google translation here) about supposed “neocon” plots and unfair criticism of the Turkish leader. Qatar was not the only country to try to corrupt Brookings; such articles apparently came against the backdrop of fundraising inside Turkey for Brookings’ Turkey program.

There are others, of course, who helped Erdoğan complete his mission. Against the backdrop of a court case accusing Erdoğan of violating the law and breaching the constitution—a case that might have ended in the dissolution of his party—rumors swirled that a businessman seeking favor with Erdoğan and relief from constant AKP-led tax investigations against him allegedly bribed a judge who switched his vote which at the last minute, enabling Erdoğan and the AKP to survive.

Fethullah Gülen may now find himself the target of Erdoğan’s irrational anger, but Gülen and his allies also have much to answer for. After all, while allied with Erdoğan, they used their perch in the security services to spy on and sometimes frame their secularist adversaries. Years before the cases of imprisoned generals, professors, and civil society leaders were dismissed, Harvard scholar Dani Rodrik showed conclusively how the evidence upon which they were convicted was based on forgery. Why European or American diplomats treated Turkish proceedings as anything more than a farce is inexcusable and, if not intentional due to ideological hatred of Turkey’s generals, demonstrates complete incompetence on the part of journalists and diplomats both. To the credit of the Gülenists, they now acknowledge the error of their ways. The question is whether they ever would have come to terms with what they had done to their adversaries if they had not found themselves on the wrong side of Erdoğan’s animus.

Clearly, with so many critics of Turkey ending up in prison or facing charges (full disclosure: Erdoğan advisor Cuneyt Zapsu and disgraced European Union Affairs Minister Egemen Bağış also filed papers against me in a Turkish court, a process which Namik Tan, Turkey’s ambassador to the United States apparently aided; I ignored the Turkish case), many Turks and analysts also shifted course to maintain their access. Some Washington-based scholars who were once clear-eyed and critical of Erdoğan now consciously mute their criticism, either for fear of the safety of their family back in Turkey or to maintain access to the country. Either way, the knowledge that people will subvert a quest for truth to such career calculations have enabled Erdoğan’s rise from the very start.

Almost 20 years ago, author Daniel Goldhagen published Hitler’s Willing Executioners, a book which took to task the German public which argued that they were unaware of just what Hitler was doing as he did it. Erdoğan is no Hitler, but he is at a minimum a dictator who combines the ambition and egoism of Vladimir Putin with uncompromising Islamism.

While few now debate what Erdoğan represents and where he means to take Turkey, he need not have succeeded in his quest. Perhaps as Turkey enters a new year, it is time for Turkish liberals, ambitious businessmen, corrupt journalists, and frightened diplomats to look back and consider the consequences of the compromises they made. As Turks—not only Islamists but liberals as well—suffer under Erdoğan’s dictatorship, let us hope that they acknowledge that their new dictator is a product and reflection of Turkey’s own political culture, and not some conspiracy imposed by the outside.

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