People wonder why the President convened a panel on combating "violent extremism" instead of specifically targeting "Islamic extremism." Some accuse him of euphemism and can see no good reason for it; others see "violent extremism" as an evasive term in keeping with Barack Obama's alleged appeasement of Islam. Yet to show you what he's up against on the other side, here's an opinion piece from The Guardian, one of Great Britain's leading newspapers, accusing the President of focusing too much on Muslims. The authors, taking it apparently on faith that last week's Chapel Hill killings were hate crimes (because the victims were Muslims and the accused killer an avowed atheist) believes that hate crime in general, but especially anti-minority hate crime in the U.S., should be on the agenda of Obama's panel. On this evidence, nothing Obama can do will convince some observers on the left that his strategy against extremism isn't biased against Islam, just as some observers on the right can't be convinced that he isn't going easy on Islam for some sinister reason.
As for the President himself, it's been clear all along that he doesn't want conflicts with extremists who happen to be Muslim to stir up bigotry against all Muslims, including the presumed-innocent majority in the U.S. He tried to clarify his position further today by publishing an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times. Obama believes that violent extremism is essentially political. It is a drive for power that exploits culture and religion as needed. While noting that many recruited by extremists have legitimate grievances against their societies or governments, the President as a liberal believes extremists are wrong to argue that "violence is the only way to achieve change." Extremism will die out when governments give free reign to civil society and democratic processes so people can express their grievances, Obama hopes, as long as societies provide "economic, educational and entrepreneurial development."
The President worries that even as objective-seeming a label as "Islamic extremism" helps extremists like al-Qaeda and the self-styled Islamic State make their case that the U.S. is at war with Islam itself. Obama also continues to insist, on less authority than all but the paranoid in America will grant him, that the ideology of these extremists is only a "perversion" of Islam. I myself lack the authority to say he's wrong, and Americans' general ignorance about Islam is a vacuum filled with crazy speculation about the reasons for word choices. Muslims to some extent have themselves to blame, since with all the resources of the oil states you'd think some wealthy Muslim would emulate the Mormons and make TV commercials showing how benign a once-suspected sect really is. In the absence of such a public relations campaign, or even any significant effort to proselytize among white Americans, selective readings of the Qur'an and the Traditions of the Prophet tend to confirm the biases of the readers. It's a commonplace tenet of Islamophobia, as it is of anti-semitism, that Muslims will lie about anything, especially including their true intentions, for temporary advantage. It'll take much more persuasion than Muslims or their friends here -- or more objective observers of religions in general -- have tried in the past to overcome such hostile perceptions. Obama's blanket denial that Middle Eastern extremism has any fundamentally religious component is unlikely to help. It may well be that more Muslims by the day are convinced that the world will be safe for Islam only when Islam rules the world -- but how different is that mere idea from any proselytizing faith's hope to convert all mankind? It may be that many young people born Muslim now believe that they as individuals will only have a chance in the world if Islam rules it. For them, the answer may be the economical, educational and entrepreneurial development the President writes about, but how well are all those doing in our western world lately? How much does the vaunted freedom to gripe really help matters? How civil is any society in which ever fewer people seem to have a place assured to them? The extremist "Islamic State" seems to promise survival, if not more, by means of conquest and plunder. Perhaps they're not extremists as much as they are an advance guard of other extremisms dedicated to securing places for themselves by force, in a form of competition they can hope to win, whether in the name of Islam or under other names? The answer to this sort of extremism has to be more than "opportunity" or "freedom," but the answer itself may be too "extreme" for many to accept.