Commentary Magazine


Topic: radical Islam

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 War Goes On

Despite the most fervent hopes of some writers over at Salon.com, the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing are not “white Americans”–a classification Salon used to exclude Islamists–preferably with a subscription to National Review and COMMENTARY. In fact, the accumulating evidence (see here) points to two young men who were radicalized and became jihadists. Which ought to remind us that even if many people in this nation have grown weary in the struggle with militant Islam, our enemies remain engaged, ruthless and malevolent.

The events in Boston are of course not nearly as traumatic or historic as what happened on September 11, 2001. Since that fateful day, our government has massively degraded the ability of organized groups to attack us, and that counts for a lot.

Still, in Boston last week scores of innocent people were either killed or maimed, a great city was locked down for a day, and the psychological effects of the attacks may last for some time. (The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg refers to this as “the era of the suspicious package.”) If terrorists decide to strike at “soft” targets–sporting events, shopping malls, coffee shops, elementary schools, and so forth–then life in America will change in important ways.

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Despite the most fervent hopes of some writers over at Salon.com, the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing are not “white Americans”–a classification Salon used to exclude Islamists–preferably with a subscription to National Review and COMMENTARY. In fact, the accumulating evidence (see here) points to two young men who were radicalized and became jihadists. Which ought to remind us that even if many people in this nation have grown weary in the struggle with militant Islam, our enemies remain engaged, ruthless and malevolent.

The events in Boston are of course not nearly as traumatic or historic as what happened on September 11, 2001. Since that fateful day, our government has massively degraded the ability of organized groups to attack us, and that counts for a lot.

Still, in Boston last week scores of innocent people were either killed or maimed, a great city was locked down for a day, and the psychological effects of the attacks may last for some time. (The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg refers to this as “the era of the suspicious package.”) If terrorists decide to strike at “soft” targets–sporting events, shopping malls, coffee shops, elementary schools, and so forth–then life in America will change in important ways.

I have long felt it’s a tribute to America that we have gone out of our way not to target Muslims en masse in the aftermath of 9/11, and that President Bush’s role in keeping passions in check was admirable and crucial. At the same time, it would be foolish, and borderline suicidal, to pretend we don’t know what the “root cause” of this age of terrorism is: political Islam, abroad and increasingly at home. This lethal ideological infection doesn’t seem to be receding. And it’s not clear what, if anything, we can do to stop it (drone strikes are a tactic, not a strategy).

As someone who has supported championing liberty in the Arab world, I have to take into account what is happening in Egypt. I’m not sure what the alternative is–America cannot be on the side of increased repression–but the radicalization of Egypt in the aftermath of its elections is not what I hoped would emerge. Now it’s still early, and things could improve. (Wise people I know predicted things could get worse before they get better, since the transition from oppression and a smashed civil society to freedom isn’t quick or easy. The analogy is that we’re at the stage prior to a fever breaking.) On the other hand, things could also get worse. In any event, our duty is to see the world as it is.

Michael Gerson wisely points out we don’t want to be at war with Islam. But unfortunately a not-insignificant number of Muslims believe they are at war with us. And I’m quite open to suggestions of what exactly we are supposed to do–what we are even able to do–about that, other than defend ourselves and defeat them on various battlefields, including this one.

The war against us goes on, whether we like it or not.

(Updated to clarify Salon.com’s language.)

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Embassy Attack Perpetrators Do Not Represent Islam

The U.S. should respond strongly and sternly to the unprovoked attacks on our consulate in Benghazi and the embassy in Cairo and to the deaths of our ambassador to Libya and several of his aides. But we must also react smartly and not succumb to the rage of the moment into thinking that Sam Bacile, the amateur filmmaker whose anti-Mohammad video was initially blamed for these assaults, is right when he says, “Islam is a cancer.”

Not only is that hate speech, it is also wrong on its face because it assumes that the kind of people who carried out these outrages are typical Muslims—that somehow Islam by its very nature drives its adherents to intolerance and violence. That is not the case—Islam, like other religions, is complex and multifaceted. It has meant many things to many people over the ages. Most of its followers, like the followers of other religions, are peaceful and law-abiding and not interested in attacking anyone. The radicals are hardly representative of the mainstream, but even small numbers of extremists can sully the image of an entire country or religion by skillful attacks and manipulation of the news media.

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The U.S. should respond strongly and sternly to the unprovoked attacks on our consulate in Benghazi and the embassy in Cairo and to the deaths of our ambassador to Libya and several of his aides. But we must also react smartly and not succumb to the rage of the moment into thinking that Sam Bacile, the amateur filmmaker whose anti-Mohammad video was initially blamed for these assaults, is right when he says, “Islam is a cancer.”

Not only is that hate speech, it is also wrong on its face because it assumes that the kind of people who carried out these outrages are typical Muslims—that somehow Islam by its very nature drives its adherents to intolerance and violence. That is not the case—Islam, like other religions, is complex and multifaceted. It has meant many things to many people over the ages. Most of its followers, like the followers of other religions, are peaceful and law-abiding and not interested in attacking anyone. The radicals are hardly representative of the mainstream, but even small numbers of extremists can sully the image of an entire country or religion by skillful attacks and manipulation of the news media.

Indeed, evidence is emerging of the planning that went into both assaults, with USA Today reporting: “The protest outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo was announced Aug. 30 by Jamaa Islamiya, a State Department-designated terrorist group, to protest the ongoing imprisonment of its spiritual leader, Sheikh Omar abdel Rahman. He is serving a life sentence in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.”

Meanwhile the New York Times is reporting: “The Obama administration suspects that the fiery attack in Libya that killed the American ambassador and three other diplomats may have been planned rather than a spontaneous mob getting out of control…” The Times article further notes: “About 24 hours before the consulate attack… Al Qaeda posted to militant forums on the Web a video in which its leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, acknowledged the death in an American  drone strike in June of his Libyan deputy, Abu Yahya al-Libi, and called on Libyans to avenge the death.”

This conforms squarely with recent experience in Afghanistan, where seemingly spontaneous riots and attacks in response to Koran-burnings were actually carried out with considerable planning and complicity from the insurgency. There is no doubt that there is religious passion in the Muslim world that extremists can exploit, but these outrages are the work of calculating extremists and do not represent the actions of the average man-on-the-street—certainly the anti-American protests have attracted far fewer followers than the protests that were being held not so long ago in both Egypt and Libya to protest the previous rulers of those countries. Rather than succumb to extremism ourselves in the face of Islamist extremists, we must make critical distinctions and understand that the radicals do not speak for their whole of their countries nor for the whole of a religion with more than a billion adherents.

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