There was a petty war of words last week over a very serious contest of ideas. The trivialities can be laid once more at the feet of President Barack Obama's opponents, who never miss an opportunity to degrade him. First among his detractors was former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Speaking at a New York fundraising event for Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin on Wednesday night (and first reported by Politico), Giuliani gibed, "I do not believe, and I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the president loves America." Compounding his gaffe, he added: "[Obama] wasn't brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country."
A scathing response from investigative reporter Wayne Barrett in the Daily News took special exception to Giuliani's comments, noting that Giuliani had ducked the draft during the Vietnam War through a half-dozen deferments.
The weightier debate came from journalist Graeme Wood, who argued in a lengthy Atlantic article that the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS, is an apocalyptic sect with a "medieval religious nature," and from New York Times columnist David Brooks, who charged that the president offered "the conventional materialistic explanation for what turns people into terrorists."
The point at issue in the volley of sound bites was whether it was a sign of weakness for Obama to call the terrorists of the Islamic State "extremists" rather than Muslim jihadis. An international Summit on Countering Violent Extremism that the White House convoked studiously avoided speaking of Islam or Muslims as a problem, providing the backdrop for Giuliani and the other critics anxious for airtime who charged that this diplomatic scholasticism on the part of the White House was dissembling.
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To the administration, the diplomatic language was necessary both out of respect for the one of the world's largest religions and out of strategic necessity. The summit had been called to build broad support for a protracted ideological conflict with the Islamic State.
The need to avoid language offensive to either American or foreign Muslims is obviously necessary in engaging their commitment in the war of ideas. The sanely conservative Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker wrote, "For Obama to try to organize the Muslim community through outreach to its religious leaders makes eminent sense. Without their support, we don't have a chance of stemming the flow of fresh radicals to reinforce the ranks of the Islamic State's armies."
Wood's article in The Atlantic, "What ISIS Really Wants," was a step removed from the White House summit. It doesn't seem intended to back the president's critics, though it can be used that way. Parts of the article function as a corrective to the conventional political wisdom that Islam is "a religion of peace" by drawing from Quranic verses and seventh-century Islamic history to press the point that the Islamic State is actually being very authentic to Islam. On the other hand, Wood admits, "Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do."
Relying primarily on Princeton professor Bernard Haykel and conversations with two learned Islamic State internationals, Wood argues that the Islamic State is serious about its Islamic scholarship, and its atavistic violence has its roots in the Quran and the early history of Islam. Wood ignores recent scholarship that shows that the early military expansion of Islam did not include subjugation and conversion of conquered territories, but contented itself with collecting taxes so that the Caliphates were able to develop as tolerant centers of sophisticated culture.
Wood goes on to argue that what some have branded as the Islamic State's "death cult" is a form of apocalyptic religion. Their fight, they believe, is the first of a series of battles that will issue in the end of history and the coming of the Messiah. Their doctrine holds that the culminating battle between the Caliphate and "Rome" (the religious symbol of the West) will take place on a plain in Syria.
In a reply to Wood on Salon.com, Haroon Moghul contends that most Muslims reject the Islamic State and repudiate its theology and its methods. "The only Muslims who think ISIS represents Islam, or even Muslims," he writes, "are ISIS themselves. ... The real reason ISIS happens is because of what keeps happening to Muslims." (Think Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and unaccountable drone strikes.)
In his Feb. 20 column, Brooks argues that Islamic State fighters are not motivated by the profit motive. Like young men in times past, they are driven by a "thymotic urge, the quest for ... glory that can be won only by showing strength in confrontation with death."
Brooks writes: "You can't counter a heroic impulse with a mundane and bourgeois response," as he alleges the administration does. "You can counter it only with a more compelling heroic vision. ... Terrorism will be defeated only when [the alienated yet aspiring young] find a different fulfillment, even more bold and self-transcending."
However, Brooks' alternative, revived nationalism, presents two difficulties. As an analysis in his own paper contended, the allies to whom Obama and the next American president must appeal are authoritarian regimes, which crushed the democratic aspirations of the Arab Spring and repress human rights.
Furthermore, American democracy in the current democratic capitalist form will not appeal to pious Muslim aspirants. Democratic nationalism may be a remedy for violent extremism, but only when it has been cleansed, to some degree, from the hedonistic, materialist ethic to which it is now attached.
Throughout history, many nations and groups have inflicted horrific violence on others following what they believed was sound and authentic religious doctrine. To the Jewish and Muslim victims of the Crusades, the Jewish victims of the Spanish Inquisition and European pogroms, the Protestant or Catholic victims of the religious European wars, the Inca and Aztec victims of the Spanish conquest of Central and South America, Christianity was not a religion of peace.
The perpetrators of the above violence certainly believed they were religiously "authentic," however, and drew from biblical verses that seemingly legitimate and encourage violence.
Today, we have the Islamic State, and we cannot become bogged down in partisan and pundit one-upmanship over what to define the dangerous new phenomenon that the Islamic State represents. Whether they are real or imagined Muslims, extremists or jihadis, they have misquoted and misrepresented Islam, cherry-picking verses from the Quran and sayings of the Prophet to fit their particular apocalyptic agenda.
It is high time to more seriously and decisively implement a comprehensive strategy to combat and uproot what is developing into one of the most critical challenges of our times.
[Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen is former editor of America magazine and a professor of ethics at Georgetown University. Ra'fat Aldajani is a Palestinian-American writer and commentator.]