Shortly after the attacks of September 11, 2001 by al Qaeda—attacks that Osama bin Laden and his followers claimed were in defense of Allah and the Islamic holy-lands in which U.S. military forces were present—President George W. Bush declared that the terrorists had “high-jacked a great religion.” A few days later, on the 17th, the president made a point to visit the Islamic Center of Washington DC, where he publically expressed his view that the perverted and murderous interpretations of Islam espoused by al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban were inconsistent with the beliefs of the vast majority of Muslims the world over. (President Bush recognized that the Quran’s directives to kill unbelievers, just like similar passages in the Bible, should be seen in their historical context, not as universal mandates.) The president pronounced that he and all honorable Americans stood in solidarity with Muslim Americans. In the years that followed, President Bush repeatedly emphasized that the United States was not at war with Islam, but with terrorism.
Similarly, since the rise of the self-described “Islamic State” (or “ISIS”), the Obama administration has attempted to refrain from calling such terrorists “Islamic,” in an effort to deny them, ISIS in particular, what they want—to be a legitimate Islamic state and the caliphate of Muslims around the world. Refusal to call them “Islamic” is a very small but nevertheless meaningful effort to deny them legitimacy. Cable news talking heads and Republican presidential candidates pretending that they don’t get it appears to simply be a partisan longing to deny the president that is stronger than any desire to deny the enemy. (Of course insisting that the struggle is about Islam is to unnecessarily and unwisely pit the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims—about a fourth of the world’s population—against us.) Or perhaps the practice is simply seen as too insignificant to be of any real meaning. In isolation it probably is. In concert with a broader effort, perhaps it would not be.
It is possible that the leaders of ISIS—Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his lieutenants—don’t really believe in the perverted brand of Islam that they espouse. It might just be an excuse for their rape, murder, and hunger for power. But ISIS has proven to be very effective at convincing a great many naive followers that they are fighting for Islam. It is religious fervor that makes them such a tenacious fighting force. It is a genuine belief that they will be rewarded in heaven that entices gullible souls to be suicide bombers. And it is the promise of the emergence of a virtuous and devout Islamic society that beguiles troubled young men and even teenage girls to travel to Syria to join the cause. Of course they are not just in Syria. They constitute an ideological entity that is present in many parts of the world. In large part, the ISIS (as well as al Qaeda and Taliban) problem is a propaganda problem.
When journalist James Foley was publicly beheaded by ISIS in 2014 (the first among several Americans), President Obama unfortunately missed a crucial opportunity to turn ISIS’s propaganda back against itself. It was an opportunity to hit them where they live—their perverted theology—and to use ridicule to sow seeds of doubt among potential followers. The president could have said:
The release of a video of the murder of James Foley has provided an important service to the world. For the entire world to see, the video clearly illustrates that those calling themselves “Islamic State” are neither Islamic nor very bright. If they actually had a noble cause, they would be courting journalists, not murdering them. The murder of innocents while wearing facial cover is the work of, as Australian Prime Minster Tony Abbott has put it, a “death cult” of cowards. If they were not ashamed, they would show their faces. Killing journalists and destroying ancient artifacts illustrates that they not only worship death and cruelty, but ignorance too, as they seek to hide the true nature of their organization and the history of civilization.
A death cult that depends on the ignorance and gullibility of its followers cannot be doing the bidding of Allah—more likely, Satan. Therefore, I urge the world to defend true Islam and refer to this band of evildoers with a name that is more fitting of their behavior—“Satanic State.”
Such rhetoric would unlikely affect the current core of ISIS. But if every time someone blows themselves up believing it was for Allah, the world expresses pity for another gullible fool who has been duped by the enemies of Allah, or by Satan, then at least a few will have enough doubt that they will refrain from doing it. If the entire political world and particularly the Muslim intellectual and clerical world were to call ISIS anti-Islamic, then the effectiveness of ISIS propaganda would surely subside and its source of recruits would be diminished. Then with the help of the US military, in concert with our Arab and NATO allies, justice would then likely befall the remaining combatants in due course.
Given the horrific atrocities we have witnessed at the hands of ISIS, it is certainly tempting to send American ground forces to eradicate the problem forthwith. But then, that is exactly what ISIS wants. The main reason they behead Americans publicly is to enrage us and thereby draw us into a ground conflict with them. ISIS uses extra-Quranic apocalyptic prophesies to recruit motivated followers, as they profess that the end of the world is very near. To fulfill the prophesies, ISIS must goad “eighty flags” (nations) into a battle where the caliphate will then destroy the “infidels” of Western Civilization. (Interestingly, toward the end of the battle, Jesus—Islam’s second-most-revered prophet, and its only prophet believed to be without sin—is expected to return and lead Muslims to victory over evil.) As much as anything else, ISIS would love for American ground forces to lead the opposition. We can certainly destroy them as we did the regime of Saddam Hussein, but like squeezing soft fruit, the crux of the problem would, once again, just ooze through our fingers.
History has clearly shown that U.S. intervention in the Middle East usually creates more problems than it solves. For example, the C.I.A.’s participation in the 1953 overthrow of a democratically elected prime minister and installing the ruthless Shah of Iran ultimately turned that country into a fierce enemy with a long memory of hatred toward the United States; President Reagan’s 1983 deployment of a contingent of marines in Beirut during Lebanon’s civil war resulted only in the deaths of 241 American servicemen; Operation Desert Storm, the war with Iraq in 1991 was an easy victory in pushing Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, but the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia facilitated the strengthening of al Qaeda and its focus on the United States, resulting in the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, Khobar Towers in 1996, the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the U.S.S. Cole in 2000, and then the attacks of September 11, 2001; The 2003 war with Iraq unleashed long-simmering sectarian hatreds, empowered Iran, introduced al Qaeda into Iraq, and eventually led to the formation of ISIS (The founders of ISIS met each other and began hatching their plan while in an American Army prison in Iraq.); President Obama’s rhetorical or military support for popular uprisings in Egypt, Libya, and Syria has fomented more chaos than democracy. Most significantly, American military intervention in the Middle East has repeatedly served to propagate the very idea of a “clash of civilizations” upon which al Qaeda and ISIS feed.
Therefore, in order to most effectively defeat ISIS (and “Islamic” terrorism more generally), we must defeat their propaganda, while also supporting our Muslim allies’ military operations on the ground. Instead of another counterproductive American military ground attack, let us confidently triumph with a more assertive battle of ideas—ideas of human dignity, individual liberty and religious tolerance.
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For more of a Christian perspective on this subject, go here to see an excellent essay by Reverend Daniel McNerney.