By the beginning of 2017, the Islamic State was in full retreat across Iraq and Syria. In the waning days of the Obama administration, the military campaign against ISIS had turned white hot. With coalition forces striking ISIS command-and-control from the air, Iraqi ground forces simultaneously squeezed militants out of numerous Syrian and Iraqi strongholds. If current trends continue and the caliphate collapses, it will serve a lethal blow to the longstanding jihadist claim – and prominent recruitment tool – to be the strong horse.
And yet, a decade and a half after September 11, 2001, the U.S. government has consistently failed to reckon with the theological and ideological roots of militant Islam. This is troubling because those roots, if not severed, will remain potent even after the black flags of the caliphate are furled.
Observers might be forgiven for marveling that the U.S. can successfully mount an international effort to “degrade and ultimately defeat” ISIS, but fail to lay a glove on the pathologies from which the successor to ISIS will undoubtedly spring. The Obama administration’s record on drone strikes against terrorist networks abroad was impeccable; but it failed, or didn’t even try, to subvert the phenomenon of dawa, or proselytizing, that regularly introduces young Muslims to notions of martyrdom.
This strategic blunder was baffling, and fully bi-partisan. The Bush administration responded to September 11 by asserting that Muslim terrorists had nothing to do with the religion in whose name they wrought such carnage. Indeed, the administration pronounced Islam to be a religion of peace, as if “Islam” derived from “salam” (peace) rather than “aslama” (to submit). It prosecuted a “global war on terror” against terrorists without naming the enemy or the ideology that animated it.
The Obama administration, for its part, pushed even harder to obfuscate the nature of the struggle against Islamic terror. It abandoned its predecessor’s insistence that the United States was at war, and unleashed a battery of weasel words lest uncomfortable facts be submitted to a candid world. Its preferred nomenclature was the cumbersome reference to “overseas contingency operations.” What the Bush administration deemed terrorist attacks, the Obama team dubbed “man-caused disasters.” It repeatedly and preposterously suggested that public policy should be more responsive to the threat of ladders and bathtubs than the machinations of ISIS.
In addition to taking the United States off of a war footing, the Obama administration refrained from entering the fray in the battle of ideas raging across the Muslim world. It was a reliable font of clichés, evasions, and sheer falsehoods on the subject of violent Islamism. Its most senior officials variously suggested that Islam was a religion of peace; that the Islamic State was not Islamic; even that its agents were Muslim “apostates.” The president’s comments about the status of blasphemy in the Islamic world almost took the breath away: “the future did not belong to those who slander the prophet.” Little surprise when he later failed to dispatch a single high-level representative to the solidarity march in Paris after the massacre of Charlie Hebdo.
At the highest levels, the Obama administration repeated numerous clichés – that we are not at war with Islam, that most victims of jihadism are Muslims, or later, that simply calling Islamic terror by its right name would not defeat it – that were seldom if ever disputed. In its dogged reluctance to acknowledge, let alone challenge, the ideology behind “violent extremism,” the U.S. government has left jihadists the intellectual space to advance their project with astonishing force and fury.
With the rise of Trump, the virtues of this hidebound approach have diminished to the point of disappearing. One prominent Obama administration official has come forward ostensibly to bury this farcical political correctness but ends up praising it. Richard Stengal, who served as under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs in the Obama State Department, writes in today’s New York Times to acknowledge the phenomenon of radical Islamic extremism. After years of dissimulating on the subject, Stengal now admits that he is not troubled by dropping the lie. You’d think that he would thus straightforwardly admit the truth that specific ideas within the Islamic tradition inspire groups like ISIS, and must be unflinchingly opposed from within the Muslim world and without.
But you would be wrong. Stengal labors to explain that pragmatism drove the previous administration to confect a deliberate and torturous ruse that the Islamic State was not Islamic. “To defeat radical Islamic extremism, we needed our Islamic allies — the Jordanians, the Emiratis, the Egyptians, the Saudis — and they believed that term unfairly vilified a whole religion.” In other words, the sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf – ruled by decadent medievalists who have, whether by instinct or intention, empowered the rise of Islamism – must be treated as defenders of the faith if jihadism is to be defeated.
“So,” Stengal continues, “jettison ‘violent extremism,’ but let our Arab allies know that “radical Islam” or “Islamic extremism” refers only to the tiny fraction of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims who have embraced violence.” Unfortunately, this is not an accurate depiction of reality. It is sheer fantasy to believe that “radical Islam” – however one defines it – enjoys support among only a “tiny fraction” of the umma. (Even if that claim were true, Stengal seems unperturbed by the danger posed by a minority of what is the world’s largest faith.)
Stengal concludes thus: “The Islamic State will go away, but violent extremism will not. The way to defeat radical Islamic extremism is to help our Islamic allies and promote the voices of mainstream Islam that reject everything the Islamic State does and stands for. Defeating the Islamic State on the military battlefield is only temporary. Violent extremism — or whatever you call it — must be defeated on the battlefield of ideas.”
The hard truth is that Stengal has never adequately engaged the battle of ideas in the Muslim world because he cannot bring himself to call things by their right names. Since when have men and women been conscripted into battle to resist the onslaught of “whatever you call it”? Such obscurantism has defined American policy toward the Muslim world since September 11, 2001. Radical Islamic extremism will not be vanquished until it is well and truly repudiated.