September 22, 2019

The Theater of the Absurd Has a Script

This blog has been cooking for well over a week. I simply couldn’t figure out a coherent line of argument that would explain my unease with what was being said by President Obama and administration spokesmen about the terror emanating from the Islamic world.

Clearly, there was a reticence to label what happened in Paris, Copenhagen, Nigeria, Pakistan, etc. as “Islamic” terror—hence last week’s summit in Washington was entitled a “Summit on Countering Violent Extremism,” as if everyone didn’t know which violent extremism had been the catalyst for the meeting.

The past few days have seen the president pilloried (as well as Secretary of State Kerry) for equivocation in the face of manifest evil. Some of that sentiment was motivated by partisan animus, but a good deal just made common sense—why not call the violence for what it is.

Weeks ago, Tom Friedman presciently “>spokesperson to the White House “>himself— we truly “entered the theater of the absurd.”

White House press spokesman Josh Earnest strained the credulity of many in the White House press corps when he asserted (as the president had earlier) that the January terrorist murders in the kosher butcher shop in Paris were “random”—-the terrorist just happened to come upon the market that happened to be a kosher one. This claim was made notwithstanding the terrorist’s proud assertion, before he died, as to why he selected the specific market that he did—because he would find Jews there.

Also last week the State Department’s spokesperson, Jen Psaki laid out a policy for countering Islamic terror that aims to go after “root causes”—i.e. “lack of opportunity for jobs” was one example among others that the administration suggested are terror’s ideological and political roots. “We can’t kill our way out of this war” she averred. The incredulity of the State Department’s press corps to her assertions makes for interesting “>piece in The Atlantic last week in which he convincingly argues that the president’s approach to the threat of Islamic terror is a coherent reflection of a policy that views terror as “violent extremism” (not coincidentally the title of last week’s conference) which can be suppressed by  members of the communities from which terrorists arise so long as they don’t advocate terrorist tactics. That our purpose should be to cultivate folks—even if they hold hostile and anti-western views— so long as they don’t subscribe to violence. In this view, it is the “violent extremism” itself, not the extremist, anti-Western views that pose the threat.

Frum points out that this view of the problem contrasts rather sharply with that held by British Prime Minister David Cameron who believes that we are threatened by a world view that rejects liberal values and the traditions of the west, not just by the instrumentality of terror and violence. The rejection of our/western values may result in violence, but the rejection itself is the issue, violence is only a symptom of the deeper problem. 

In that light, the comedic efforts by the administration’s spokespersons to avoid labeling Islamic terrorism begin to make sense—-they aren’t focused on the ideology that views the west and modernity as evil and ungodly—it is only those that embrace violence to promote those views that we are opposed to and will act against. So we don’t decry the ideological source for the hostility to us and our values—just the means that they use to act out their hostility.

That line of argument leads the president and others to then argue that ISIL et al are really not Islamic, that they have perverted Islam and its doctrines. Experts in the field have repeatedly pointed out that that just isn’t so; ISIL may purvey a form of Islam we abhor but it grows out of Islam and its doctrines.

A lengthy “> speech to Al Azhar University in Cairo on New Year’s Day offered a diagnosis of the problems,

I am referring here to the religious clerics. … It's inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire umma (Islamic world) to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world. Impossible!

That thinking — I am not saying 'religion' but 'thinking' — that corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the centuries, to the point that departing from them has become almost impossible, is antagonizing the entire world. It's antagonizing the entire world! … All this that I am telling you, you cannot feel it if you remain trapped within this mindset. You need to step outside of yourselves to be able to observe it and reflect on it from a more enlightened perspective.

I say and repeat again that we are in need of a religious revolution. You, imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world, I say it again, the entire world is waiting for your next move … because this umma is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost — and it is being lost by our own hands.

Similarly, leaders of the American Muslim community, with much courage, wrote an “>piece by Tom Friedman that concisely summarizes what is essential to our efforts at real reform:

That’s why ISIS is not just an Islam problem and not just a “root causes” problem. ISIS is a product of decades of failed governance in the Arab world and Pakistan and centuries of a calcification of Arab Islam. They feed off each other. Those who claim it’s just one or the other are dead wrong.

So, to defeat ISIS and not see another emerge, you need to: wipe out its leadership; enlist Muslims to discredit the very real, popular, extremist versions of Islam coming out of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan; stem the injustice, corruption, sectarianism and state failure now rampant in the Arab world and Pakistan; and carve out for Iraqi Sunnis their own autonomous region of Iraq and a share of its oil wealth, just like the Kurds have. I know: sounds impossible. But this problem is very deep. This is the only route to a more moderate Arab Islam — as well as to fewer young men and women looking for dignity in all the wrong places.

Hopefully, the White House and the State Department are reading The New York Times and will bring an end to the “theater of the absurd” by getting practical about what needs to be done to safeguard our future.