In Egypt, the president is Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a pious Muslim. Having grown up in the world’s center of sharia scholarship and closely studied the subject, he has courageously proclaimed that Islam desperately needs a “religious revolution.”
In the United States, the president is Barack Obama, a non-Muslim. His childhood experience of Islam, which ended when he was just ten, occurred in Indonesia — the world’s most populous Muslim country, but a non-Arabic one where the teaching and practice of Islam is very different from what it is in the Middle East.
While Sisi sees a dangerous flaw in Islam, Obama believes America needs to be “fundamentally transformed” but Islam is fine as is. You see the problem, no?
Said problem was very much on display this week at the president’s “summit” on “countering violent extremism,” the administration’s euphemism for confronting violent jihad. The latter phrase is verboten because Obama will not concede the close nexus between Islam and modern terrorism.
In reality, the summit had so little to do with confronting terrorism that the president did not invite the FBI director — you know, the head of the agency to which federal law assigns primary responsibility for terrorism investigations.
The summit was really about advancing the “social justice” agenda of “progressive” politics. The president and his underlings somehow reason that the answer to the barbarity of ISIS and al-Qaeda is to “empower local communities” here and abroad. Apparently, if the community organizers rouse the rabble to demand that government address “injustice” and Muslim “grievances,” the alienation that purportedly drives young Muslims into the jihadists’ arms will abate. This is the strategic political aspect of the Left’s denial of terrorism’s ideological roots: If terrorism is not caused by Islamic supremacism, then it must be caused by something else . . . and that something somehow always manages to be a government policy opposed by the Left: insufficient income redistribution, running Gitmo, our alliance with Israel, surveillance of radical mosques, etc. Smearing your political opponents as the root cause of mass-murder attacks — it’s a very nice weapon to have in one’s demagogic arsenal.
To the extent the summit dealt with Islam, it was to play the counterproductive game of defining the “true” Islam in order to discredit the Islamic State and al-Qaeda as purveyors of a “false” or “perverted” Islam. To try to pull this off, Obama relied on the bag of tricks toted by his “moderate Islamist” allies (who also turn out to be reliable progressives).
In his summit speech, Obama made the concession — which was almost shocking coming from him — that ISIS and al-Qaeda terrorists “do draw” from “Islamic texts.” He mocked them, however, for doing so “selectively.” The clear suggestion was that the terrorists deceive when they assert that Islamic scripture commands Muslims to, for example, “strike terror into the hearts” of non-believers, decapitate them (“smite their necks”), or enslave them. He intimated that there must be some balancing scriptures, some other side of the story nullifying these belligerent commands.
But then, almost in the next breath, the president engaged in the same bowdlerizing of Islamic teaching of which he had just accused our enemies. We should, he said, be listening to, instead of the terrorists, “Muslim clerics and scholars” who “push back on this twisted interpretation” and assure us “that the Koran says, ‘Whoever kills an innocent, it is as if he has killed all mankind.’”
The Koran does indeed say that, in Sura 5:32. Yet, in the very next verse, conveniently omitted by Obama (5:33), it goes on to say:
The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land, is: execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land: That is their disgrace in this world, and a heavy punishment is theirs in the hereafter.
That puts a somewhat different cast on the whole “whoever kills an innocent” theme, wouldn’t you say?
Which leads us to Obama’s other rhetorical chicanery. When he speaks of Islam, Obama not only takes scripture out of context; he also renders it as if there were a universal understanding of words like “innocent.” Yet when we read the above two verses together, and put them in the broader context of Islamic doctrine, we see that Islam can convey a notion of who is an “innocent” that is very different from the one we Westerners are likely to have. To be “innocent,” in this context, one must accept Islam and submit to its law.
The same is true of “injustice,” another word the president often invokes when discussing Islam. The true Islam, we are to believe, is just like progressivism: a tireless quest for “justice.” But just as the Left’s idea of justice differs from the average person’s, so does Islam’s. For the Islamist, justice equals sharia, and injustice is the absence or transgression of sharia. So, while this could well have been inadvertent, Obama’s claim that injustice drives young Muslims to join terrorist groups is exactly what the terrorists themselves would say — for the imperative to impose sharia is their rationale for committing terrorism.
Obama’s seeming inability to grapple with the Islamic roots of terrorism may not be fully explained by his coziness with Islamists. In a 2005 essay, Cardinal George Pell, the former Australian archbishop (he now runs the Vatican’s secretariat for the economy), observed that in Indonesia, Islam has been has been tempered by indigenous animism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and a pacific strain of Islamic Sufism. Cardinal Pell described the resulting brand as “syncretistic, moderate and with a strong mystical leaning.”
As I recounted in The Grand Jihad, that cannot be said for all of Indonesian Islam: There is also plenty of fundamentalism, sharia supremacism, and persecution of religious minorities, particularly of Ahmadi Muslims who reject violent jihad. Still, the practice of Islam in much of the country where the president spent some of his formative years is relatively moderate.
Things are different in the cradle of Islam, the Arab Middle East. That was the upshot of President Sisi’s impassioned speech in January. In calling for a religious revolution, he admonished the scholars of al-Azhar — who seemed cool to the warning — that terrorists in the Middle East were relying on a “corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the years, to the point that departing from them has become almost impossible” even though it “is antagonizing the entire world.”
Sisi is right, of course. How refreshing, how urgently necessary, for him to face the problem honestly. Nevertheless, our challenge is a different one from Sisi’s and Islam’s. It is preserving our own national security, not avoiding antagonism.
It is thus foolish for the Obama administration — as it was for the Bush and Clinton administrations, and as it is for Republican as well as Democratic leaders in Washington — to become enmeshed in the futile effort to define the “true” Islam. There probably is not one. Even though the scriptures are troublesome and unvarying, the practice of Islam — the interpretation of and degree of adherence to those scriptures — varies widely around the world.
There is also likely to be continuing upheaval as reformers square off with fundamentalists, so the “true” Islam could change. Moreover, our politicians are elected by an overwhelmingly (probably over 97 percent) non-Muslim country. Muslims by and large do not care what nonbelievers think the essence of Islam is. And if it were not for terrorism, most of us would neither give Islam a second thought nor care what Muslims thought about America and its Judeo-Christian roots. (How much time do you spend wondering what Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei believes is the “true” Christianity?)
We can sincerely hope that President Sisi and other reformers bring about a long-overdue Islamic Reformation. We can sincerely hope that they discredit and marginalize the sharia supremacism of ISIS and al-Qaeda.
But whether the Islam of the jihadists is “true” or “false” is irrelevant to us. What matters about sharia supremacism is that many millions of Muslims believe in it. It is a mainstream interpretation of Islam that has undeniable scriptural roots and inevitably breeds violent jihadists.
We must protect the United States regardless of whether they are right and regardless of how Islam’s internal strife is resolved – if it ever is.
— Andrew C. McCarthy is a policy fellow at the National Review Institute. His latest book is Faithless Execution: Building the Political Case for Obama’s Impeachment.