When is an Islamic State Not Islamic?
In his nationally televised speech on the eve of the anniversary of 9/11, President Obama pointedly declared: “The Islamic State [ISIL] is not Islamic.” If the President’s verbal acrobatics sounded familiar they were. And not only because he was echoing Humpty Dumpty’s familiar aphorism: “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
In his memorable Cairo speech in June 2009, the new president referred to “a time of great tension between the United States and Muslims around the world.” Citing 9/11 he identified “violent extremists . . . in a small but potent minority of Muslims” who have “exploited these tensions.” That horrific attack “has led some in my country to view Islam as inevitably hostile not only to American and Western countries, but also to human rights.” Indeed it had, quite justifiably so.
But, President Obama insisted in his quest for “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world,” America and Islam “share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.” It was, he asserted, “part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.”
Now, as the Islamic State rampages through Syria and Iraq, with ambitions for an caliphate stretching far beyond those borders, even The New York Times noted that “its brutal interpretation of Islamic law” guided its path. One may plausibly argue that ISIL/ISIS is hardly representative of the history or culture of Islam – indeed, that it is a monstrous perversion of Islam by committing appalling acts in its name. But to assert, as President Obama recently did, that “ISIL is not Islamic” is not only false but, in the wake of the recent televised beheading of American journalists James Foley and Stephen Sotloff by ISIL jihadi murderers, surreal.
Barely a week after 9/11 President George W. Bush, addressing Congress, identified Al Qaeda as “a fringe form of Islamic extremism.” His precision stands in sharp contrast to President Obama’s evasion of the obvious relationship between ISIS and Islam, however perverse its inflammatory words and horrific actions may be. As Michael Rubin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who served in the Defense Department between 2002-4, has written (Commentary 9/11): “National security should never be sacrificed upon the alter of political correctness. . . . To pretend that the enemy – ISIS in this case – does not root itself in an interpretation of Islam is simply wrong.”
Yet President Obama persists in wishing away ISIL’s self-proclaimed roots in Islam. “No religion,” he declared in his attempt at exoneration, “condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim.” But as Robert Spencer, director of Jihad Watch and author of best-selling books about Muhammad and Islam, asks: “If the Islamic State were really so obviously un-Islamic, how is it that it came to call itself ‘the Islamic State'”? And why have hundreds of Western Muslims – including, evidently, the ISIS jihadist who beheaded two American journalists – journeyed to the Middle East to join its ranks?
Why, one might wonder, does President Obama either fail to grasp, or decline to assert, the obvious derivation of the Islamic State from Islam? According to the most recent CIA estimate, it now has between 20,000-30,000 fighters on the ground in Syria and Iraq, its growth prompted by stronger recruitment (including hundreds of Western Muslims) and “the declaration of a caliphate.”
Historically, “caliphate” refers to the political-religious state comprising the Muslim community and the lands and peoples under its dominion following the death of Muhammad. ISIS still has a way to go. But for an American president to avert his eyes from the religious (Islamic) roots of ISIS is a form of political myopia with potentially ominous consequences for Americans who have just commemorated the Al Qaeda-inflicted catastrophe now forever known as 9/11.
Jerold S. Auerbach is a frequent contributor to The Algemeiner