It hasn’t been pretty watching the political culture of the United States beat itself senseless over the cruel realities of Islamic terrorism for the past thirteen years. If the beginning of this process was the Bush Administration’s “Religion of Peace” rhetoric, the darkly comical endgame is Barack Obama lecturing the Islamic State for not being Islamic.
“ISIL is not ‘Islamic,'” Obama said in his speech last week. “No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim. And ISIL is certainly not a state. It was formerly al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq, and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria’s civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border. It is recognized by no government, nor the people it subjugates. ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.”
You can see what he’s trying to do there: interfere with the use of religion for recruiting purposes what he insists on calling “ISIL,” rally other Muslim states against them, and signal to other Muslims that the United States is not at war with their religion. He’s quite right about how many of ISIS’ victims have been Muslims who practiced the “wrong” brand of Islam.
But it’s curious for a man who is invariably portrayed in the media as a brilliant and learned academic to claim “no religion condones the killing of innocents,” when of course some of them do, most obviously the virulent brand of Islam practiced by various head-chopping enthusiasts. ISIS did not invent the practice, after all. The number of people who believe in the militant and aggressive form of Islam is distressingly large. If it really was just a “tiny minority of extremists,” it would be easier to claim they aren’t practicing any form of legitimate religion. But it’s not. That formulation simply is not true, and I don’t know that we’re doing “moderate Islam” any favors by underselling the magnitude of the challenge they face.
Not that “moderate Islam” seems terribly eager to fight for the reformation of its religion. If the moderates were ever going to clear their throats, stand up tall, and denounce all of the horrible acts justified with references to the Koran, now would be a perfect time, because the Islamic State just beheaded captive aid worker David Haines, a man who spent much of his life working on relief missions for the benefit of Muslim populations. He was taken captive in March 2013 while working on an aid mission in Syria. He had also done relief work in Libya and South Sudan. Moderate Islam should be eager to rally around this selfless man, and denounce his murder at the hands of vicious barbarians who claim everything they do is authorized by the words of Mohammed.
Religious reformations are a difficult and painful process. They don’t happen overnight, not even in the modern era of global communications. President Obama and other Western politicians often speak as if the reformation has already occurred, and the sleazy characters in groups like al-Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, the Taliban, the Iranian government, and other practitioners of unreformed medieval Islam didn’t get the memo. That’s just plain delusional, and it leads to the bizarre form of politicized blindness that refuses to acknowledge the power and influence of militant Islam… a blindness that renders some ugly customers effectively invisible to our government and media culture. You probably haven’t heard much about Ali Muhammad Brown, a devout Muslim who shot three men in Seattle and murdered a teenager in New Jersey as “vengeance” for American military operations against Muslim countries in the Middle East. He specifically described the murder of 19-year-old Brendan Tevlin – accomplished by pumping ten rounds into the young man’s Jeep while it was stopped at a red light in West Orange, New Jersey – as a “just kill” because Tevlin was old enough to die as a “man.” You can see Ali Muhammad Brown flickering as a ghost of static on the media screen, a killer whose existence is so contrary to its preferred narratives that he’s on the verge of blinking out of existence.
There’s currently a petition at the White House website to “remove all copies of the Koran and any Islamic literature or material from the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.” Why not? That’s a no-brainer given Obama’s current stance on “authentic” Islam, isn’t it? If members of ISIS, their al-Qaeda forebears, and other terrorist groups aren’t true Muslims, why the hell give them access to the Korans they’re not fit to hold? But it’s the American military personnel who are deemed unfit to hold Korans, isn’t it? They were famously required to observe special handling procedures for the holy books they delivered to the people Barack Obama says aren’t real Muslims. If that’s true, aren’t we insulting the Koran by allowing these non-Islamic killers – these savages who defame the Religion of Peace by committing torture, rape, and murder in Mohammed’s name – to handle Korans provided by the U.S. government?
Let’s see President Obama back up his rhetoric with action, and issue highly publicized orders that prisoners from the non-Islamic Islamic State will be denied access to Korans, prayer rugs, and all other forms of religious paraphernalia when taken into custody, as many of them inevitably will be. Make it clear that no concessions whatsoever to Islamic tradition will be made on behalf of ISIS or any other group that falsely uses the mantle of Islam to justify its atrocities.
If Obama’s not willing to do that – if he insists on officially recognizing members of terrorist organizations as authentic Muslims, and extending them commensurate courtesies – then he should stop flapping his gums about what constitutes “real” Islam. It’s going to be Muslims who decide that anyway. Those outside their faith should not be shy about letting them know what definitions we hope they will come up with, and what standards of conduct are absolutely required for citizenship in our republics. But it’s extremely arrogant and foolish for secular governments to claim the power to define their religion. I’m dubious that it’s persuading anyone who isn’t already opposed to what ISIS does, and it certainly isn’t going to shame any of the head-choppers into knocking off all that evil. Mostly these proclamations about the true nature of Islam seem like various members of the political class talking to each other, not Muslims, sending signals about how progressive and tolerant they are. For my part, I welcome those of all faith traditions who join me in my absolute intolerance for slavery, terrorist attacks, and the murder of hostages.