President Obama’s September 10, 2014, speech on U.S. plans to defeat the Islamic State (IS) broke new ideological ground, entrenching U.S. executive inability to confront Islamic terrorism forthrightly. Obama first repeated the tired refrain that ISIS is not Islamic. But then the President took the next logical step, saying that ISIS has no vision other than killing. These platitudes are false and misleading, and endanger the U.S. and its allies by distracting from core issues and preventing fulsome understanding of the Islamist threat.
President Obama persists in projecting Western liberalism onto non-Western, illiberal organization. As Obama’s words, “ISIL is not ‘Islamic.’ No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim.” There are several noteworthy factual and logical failures here.
First, ISIS is Islamic in the only senses that matter. ISIS’s leaders, rank and file, funders, and supporters all believe that Islam not only approves their war but mandates it. Further, they believe that any other interpretation of Islam is corrupt and its adherents are apostates. ISIS’s dual beliefs that it theology is the sole true Islam and that it must annihilate non-Muslims underlie ISIS’s mass executions of Muslims espousing dissenting views.
In addition, whether or not IS is “Islamic” is not for Obama to decide, nor is it relevant. Obama is not an Islamic scholar, nor was President Bush when he made the same mistake of attempting to characterize Islamist terrorists as behaving contrary to some imaginary “true” Islam. There are Islamic scholars who reject IS’s fascist interpretation, and there are other Islamic scholars who endorse it. President Obama’s pontificating about which interpretation is correct is pure arrogance.
Second, Obama is again incorrectly applying Western concepts to IS behavior when he says no religion condones the killing of innocents. Many religions at many times in human history have condoned dissenters’ wholesale slaughter, but they would not say they were killing “innocents.” Extremist theology frequently holds that dissent is an affront to god, dissenters are therefore not innocent, and so killing dissenters down to the last man, woman and child is permissible. In that vein, terrorists define their enemies as per se not innocent, and therefore are entitled to kill anyone. For IS, Christians, Jews, Yazidi and Muslims who fail to abide IS doctrine are by definition not innocent, so killing them is not killing innocents, even if they are women and children.
Al-Qaeda used this justification to target the World Trade Center. Hamas uses it to target kids in restaurants and teenagers at discos. IS used it explicitly when they decapitated James Foley, justifying it as retribution for U.S. airstrikes against IS fighters.
Obama either doesn’t realize that IS operates under a fundamentally different notion of innocence and guilt than the liberal West, or has decided to minimize IS’s evil for political purposes.
Obama is likewise dissembling or ignorant when saying IS has no vision. Obama said “ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple, and it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.” This is simply false.
IS’s stated goal is restoration of the Islamic caliphate; hence its declaration of a new Islamic State in Northern Iraq and Syria. Ultimately, IS proposes to reestablish an Islamist empire encompassing all of the lands that ever fell under Islamic rule, including all of the Middle-East, North Africa and Spain, and parts of Central Asia, South Asia and South-East Asia. This may seem bizarre or retrograde from a Western perspective, but IS rejects modern borders and the very concept of nation-states. Instead, IS believes that Islam compels it to dissolve all borders.
This is a genuine vision and IS has made substantial progress. If IS’s opponents aren’t diligent, the Islamic State could absorb even more of Iraq and push its borders into Lebanon, Turkey and Israel.
Further, and again directly contrary to Obama’s pronouncements, from IS’s perspective slaughter is a means to an end. Once again, IS operates under a fulsome, sophisticated ideology based on IS’s understanding of Sharia law. According to that view, non-Muslims defile the Caliphate so non-Muslims must be destroyed. However, IS has offered Christians and Yazidis in Iraq the chance to convert to Islam before being executed or sold into slavery. IS is not engaging in slaughter for the sake of slaughter, but using it as a tool to purify their Caliphate.
It is stunning that thirteen years after 9/11 the U.S. President could so misunderstand Islamist thinking. For all Obama’s vaunted internationalism, he seems unable to comprehend that other people and peoples believe in systems radically different from Western ideals. Unfortunately, such myopia could cloud efforts to combat IS and cost American lives at home and abroad.