NOTE: This article went to press prior to President Donald Trump’s controversial refugee ban temporarily suspending all refugees from the majority-Muslim nations of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
In 2009, then-President Barack Obama stood before an audience of several thousand people at Cairo University and called for a new beginning between the United States and the Muslim world. “In order to move forward, we must say openly to each other the things we hold in our hearts and that too often are said only behind closed doors,” the newly minted U.S. president said.
Obama did not go into detail about those things that people say in hushed tones, but he did mention many of the good things that have happened in America involving Muslims, going all the way back to the early days of the United States, when Morocco, in 1796, became the first country to recognize the new nation. Muslims are serving in the U.S. Congress and the military, starting businesses, excelling at sports, lighting the Olympic flame and winning Nobel Prizes, the president said to applause.
“I consider it part of my responsibility as president of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear,” Obama said. But Muslims should repay the compliment and not cast the United States in the “crude stereotype of a self-interested empire,” he added.
Fast forward eight years and Donald Trump is stepping into Obama’s shoes, arguably reopening the door for the critique that America is a self-interested empire. Trump has been figuratively throwing shoes at Muslims by hurling insults at them and resurrecting the crude stereotypes that Obama fought so hard to dispel. (Throwing shoes is the height of insult to Muslims.)
Mocking comments against Muslims have flowed liberally from Trump’s mouth, even if he tried to claw some of them back since he became president. When the mother of Capt. Humayun Khan, the Muslim-American soldier who gave his life to save the lives of his fellow service members, sat silently beside her husband as he addressed the Democratic National Convention, Trump suggested that “maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say.” When CNN’s Jake Tapper asked the Republican presidential candidate if he was referring to all of the world’s Muslims when he said that “Islam hates us,” Trump replied, “I mean a lot of them.” Most famously, Trump called “for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” after the attacks in San Bernardino, Calif., in December 2015, when a radicalized Muslim husband and wife opened fire at a Christmas party, killing 14.
Trump has since taken to his preferred form of communication to tweet that attacks such as the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting and the more recent Berlin Christmas market truck rampage — which he called a “purely religious threat” — confirm his belief that Islam and terrorism are inextricably linked.
Trump usually makes his Twitter boasts before all the facts are in, however, and his 140-character declarations obscure the nuances of attacks whose motives are often convoluted. The extent to which lone-wolf attackers, for example, are inspired and helped by the Islamic State is difficult to nail down. And Trump’s sweeping ban on Muslim immigrants would not have prevented attackers such as the Orlando shooter, who was born and raised in the United States.
At the same time, Obama’s critics point out that the former president was too politically correct in refusing to acknowledge the obvious connection between Islamic-inspired ideology and the wave of terrorist attacks that have struck the world, both before and after 9/11. His reticence to describe the 2012 siege of a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi as an Islamic-driven terrorist attack drew furious condemnation and haunted Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
Obama’s sweet talk in Cairo about opening a new page in U.S.-Muslim relations also did little to stem the rise of the Islamic State or the turmoil of the Arab Spring. On the flip side, Trump’s verbal assault on Islam has spread fear among Muslims, both at home and abroad, about what lies ahead. Indeed, the two presidents’ styles could not be any more different — a reflection of the larger dilemma officials face as they try to address the scourge of Islamic extremism without alienating the religion’s 1.6 billion followers.
Cooperation vs. Epochal Clash
Most of those followers are law-abiding citizens, including America’s Muslims, who make up about 1 percent of the population — and whose cooperation with local law enforcement has at times been instrumental in thwarting terrorist attacks.
“We’ve seen nativist parties and individuals come to the fore in many different countries, but it’s particularly distressing when it’s your own country and when it’s so vitally important that Muslims remain trusting of the authorities,” Daniel Benjamin, former chief counterterrorism coordinator at the State Department, told The Washington Diplomat in a May 2016 profile.
In contrast to the U.S., Benjamin said that Europe is wrestling with ways to better integrate its Muslim communities, “which tend to be larger, poorer, less educated and more discriminated against, and have overall higher degrees of radicalization.”
Trump has cited the spate of terrorist attacks in European cities such as Paris, Nice, Brussels and Berlin as evidence that his warnings about Islamic radicalism — and refugees from Islamic countries — are on the mark.
As he assumes office, Trump shows no signs of letting up on his tough talk. He has stacked his team with officials who have framed the issue as an existential battle between Islamic radicalism and Western values, notably national security advisor Michael Flynn, who controversially tweeted that “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.” In his 2016 book, the retired Army lieutenant general said, “We’re in a world war against a messianic mass movement of evil people, most of them inspired by totalitarian ideology: radical Islam.”
Flynn added: “I don’t believe all cultures are morally equivalent, and I think the West, and especially America, is far more civilized, far more ethical and moral, than the system our main enemies want to impose on us.”
Likewise, Trump senior counselor Stephen Bannon has warned that the West “was in the beginning stages of a global war against Islamic fascism” — part of a centuries-old “Judeo-Christian West struggle against Islam.”
Trump’s pick for defense secretary, James Mattis, has also spoken bluntly about the dangers of radical Islam — albeit to a lesser degree than Flynn and Bannon — saying that “their views of the role of women, their views of modernity, their views of tolerance for people who think differently are fundamentally different than ours.”
Democrats fear such talk could propagate the “clash of civilizations” narrative on which jihadists thrive, providing them with a recruitment bonanza.
“For years we have focused on the Palestinian occupation, America’s deceitful alliance with Iran and [Syrian President] Bashar [al-Assad] in the slaughter of Sunnis in Syria and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as proof that America, and Americans, are waging a war against Islam,” Abu Omar, the nom de guerre of an al-Qaeda operative in Syria, told Taylor Luck of the Christian Science Monitor. “Now all we have to do is turn to Trump’s Twitter account or turn on CNN.”
Thomas Lippman, a scholar at the Middle East Institute and author of books such as “Understanding Islam,” said that Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric plays into the hands of groups such as the Islamic State (also known as ISIS and ISIL), whose propaganda aims to convince Muslims that the West is waging a war against them.
“What’s the point in contributing to ISIS’s recruitment drive by demonizing groups of people? I’m fine with demonizing ISIS, because they are demons. But they’re not Islam,” Lippman told us.
Lumping the world’s Muslims together as terrorists is “woefully ignorant” and overlooks the complexities of terrorism, he added. “People who say … that all Muslims are not terrorists but all terrorists are Muslims have apparently not heard of Italy’s Red Brigade or the Japanese Red Army or Peru’s Shining Path. The phenomenon of terrorism as the tool of the disenfranchised and the powerless has been with us a long time, and does not specifically belong to Islam.”
Fighting Radicals or a Religion?
Both Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush, stressed that the United States was not fighting Islam, but radicals who had distorted the religion.
“They try to portray themselves as religious leaders — holy warriors in defense of Islam. That’s why ISIL presumes to declare itself the ‘Islamic State.’ And they propagate the notion that America — and the West, generally — is at war with Islam,” Obama said at a White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism last year. “We are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.”
His words echoed Bush’s restraint in the wake of 9/11.
“Bush certainly described his War on Terror in ways that evoked a civilizational clash, pitting freedom-lovers against the totalitarian successors of the Nazis and communists,” Uri Friedman wrote in the Atlantic magazine in November 2016. “But he emphasized that Islam was not one of the clashing sides — that the terrorists had perverted the ‘peaceful teachings of Islam.’”
Obama argued that dire predictions of an epic clash of civilizations not only overhyped the threat, but made “it harder, not easier, for our friends and allies and ordinary people to resist and push back against the worst impulses inside the Muslim world,” he told the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg.
That reticence, however, produced a backlash among critics who said Obama’s caution flew in the face of reality.
“For years now, Republicans have condemned Obama’s avoidance of the term ‘radical Islam,’ arguing that it represents the president’s failure to properly assess and address the threat,” Friedman wrote. “Radical Islam, Obama’s critics contend, is what it sounds like: radicalism rooted in the religion of Islam. Where Obama sees ‘violent extremism,’ his critics see militant religiosity…. Where Obama sees a serious but manageable national-security threat, his critics see an ideological and civilizational challenge to the free world.”
Even Obama acknowledged in his last major national security policy speech at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida in December that terrorists have repeatedly tried to attack the United States and have succeeded in launching deadly attacks in Europe. He also admitted that the threat of terrorism has metastasized, with the group he calls ISIL taking up the mantle of extremism from al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The rise and reincarnation of such groups — and their stubborn staying power — suggests that their toxic, puritanical interpretation of Islam resonates with a sizable portion of Muslims. For years, the Islamic State not only won territory, but also the hearts and minds of martyrs, ranging from Sunnis in Iraq to radicalized converts in Europe. And despite losing ground in recent months, the group continues to frustrate entire armies and defy predictions of its imminent demise.
“The Obama administration needlessly got itself into trouble by avoiding an adult conversation about the problems in the Muslim world. Muslims aren’t children. They don’t need Western affirmative action programs,” Reuel Marc Gerecht of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies told Politico’s Michael Hirsh in a Nov. 20 article. “However, I do have a really big problem when certain individuals attempt to paint Islam, in all its 1,400-plus years of glorious complexity, as a deranged civilization and faith, whose denizens and practitioners are somehow uniquely capable of violence because they are hard-wired to do so, via the Koran, the holy law, and whatever else the anti-Islam crowd thinks makes Muslims tick.”
Islam’s Compatibility with West
Yet others argue that Islam’s traditions are incompatible with modern, democratic, liberal societies. Even today, many religiously conservative communities throughout the Islamic world tacitly (or legally) condone the stoning of women in so-called honor killings or marry them off as child brides. And polls have shown that many citizens of Muslim-majority nations do in fact prefer Shariah law to Western secularism.
Shadi Hamid, a scholar at the Brookings Institution and author of the recent book “Islamic Exceptionalism,” says Islam is unique in that it plays an outsize role in Muslim societies and its followers view politics through a religious prism. He also argues that Islam won’t necessarily follow the path of Christianity toward modernity.
“I see very little reason to think secularism is going to win out in the war of ideas,” he told the Atlantic’s Emma Green last June. “It’s presumptuous and patronizing to think a different religion is going to follow the same basic trajectory as Christianity.”
Hamid argues that the West needs to acknowledge Islam’s central role in politics — and its disillusionment with Western ideals. At the same time, he stresses that most people who “believe Islam or Islamic law should play a central role in political life” are not terrorists.
Speaking with The Diplomat last summer, Hamid said the Islamic State “wants Muslims in the West to feel more alienated.”
“Trump contributes to this narrative that Muslims don’t belong in the West, that Muslims are never going to be fully American. It’s very dangerous to feed into that rhetoric.”
He also dismissed the notion that American Muslims need to be more vocal in denouncing Islamic-inspired terrorism. “We have a joke in the Muslim community that we should just come up with an ‘I condemn’ app for our phones. Every American Muslim organization and leader and imam, they’ve been very outspoken against ISIS … even to the extent that there are American Muslim leaders who are on ISIS’s kill list.”
But Omar Saif Ghobash, ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to Russia, argues that Muslims can do more to ensure that their religion isn’t hijacked by fanatics and that it adapts to 21st-century norms.
“We need to speak out, but it is not enough to declare in public that Islam is not violent or radical or angry, that Islam is a religion of peace. We need to take responsibility for the Islam of peace,” he wrote in the January/February 2017 issue of Foreign Affairs. “We can make clear, to Muslims and non-Muslims, that another reading of Islam is possible and necessary.”
That includes dispelling misconceptions about what it means to be “Islamic,” including the notion that women are somehow inherently inferior to men.
“Treating women as inferior is not a religious duty; it is simply a practice of patriarchal societies,” he wrote. “The limits placed on women in conservative Muslim societies, such as mandatory veiling, or rules limiting their mobility, or restrictions on work and education, have their roots not in Islamic doctrine but rather in men’s fear that they will not be able to control women — and their fear that women, if left uncontrolled, will overtake men by being more disciplined, more focused, more hard-working.”
It also means confronting some hard truths, according to the ambassador. “Instead of asking one another about family names and bloodlines and sects, we might decide to respect one another as individuals regardless of our backgrounds. We might begin to more deeply acknowledge the outrageous number of people killed in the Muslim world in civil wars and in terrorist attacks carried out not by outsiders but by other Muslims,” he wrote.
Like many other analysts, Ghobash argues that extremists have twisted Islamic teachings, which forbid the killing of non-combatants, for instance.
“But just as in other religions, moderates and fundamentalists within Islam rarely see eye-to-eye on interpretations of the Koran,” wrote Lauren Carroll and Katie Sanders in a 2015 PolitiFact article.
While the majority of Muslims reject the Islamic State’s brutality, the group’s vision of an Islamic caliphate has attracted tens of thousands of devotees; even Ghobash admits that “according to the minimal entry requirements for Islam, they are Muslims.”
Action, Not Words
As the debate rages over how both Muslims and non-Muslims can broach the delicate subject of Islam’s role in terrorism, author and researcher Farhana Qazi says that what’s important in the battle against extremism is not so much words, but action.
“Because President Obama doesn’t use the words ‘radical,’ ‘Islamic’ and ‘terrorism’ in the same sentence, because he didn’t buy into this terminology, does not mean he has become a Muslim apologist or doesn’t acknowledge the threat of terrorism,” said Qazi, who has spent the past decade studying conflicts in the Muslim world.
“The fixation by the new president that President Obama has not acknowledged the threat is unfair,” she added. “We have robust counterterrorism operations, military strikes are continuing against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the State Department has programs that work with Muslims in the U.S. and abroad to amplify the voices of moderation. In fact, there’s so much going on to counter extremism that when someone makes these allegations, I think they must have been blinded.”
As for how Trump will approach the topic now that he’s officially in the White House and off the campaign trail, James Phillips, a Middle East senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said we shouldn’t read too much into Trump’s fiery anti-Muslim broadsides.
“Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric is unlikely to become a reliable guide to what his administration will do when it must grapple with the reality of fighting al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and other Islamist totalitarian movements,” Phillips told The Diplomat in an email statement. “Once in office, I fully expect that Trump will drop his campaign shorthand and make it clear that what we are fighting is an Islamist totalitarian ideology, not Islam as a religion.”
About the Author
Karin Zeitvogel (@Zeitvogel) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat. Anna Gawel (@diplomatnews) is managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.