07 December 2015

How do you fight an idea?

Many viewers seemed dissatisfied with the President's Sunday night talk about Islamic extremism. By now, it seems, few take him seriously when he promises, and even as he is carrying out, military action against the self-styled Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. His critics, especially on the right, take him even less seriously when he talks about dealing with Islamic radicalization in the U.S. While many of those critics have stupid reasons for their skepticism (e.g., Obama is secretly a Muslim), that doesn't mean there's no reason for criticism. After reading a transcript of the speech, I was struck by a seeming evasion of responsibility at home even as Obama claims to take responsibility abroad. He promises to destroy the Daesh's military power on its home turf and eliminate its ability to carry out international terrorism. But when it comes to dealing with "ISIL" (the government prefers the "Islamic State in the Levant" acronym) and its fans and followers in the U.S. itself, the President seems to say that, apart from making sure that proven suspicious people can't buy assault weapons, it's up to Muslims to defeat Daesh in the war of ideas. But isn't that what everyone wants: for Muslims to denounce and refute IS propaganda and jihadism in general? Sure, but it doesn't follow that the rest of us, be we secular or differently religious, have no role in that struggle. Leaving it to Muslims to refute the IS would be like leaving it to Germans, in German, to refute Nazism 75 years ago. The problem with the IS, or with any "extremist ideology" within Islam, isn't only that it's a perversion of Islam. You don't have to be a Muslim to argue against the proposition that Muslims have a right to spread the sharia by the sword, or to argue that the sharia as interpreted by many Muslims is an unacceptable tyranny for non-Muslims -- if not for many Muslims as well. Obama seems to see Islamic radicalism as a problem with two potential top-down solutions: destroy ISIL and radicalism will go away, or else leave it to religious authorities to prove ISIL wrong to their congregations. But the President's own words suggest that jihadism had become decentralized to a point where they may be no head to strike to kill the snake.

As we've become better at preventing complex, multifaceted attacks like 9/11, terrorists turned to less complicated acts of violence like the mass shootings that are all too common in our society. It is this type of attack that we saw at Fort Hood in 2009; in Chattanooga earlier this year; and now in San Bernardino. And as groups like ISIL grew stronger amidst the chaos of war in Iraq and then Syria, and as the Internet erases the distance between countries, we see growing efforts by terrorists to poison the minds of people like the Boston Marathon bombers and the San Bernardino killers. 

What this suggests to me, if not to the man who said the words, is that the situation requires an American propaganda war of comparable intensity to the air war being waged in the Levant, to reach people who may not care what happens to ISIL, or who have no imam to steer them from jihad. Since we don't necessarily know who they are, we need a campaign to reach everybody. Obviously it can't be an "Islam is bullshit" campaign, much less a "Islam is bullshit because you deny Christ" campaign, however much some people would like one or the other. But it should be a campaign that combines the positive message of generations of peaceful Muslim settlement in the U.S. (as against those yahoos who ask, "Where did they all come from, anyway?") with stern reminders of the First Amendment's meaning. Those previous generations of Muslims weren't clamoring for the sharia, so it shouldn't be that hard to walk this generation back from that demand. If their real beef is with American foreign policy, we can talk about that, on the understanding that Muslims can no more dictate that policy than any other religious group, though it would be more helpful if we actually acted on that principle more often. We should get the numerous successful Muslims in the U.S., preferably observant ones to drive the point home, simply to show off their success and emphasize that it doesn't depend on the sharia. Muslim scholars can step in to ask the American umma what they've really done to proselytize for Islam peacefully here before taking up the sword. And we should be able, without compromising the anti-discriminatory principles Obama values above all, to state plainly that if Muslims don't feel secure, or lack self-esteem, in the absence of sharia law in America, they're probably living in the wrong country. Whether these steps appeal to readers or not, it should be clear that there are options short of the extreme remedies proposed by Republicans, just as it should be clear that there is more that should be done about jihadism, short of the Republican options, than Obama has yet considered.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'd much prefer to rewrite the first amendment and eliminate islam from being allowed to be practiced in the US. If we take the Koran as the "operating instructions" for Islam, then Islam is NOT compatible with either freedom of religion or freedom of speech. As such, Islam - and any other religion intolerant of religious freedom - should be banned in the USA.