Conservatives are deeply troubled by President Obama’s reluctance to use the words “Islam” and “Islamic” often enough when talking about terrorism. We saw this when many conservatives reacted with condemnation to the White House’s Summit to Counter Violent Extremism, which wrapped up yesterday.
But the importance many on the right are now placing on repeating terms like “Islamic extremists” as much as possible raises a possibility that ought to trouble the GOP: There’s a strain of anti-Muslim sentiment within their party that is growing stronger; what we don’t know yet is whether there’s anyone in the party with the guts to arrest its progress.
Obama doesn’t dismiss such language choices as irrelevant; he has made clear his position that if he uses terms like “Islamic extremism” or “Islamic terrorism” he would be implying not just that groups like ISIS are motivated by their religious beliefs, but that there’s something inherently Islamic about this particular brand of violence. He worries that we would be doing ISIS’ work for them, validating their claim that there is a clash of civilizations going on, with Islam on one side and the west on the other.
I haven’t seen conservatives address this argument directly enough. Do they really think that using the word “Islamic” more to talk about threats to the United States would make those threats easier to defeat? Who knows? What’s apparent, though, is that they want Obama to admit and proclaim exactly what ISIS is trying to convince every Muslim of: that this is indeed a clash of civilizations.
Let’s look at what we’ve been hearing lately. Bill O’Reilly of Fox News is now calling on American clergy to preach “holy war” against the Muslims who threaten our way of life. “President Obama is flat-out wrong in not describing the terrorist threat accurately,” he says. “Muslim fanatics want to kill us. And there are millions of them.” He offered this under a headline reading, “Judeo-Christian Values vs. the Jihad.”
“When I hear the president of the United States and his chief spokesperson failing to admit that we’re in a religious war, it really bothers me,” says Lindsey Graham.
And the war isn’t just about what’s happening in Syria and Iraq, it’s about whether there are too many Muslims here in America as well. Last month, Bobby Jindal went to England to lecture the British about the utterly fictional “no-go zones” that he imagines are blanketing Europe, where sharia law is in force and non-Muslims are not permitted. No matter how many people tell Jindal that the “no-go zones” he’s heard about don’t actually exist, he’s sticking to the story, and warning that they’re on their way to America.
It’s a message that many Republican voters are apparently eager to hear. As Byron York reported, to Republicans in Iowa, “Jindal was warning about the danger of enclaves of unassimilated Muslim populations in an age of Islamic radicalism, a problem they fear could be in store for the United States.” Jindal returned from his trip to hold a prayer rally, explicitly advertised as an event to celebrate Christianity (“There will only be one name lifted up that day — Jesus!” Jindal wrote in a letter inviting other governors to come). At the rally, Jindal triumphantly declared, “Our god wins!”
But as Peter Beinart reminds us, Jindal isn’t even the most nakedly anti-Muslim candidate in the group of possible GOP contenders; that would be Mike Huckabee. Here are some colorful comments he made in 2013:
“Can someone explain to me why it is that we tiptoe around a religion that promotes the most murderous mayhem on the planet in their so-called ‘holiest days’? You know, if you’ve kept up with the Middle East, you know that the most likely time to have an uprising of rock throwing and rioting comes on the day of prayer on Friday. So the Muslims will go to the mosque, and they will have their day of prayer, and they come out of there like uncorked animals — throwing rocks and burning cars.”
Not a lot of ambiguity there. And even people who wouldn’t say that kind of thing are clear about what they do want everyone to say: that terrorism is Islamic. “They won’t even call the threat what it is. How can you talk about defeating an enemy you cannot name?” said Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, in response to the White House Summit.
This is a common refrain: we can’t defeat Islamic terror if we don’t call it “Islamic” at every opportunity. But I wonder what McCaul and the many Republicans who share his opinion think would happen if President Obama jumped up and down and shouted, “Islamic Islamic Islamic!” Would there be some difference in our military or diplomatic strategy? Would we get more help from Muslim countries? What would change?
It’s obviously important to understand how ISIS’ ideas, actions, and decisions grow out of their particular interpretation of Islam. But that’s very different from saying that in order to defeat them, we have to declare to the world that we’re fighting Islam (and of course, there’s nothing ISIS would want more).
What Republicans are now demanding is that we once again make our thinking as simplistic as possible. When Obama says that we need to understand the complex forces — economic, political, religious — that produce the cadre of disaffected young men on which ISIS relies, they shake their heads and say: No, we don’t need to understand anything. This is about Them and Us, and if we just say we’re fighting Them, then we’re halfway to victory.
Every Republican politician, particularly those running for president, should be thinking very carefully about how they want to address this issue in the coming days, because they’ll have to. Particularly given the widespread beliefs within the GOP base about President Obama — that he’s too solicitous of Muslims or may be a secret Muslim himself, that he hates America and sympathizes with terrorists — there will be a great deal of pressure on presidential candidates to show that they’re as alarmed and angry about the Muslim threat as the guy at the next podium.
The real test of how mainstream this kind of anti-Islamic sentiment has grown within the GOP isn’t so much what those like Huckabee and Jindal say — they’ve obviously decided that advocated for religious war is the path to becoming the favored candidate of Christian conservatives (though they seem to have forgotten that the candidate who wins that mantle almost never gets the GOP nomination). The test is whether we see candidates like Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Marco Rubio, who are looking to appeal to a wider group of voters, dipping their toes in those rancid waters.
One Republican candidate has done the right thing in response to this question. In 2011, Chris Christie appointed Sohail Mohammed to a state judgeship, a decision for which he was attacked by some conservatives in the most blatantly bigoted ways you can imagine. The critics called Mohammed, an accomplished attorney, a terrorist sympathizer and someone who would attempt to impose sharia law on the citizens of New Jersey. Christie treated the criticisms with the contempt they deserved. “This sharia law business is crap,” he said. “It’s just crazy and I’m tired of dealing with the crazies.”
But that was then. We’ll see what the candidates do when someone at an Iowa town meeting stands up and says something grossly anti-Muslim, because that absolutely will happen. Will they agree? Will they just try to change the subject? Or will they say, “Now hold on there”? That’ll show us what they’re really made of.