An “Islamic State” of Mind

This post is the latest installment of our “Monday Reflections” feature, in which a different Just Security editor examines the big stories from the previous week or looks ahead to key developments on the horizon.

Week after week we have been subjected to spectacles of barbarism at the hands of the so-called Islamic State (or ISIS or ISIL). Last week our long simmering domestic debate about “Islamic” “Terrorism” boiled over.

So how are we supposed to characterize perpetrators of acts of terrorism who seek to justify their conduct in the name of Islam? “Terrorism” is an underinclusive term. It is not sufficient to describe the chief post-9/11 terrorist threat. Yet “Islamic” is overinclusive because it represents a narrow and contested religious interpretation and underinclusive in that there are other groups that employ terrorism in the name of other religions (like the Lord’s Resistance Army). These definitional inadequacies may further the strategic interests of enemies. Our leaders continue to struggle with how to address and categorize those who mean to do us harm.

Here, I want to distinguish between what we know about our enemy and what we say about our enemy—a difference that can help us evaluate President Obama’s approach and that of his critics. Last week, President Obama further articulated his policy of denial of Islamic religiosity in strategic communications describing the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. In remarks at a White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, he declared: “We are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.” These remarks echo those made by President George W. Bush in the immediate aftermath of 9/11: “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam…Islam is peace.”

President Obama argued in favor of denying terrorists religious legitimacy: 

They try to portray themselves as religious leaders, holy warriors in defense of Islam. We must never accept the premise that they put forward because it is a lie. Nor should we grant these terrorists the religious legitimacy that they seek. They are not religious leaders. They are terrorists.

President Obama also published an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times in which he argued that the Islamic State promotes a “twisted interpretation of religion that is rejected by the overwhelming majority of the world’s Muslims.” He has also taken pains to note that Muslims do not have a monopoly on terrorist acts and that the majority of victims of terrorism committed by those invoking Islam have been Muslim.

Both Al Qaeda and the Islamic State have visions, albeit on differing avenues and timelines, for establishing a theocratic Caliphate. It is clear the envisioned Caliphate would enforce an unforgiving version of Islam that is incompatible with peaceful international relations and basic human dignity. One of the foundational premises of their dogma is that we are locked in a clash of civilizations between true followers of Islam and infidels of all stripes.

Therefore, from President Obama’s perspective, if we characterize the clash as one of religious dimension rather than one of human decency versus barbarism, we play into their hands. This is the judo of terrorism: using the weight of your victim country against it by hoping that its reaction will be overreaction in a way that furthers terrorist goals.

At the same time, the President is also concerned about recruitment by terrorist jihadi groups. Over the weekend, Europe was on alert to search for three teenage girls who were reportedly en route to Syria by way of Istanbul to join a friend who had already enlisted with the Islamic State. Just last week, the New York Times chronicled the radicalization and path to terrorism of a middle class Egyptian teenager, Islam Yaken. These stories have a familiar and scary ring: Western assimilation followed by setbacks, alienation, radicalization, and then recruitment. These stories create an impression that Western assimilation or enculturation are ineffective deterrents to terrorism recruitment (and may, in fact, make the groups more dangerous).

The President’s remarks garnered an avalanche of criticism. There was the usual hue and cry of the President’s more irresponsible political opponents that are bent on portraying the President as some sort of Muslim Manchurian Candidate. Rudy Guiliani particularly disgraced himself. But there are critics with more seriousness of purpose.

Here on Just Security, Rolf Mowatt-Larssen argues forcefully that it is “not possible to understand the mindset of the terrorist without studying and analyzing their religious beliefs.” He then proceeds to outline a number of the religious sacrifices and arguments invoking Islam undertaken by Ayman Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden, Abu Musb al-Zarqawi, and others. He is concerned that we are losing time to deliberation over nuances of the threat posed by the Islamic State. He suggests that we “ignore that reality at our own peril.” I agree with him that such a blindspot would be perilous were our intelligence agencies, military strategists, and diplomats willfully blind to the religious motivations of our enemies. But I do not accept a premise that the Administration’s strategic communications equates with such ignorance.

In a similar vein, Graeme Wood joined the President’s critics in an interesting article in The Atlantic entitled “What ISIS Really Wants,” in which he characterizes the Islamic State as an organized and calculating religious group that sees itself as a holy catalyst for a coming apocalypse.  In contrast to the President, Wood came under intense criticism for describing the Islamic State as “[v]ery Islamic.” But his thesis rests on a view that there is Islamic religious doctrine and authority that supports some of the views espoused by the Islamic State, and that we cannot win the war of ideas without addressing them head on.

Another one of the President’s critics is author and activist, Asra Nomani, who also came to Wood’s defense. Nomani is most well-known for having been the roommate of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Karachi, Pakistan when Pearl was abducted and murdered. I became friends with Nomani during my time in West Virginia, where she also gained notoriety when she, her mother, and sister defied rules enforcing gender segregation in their Mosque in Morgantown that had come under the influence of Wahhabi interpretations of Islam. She has become an important voice for Muslim feminism, and has undertaken a project of doctrinal and cultural reform within the faith.

She wrote a piece last week in The Daily Beast entitled, “Will it Take the End of the World for Obama to Recognize ISIS as ‘Islamic’”? To Nomani, there is a fight within Islam for its heart and soul.  She seeks to roll back the Wahhabi and Salafi influences within Islam and discredit the religious authority of their intellectual forebears such as Ibn Tamiyyah and Sayyid Qutb. Her mantra as to the Islamic nature of the various jihadi groups engaged in terrorism is: “We have to name it to tame it.” Further, she argues: “We know ‘America is not at war with Islam’…But we are at war with an ideology and theology of Islam.”

Wood, Nomani, and the President all presume that we are locked in an ideological struggle in addition to armed conflict with Islamic State, and Al Qaeda. They part company, however, on what will be the most effective strategy for winning the persuadables.

The Wood/Nomani perspective offers two criticisms. First, they say that we will not “know our enemy” unless we come to terms with the Islamic-ness of its ideology. Second, they argue that discussion of root causes (like poverty and alienation) or old grievances (like the Crusades and colonialism) only legitimizes inhumane behavior and fuels the culture of “wound collectors.” I actually think those two criticisms are different in kind. The first is about our knowledge rather than our communications. How we talk about a threat for strategic reasons does not mean that we don’t understand its other facets. The second criticism, however, directly confronts the President’s approach.

In contrast, President Obama is loath to characterize these enemies as “Islamic” because he does not want to risk alienating Muslims at home and abroad. Such a rhetorical shift would play into the hands of enemy efforts to provoke an apocalyptic clash of civilizations. He doesn’t want to take the terrorists’ bait. It also risks drawing the U.S. government further into religious debates internal to Islam that run counter to American constitutional norms and for which our government is grossly unqualified.

I, too, am hopelessly unqualified to contribute to any doctrinal debate within Islam. But I think that there is work to be done to undo some of the damage along the lines I encountered in parts of Pakistan, where intolerance and grievance narratives were peddled to destitute boys in multitudes of foreign-funded Madrasahs. As with my own religious life of a different faith, I wish Nomani and other voices of moderation all success in advancing tolerance and peace within Islam. However, to my mind, the risks of adopting a communications policy of overt naming and shaming by use of the term “Islam” are very grave.

In one sense, Voltaire’s old quip about the twilight days of the Holy Roman Empire applies with equal force to the Islamic State: “It’s neither.” However, part of our task is to understand the threat we face, part is to beat a barbaric enemy on the battlefield, and part is to contain and minimize its recruitment. With all that is at stake, the nomenclature is no laughing matter. 

About the Author(s)

Andy Wright

Senior Fellow and Founding Editor of Just Security, former Associate Counsel to the President in the White House Counsel’s Office. You can follow him on Twitter (@AndyMcCanse).