Very early in his first term, Obama stood near the banks of the Nile and delivered a speech on the relationship between the west and Islam that was praised effusively. It was widely predicted that this speech would heal the civilizational rift that had long existed, and had been cracked wide open by the evil Bush and his tribe of neocons.
That’s surely worked out well, hasn’t it?
If you read the speech, it is full of banalities, bromides, false history, criticism of the west, and condescending portrayals of Muslims as victims of outside forces. And we are witnessing the consequences of that vision put into presidential action.
Not to be deterred by reality, Obama spoke at his Summit on Violent Extremism, and basically expounded the same vision, tweaked slightly to address the current situation. That is, it was yet another speech delivered on the banks of denial.
There’s no transcript yet, but you can get the idea from this LA Times oped that ran under his name. It’s what Marie Harf said, only longer, basically.
Obama’s diagnosis of the causes of “violent extremism” is fundamentally flawed, and predictably progressive and materialist. In his view, it is caused by economic deprivation, corruption, and poor governance. Economic development, the eradication of corruptionm and reforming government to allow the disaffected to “address legitimate grievances through the democratic process” are essential in combating terrorism.
A few comments.
First, this is a very dubious prediction as an empirical matter. Corruption, poverty, and undemocratic governments are the rule, rather than the exception, throughout a good portion of the globe. Most of these benighted areas are not afflicted by “violent extremism” of the kind that is threatening the Middle East, parts of Africa, and even Europe (although they may be violent places, e.g., Venezuela or South Africa). Thus, these variables have little explanatory power.
What does? The very thing Obama is at great pains to deny: Salafist strains of Islam tracing their origins to Ibn Taymiyyah.
Intra-country comparisons make this plain. Take Nigeria, a notoriously corrupt, wretchedly governed, poor country. These conditions prevail throughout the entire country, but although violence is ubiquitous, extremist movements are found almost exclusively in the Muslim north, and are Islamist. They are not found in the non-Muslim south, even though it is also poor, corrupt, undemocratic and abysmally governed.
Similarly, Thailand’s and the Philippine’s insurrectionary movements are concentrated in Muslim regions, and are Muslim supremacist in nature.
These intra-country comparisons show that holding governance, corruption, and poverty roughly constant, the variation in the prevalence of extremist political movements across regions is explained by variations in the religious makeup of these regions.
Second, it is beyond rich to claim that democratic reforms will tamp down violent political movements. Islamist movements detest democracy with a passion. In their minds, it is an un-Islamic “innovation” (in the formulation of Taymiyyah). It is something that they are fighting to destroy, not fighting to create. Attempts to democratize, or to impose democracy, would only spur these people to greater violence.
Islamists use democracy mainly as an instrument to destroy it, and to obtain power. The “Freedom and Justice Party” (aka the Muslim Brotherhood) in Egypt is an excellent example. As soon as Morsi had been voted in, he and the Brotherhood began a systematic campaign to make sure they could not be voted out. Ditto with Hamas in Gaza. Democracy was purely a means to power, and something to be destroyed after power had been achieved.
Third, even if Obama’s diagnosis was correct, if success against terrorism requires making Middle Eastern nations democratic, uncorrupt, tolerant, and governed by the rule of law, we might as well give up now. It’s more likely that I will ride a unicorn to Mars than that these things will happen.
Fourth, Obama’s prescription is neocon to the core. Bring democracy and freedom to the Middle East, and peace and prosperity will flourish. How bizarre is that?
Obama hit all of his usual notes. All religions are violent: Islam is not unique in this regard. He even managed to bring Timothy McVeigh into it. Muslims have been “woven in the fabric of America since the founding.” Fun fact that I bet you didn’t know: Muslims helped build our railroads! And you just thought it was Irishmen and Chinese, you bigot you.
He also inveighed against Islamophobia, capped with a treacly story about getting a Valentine from an 11 year old Muslim girl who expressed fear that people hated all Muslims. (He didn’t mention that if the girl attempted to celebrate Valentine’s Day in ISIS territory, she risked a flogging or a stoning.) This is incredibly condescending, and insults hundreds of millions of Americans who are more than capable of judging people on individual behavior, and who do not lump all Muslims together.
He reprised his role as the determinant of what is and what isn’t legitimate Islam, effectively declaring ISIS and al Qaeda et al takfiri. Kind of presumptuous for a kafir, especially since takfir is reserved for Mohammed or the caliph.
In making this declaration he used his usual argument that most Muslims reject Salafism (though he did not use that word). This is another of his straw men. Even if true, it does not change the fact that ISIS, the Muslim Brotherhood, and all the other Islamist groups ardently believe themselves to be extremely faithful adherents to the truth revealed by Mohammed. They are fundamentalists in the truest sense of the word, and view those Muslims who reject their vision as blasphemers and apostates: anything that is not in the Koran, or which post-dates Mohammed and his companions, is un-Islamic. In their eyes, they are the true followers of Mohammed, and nothing Barack Obama says is going to convince them otherwise. Put differently, Obama’s opinion on the legitimacy of their claims to be Muslims means exactly squat.
In practical terms, Obama endorsed restrictions on government surveillance of Muslims, thereby buying into an agenda being pushed hard by CAIR, which just happens to be a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot. In so doing, he knocked down another of his straw men, and in the process, slurred law enforcement: “Nobody should be profiled or put under a cloud of suspicion simply because of their faith.” Of course not. Who said otherwise? Is he suggesting that has happened? It sure sounds like it.
All in all, just what you should have expected. An exegesis on “violent extremism” that denies the fundamental nature of the threat, and denies the undeniable roots of movements that are ripping apart vast swathes of the Middle East and Africa in one specific religion, which posits causes that are present where the alleged effects are not, and which denies the cause that is as plain as the nose on your face. Such a fundamental-and willful-misunderstanding of the nature of the threat and its causes will inevitably undermine efforts to fight it. Indeed, it is already doing so.
As Mark Twain said, “denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.” No, it ain’t. It is the foundation of Obama’s beliefs about terrorism and how to combat it.