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Obama’s Got It Wrong About Islamic State

His closed circle of advisors needs to get out more

Politicians and the media have been preoccupied with the President's refusal to label the terrorism threat "radical Islam" in the seeming belief that without getting the semantics just right we won't know whom to shoot at. The enemy calls
itself Islamic State, they've revived a barbarity not seen in centuries, and we know where they are, but a Wall Street Journal editorial says a "war cannot be won against an enemy we refuse to describe".

This inanity has been popping up everywhere. Across town at The New York Times, retired general and former head of the Defense Department's intelligence branch, Michael Flynn, says "You cannot defeat an enemy that you do not admit exists". And as this is written, Ted Cruz at CPAC is saying, "We cannot defeat radical Islamic terrorism with a president who's unwilling to utter the words 'radical Islamic terrorism'". Firebrand Tom Cotton, Iraq vet become freshman Republican senator from Arkansas, tells Fox News' Megyn Kelly, "It's essential if you want to defeat an enemy to name what that enemy is". To her credit, the spunky Ms Kelly pushed back a bit: "Why do the troops care whether we say that?" That brought forth the following nonsense from Cotton: "Our troops at every level need strong and confident leadership and if you're not willing to call your enemy what it is, you're emboldening that enemy".

Clearly, Obama is hoping to avoid convincing the other 1.8 billion Muslims in the world that this is not a reprieve of the Crusades. By not choosing words that confirm that belief he wants to avoid the unconsidered slips of George W Bush who spoke of a "crusade" against terrorism, a word duly noted by Muslims across the world. And yet that Journal editorial chastises the Obama administration "for its refusal to use terms like 'Muslim terrorism'", which does indeed sweep in all of Islam worldwide.

Obama had just hosted a conference in Washington about combating terrorism that seemed an embarrassment for both left and right — dubbed a soft approach to the new barbarians. "The world faces almost daily images of murder, torture, beheadings and innocents set on fire and tonight it appears the administration believes a key to this fight is community outreach … fighting terror with a focus on social media, empowering communities and creating economic opportunity for would-be radicals", was Ms Kelly's summation of the conclave. Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen says, "I have no problem…with soft power as long as it's backed by hard power. When soft power is used without hard power, it's just softness". He evidently considers the 2500 missions so far flown against ISIS as softies rather than sorties.

But in attendance were number of nations where the "soft" approach to radical Islam — inclusiveness, education, jobs — was relevant. Only a month after the attack at Charlie Hebdo, Kelly and the American media were back to seeing everything through a parochial lens. Talking to an international gathering, Obama's concerns certainly related to a Paris where the Muslim population — a consequence of the country's colonial past — live in the outskirt banlieus, have job opportunities raging from dismal to none, and see little attempt at integration into a French society that would rather they not be there.

but enough of that

That said, as we now say, Obama's view of "how I see it" has its serious shortcomings. For a start:

"Al Qaeda and ISIL and groups like it are desperate for legitimacy". — President Obama

From whom? Certainly not their Arab neighbors. And anyone else is irrelevant. ISIL, as Obama calls the Islamic State, shows every sign of viewing itself as the truly legitimate Islamic model by its restoration of the fundamental laws and social structure of centuries ago as laid down by their prophet. Had he better advisors, that would be apparent to the President by virtue of ISIL declaring itself the caliphate, the structure that fundamental Islam requires to fulfill their prophecy that leads to apocalyptic end times.

"Nor should we grant these terrorists the religious legitimacy that they seek". — President Obama

Strangely presumptuous. Even if sought, they certainly would not seek it from us, of all people. It is other Islamic movements that ISIS views as illegitimate for having devised diluted forms of the religion. The Salafis do follow Sharia law and employ its brutal practices but are more concerned with self-purification than jihad. The Wahhabis, funded throughout the Middle East by the Saudis, also follow Sharia. They routinely behead murderers and cut off the hands of thieves. But while strict when forming Saudi Arabia, they conquered lands that were already Muslim and not worthy of the death that ISIS metes out to Muslims who don't measure up. The kingdom and its excesses are anathema to ISIS. As for the Shiites, who have adopted practices found nowhere in the Koran, they are marked for death — all 200 million of them.

"We are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam." — President Obama.

Obama might have altered his view of legitimacy and perversion had he read an article in The Atlantic, "What ISIS Really Wants", that came out at the same time as his Washington summit and which we are drawing from here. By Graeme Wood, a Yale lecturer and contributing editor at the magazine, it has been the subject of a lot of buzz for making the case that Islamic State is firmly rooted in fundamental Islam.

Unlike al Qaeda, which commits terrorist acts and withdraws with little gained, ISIS has taken territory, which it must, because a caliphate requires a domain in which to impose Islamic law. Whereas al Qaeda stays in hiding and has even survived in caves, ISIS is exposed by that need to control territory. "Caliphates cannot exist as underground movements, because territorial authority is a requirement: take away its command of territory, and all those oaths of allegiance are no longer binding", Wood tells us.

The problem, as expressed to Wood by fundamentalist contacts, is that elsewhere the harsh Sharia penal code is hated because the rest of the blueprint — free housing, food, and clothing for all — has not been installed. Islamic State professes to deliver the whole package in the lands it has overcome. This extraordinary 42-minute documentary filmed inside Islamic State by Vice News reveals outcroppings of that societal structure taking form.
Yet at the same time it "is committed to purifying the world by killing vast numbers of people". Executions are believed to be part of daily life, the number of their own killed for apostasy or other violations of Sharia unknowable because, "It is a hermit kingdom; few have gone there and returned".

"They are not religious leaders. They're terrorists." — President Obama

If that were all they are, why then the need to replicate Islam's 7th Century world to follow the prophecy of Muhammad? If religion is a pretense, why the scrupulous adherence to original laws and practices that instruct their every decision, says Wood. Faithfulness to what they call "the Prophetic methodology" is everywhere, "in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins", he writes. “Even the foot soldiers spout this stuff constantly”, says Bernard Haykel, a leading expert on their theology at Princeton whom Wood consulted, referring to their troops quoting the Koran.

"We must never accept the premise that they put forward because it is a lie." — President Obama.

Islam was a conquering religion. The horrifying brutality that Islamic State has brought back from centuries ago can be seen as the methods used to best effect in the violent times of their prophet, Muhammad. They are restoring the laws of the caliphate which, for example, requires individuals to amputate the hands of thieves they catch in the act. "Create a caliphate, and this law, along with a huge body of other jurisprudence, suddenly awakens", says the article. So do slavery and crucifixion. The various factions of Islam as well as al Qaeda may forswear the use of such evils as impolitic in the present day, but as Koranic doctrine and the convention of the Prophet himself, they cannot be abjured without violating the Koran.

"We are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam." — President Obama.

Islamic State would presumably argue the reverse, that relaxation of original Islamic practices is the perversion. "Western officials would probably do best to refrain from weighing in on matters of Islamic theological debate altogether", says Wood.

Following the path of the Prophecy means getting Islam back on track. Thus did Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, a relatively obscure figure to the West, seize the opportunity to create the next caliphate — and proclaim himself the eighth of the twelve caliphs the Prophecy predicts — so as to resume the march to the apocalypse and end times, much like the beliefs held by fundamentalist Christians who follow the Bible's Book of Revelations. For Islamic State, the future will see the armies of "Rome" clash in northern Syria with the armies of Islam where “We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women”. That tells how deeply ISIS sees itself as resurrecting the true religion of the past. A Wall Street Journal op-ed by intelligence professionals says ISIS prefers to speak of "Rome" — its ancient adversary, the Byzantine Empire — as its stand in for the Europe of today. The Atlantic article takes note of ISIS's jubilation over the capture of the Syrian city of Dabiq — strategically unimportant, won at great cost, and barely mentioned in the West — because Dabiq is where the Prophecy says the Islamic forces will confront and destroy "the crusader armies", the armies of "Rome".

The Journal article describes three geographic rings that form Islamic State's plan for conquest, rings that radiate outward from its core in Syria and Iraq, to be augmented by Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine. The "Near Abroad" spreads outward from there, annexing Islamic countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan. The "Far Abroad" is everywhere else. While to be a caliphate it must hold territory at the center, especially Mosul in Iraq with its one million in population, elsewhere it can inspire a patchwork of adherents who sign on for terrorist strikes, as just seen in Libya, a strategy that the authors say is "a clear attempt to provoke" countries to turn inward to deploy counter offensives that tend to their own domestic security and thereby "deter participation in the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS". Longer term, the intent is to topple apostate regimes with destabilizing and demoralizing terror attacks meant to cause "multi-state failure in the region".

the lure

There are those who by their nature are attracted to a structure of discipline and absolute authority. ISIS couples that with religion stripped to its purist origins and a movement to spread that message that acknowledges no boundaries. "For certain true believers — the kind who long for epic good-versus-evil battles — visions of apocalyptic bloodbaths fulfill a deep psychological need", writes Wood.

Still, there is the question of how many of them, raised in the mild sensibilities of today, can easily throw the switch to savagery and carry out orders to behead, immolate, crucify or enslave. Those who are untroubled by such assignments or who even revel in them are clearly psychotic; perhaps there is some utility in drawing them out of the civilized countries of the West into one place for extermination by F-16s.

But as for the rest, how long will they last, is our question. Graeme Wood mentions that "when the Islamic State began enslaving people, even some of its supporters balked" and he writes of a German jihadist who, when asked if others were returning to Europe to carry out attacks, believed them not to be soldiers but dropouts. "No one has tried harder to implement strict Sharia by violence. This is what it looks like", Wood writes. He ends on a hopeful note that word will leak out that Islamic State is a house of horrors — those disaffected returnees will be key to spreading that word, we would add — the movement will cease to attract, and will ultimately implode.

But that's a long way off and in the interim we have a president who is is in error by not recognizing that this is not just a terrorist sect, that there is nothing quite so enduring as religious fanaticism, which fuels Islamic State's desire first to conquer and exterminate the apostates and corrupt regimes of Islam and then to challenge the West in a clash of civilizations. The question is how far they will get.

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1 Comment for “Obama’s Got It Wrong About Islamic State”

  1. I disagree. With the vast majority of Muslims leading a reasonably sane religious life, and the fact that the best people to influence the radicals are the mainstream Muslims, leaving the word ‘muslim’ out of the description is an inconsequential adjustment toward properly describing just who our enemies are.

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