Monday, July 4, 2016

Quotable: Robert Satloff on what to call the ideology that “animates much of the terrorism”

JB - Happy Fourth of July! (pix via SW); hear also (via MF).


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Sunday, July 3rd 2016
“. . . I followed the recent back-and-forth between President Obama and his would-be successors on what to call adherents to the ideology that animates much of the terrorism around the world today,” wrote Robert Satloff in an important essay, “A Call for Clarity: Words Matter in the Fight Against Islamism.  “We must be clear about the distinctions between Islam, political Islamism, and violent Islamism,” he added.  Satloff is the Executive Director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; his article was published in The American Interest on July 1, 2016.  Useful and clarifying, the full article should be read by everyone in the Public Diplomacy, foreign policy, and national security communities.  Here are some bullet points:

  • The President seems to want to exclude from our political lexicon all particularistic cultural references—that is, any word that could associate the terrorists to the religion or adherents of Islam and thereby tar Islam with the brush of terrorism. Somewhat counterintuitively, he apparently fears that using terms that reflect a unique connection between terrorism and Islam may have the perverse impact of legitimizing these heinous acts in the eyes of certain Muslims.

  • On the opposite end of the spectrum, Donald Trump suggests that victory over the terrorists begins (and may even end) with using terms that highlight the terrorists’ connection with Islam.

  • Hillary Clinton advocates a middle course, checking off the box of using terms like jihadist,perhaps so as not to be accused of avoiding them, but not really focusing on the meaning of these terms in the broader battle of ideas.

  • Given President Obama’s reluctance—or, alternatively, Donald Trump’s enthusiasm—for terms that have “Islam” embedded within it, should we refrain from employing it in political discourse or policy debates? The answer is no.

  • A person who follows the religion of Islam is a Muslim. That noun, Muslim, is also one of the two adjectival forms of the word Islam, the other being Islamic, as in “a mosque is a Muslim house of worship” and “what lovely Islamic calligraphy there is on the mosque wall.” 

  • Islamism is an ideology, like Communism, and like its secular cousin, it is about power, not faith—in this case, asserting the primacy of Muslim power over all others. A cornerstone of Islamism is the spread of an all-encompassing and supremacist interpretation of sharia, Islamic law.

  • Of course, many religions promote fidelity to the laws of the faith, but Islamism seeks the imposition on entire societies of a certain form of Muslim religious rule, together with the destruction of everything that Islamists believe is antithetical to their understanding of the proper practice of Islam. Essentially, this is the difference between advocating orthodoxy, a personal matter, and establishing a totalitarian theocracy, a very public and political matter.

  • It is important to recall that something—a book, a song, a speech—can be Islamic without being Islamist. There is a big difference.

  • It would be accurate to call those who view politics as the route to an Islamist victory as political or electoral Islamists.

  • . . . jihadists—those who use or advocate violence to achieve their political goal—are a subset of Islamists.

  • . . . I prefer the more straightforward term violent Islamism. One can reasonably differentiate between those who employ violence and those who merely endorse, advocate, or sympathize with those who employ violence—calling the former violent Islamists and the latter radical or radical or extremist Islamists.

  • Some employ the term fundamentalist but given its roots in Protestant Christianity in the United States, it really doesn’t apply.

  • With this primer as background, it appears our current debate over how to characterize our adversaries in this battle—and ultimately, how to conceive of the ideology that animates our adversaries—may be moving in the wrong direction.

  • Twenty-two years ago, then-President Bill Clinton’s National Security Advisor Anthony Lake offered one of the most important insights on the topic when he noted that “What distinguishes Islamic extremism from other forms of extremism is not terrorism [b]ut the naked pursuit of political power.” In other words, the ends matter most, not the means.

  • This is a very different approach from the more fashionable focus on combatting violent extremism, with its emphasis on means over ends and its reluctance to recognize any connection, however warped or deluded, with the religion or adherents of Islam.

  • . . . what words should we use . . . ?  I vote for clarity. The challenge we face emanates from Islamism, a sinister ideology that rejects the ideals and freedoms on which our nation is founded. Adherents of that ideology—Islamists—can use both violent and non-violent means to achieve their ends and we should, I believe, counter them, with the full range of means at our disposal.

  • In my experience, most Muslims—especially Muslim Americans—know what’s at stake. They know the difference between a Muslim and an Islamist. Many are insulted by the fact that so many of our public figures infantilize them to the point of reducing the threat to “violent extremism,” a vague, anodyne phrase devoid of cultural context or practical meaning.

  • If we, in our public rhetoric, have figured out how to differentiate between Christians and Klansmen, we should be able to talk with sensitivity and humility about the difference between Muslims and Islamists.

  • At the very least, our leaders need to talk candidly and sensibly about the threat of Islamism in order to make the case for building partnerships between Muslim communities around the country and federal, state and local governments—partnerships that are essential to winning the battle against this pernicious ideology. Indeed, it borders on inconceivable how public officials could legitimately discuss the urgency of building closer ties with Muslim communities without a sober, open, and honest discussion about the Islamist threat that fuels the need for such ties.

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