Rhetorical excess in a presidential primary is nothing new, of course, but something more seems to be going on this time. The public discourse surrounding the so-called Islamic State seems like a major step backward from the hard-won analytical progress of the previous decade. Five years ago, political scientists and the broader policy community had developed a robust and sophisticated understanding of the nature of Islamist movements. The organizational and ideological differences between Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda were well-understood. So was the constructivist logic of al-Qaeda’s use of terrorism to encourage polarization, spread their unpopular worldview and promote a “clash of civilizations.” Politicians across the spectrum understood the strategic as well as moral importance of denying al-Qaeda its audacious claim to represent Islam. Today, the American public sphere is arguing over the political urgency of using the words “radical Islam,” the Islamic credentials of the Islamic State and whether “Islam is a religion of violence.”
This isn’t just the usual histrionics of presidential candidates. The op-ed pages, policy journals and talk shows are now filled with earnest discussions of the Islamic nature of the Islamic State and the pathologies of Islam as a religion. There’s nothing surprising about the persistence of such ideas within the anti-Islamic fringe, which is ideologically committed, well-funded and enjoys access to a robust conservative media ecosystem. It is the mainstreaming of once fringe ideas about Islam that is so disturbing. The insistence by mainstream pundits that “the Islamic State is really Islamic” is a worthwhile analytical debate, but in the current climate it has served as a gateway for the mainstreaming of ideas about the pathologies of Islam once contained on the radical fringe. It isn’t just the politicians and the pundits – the center of gravity among the policy community has palpably shifted as well.
Why is this happening? Partly, it is simply the reality of the Islamic State’s terrorism and savvy use of horrifying media spectacles to generate publicity. Last year’s beheadings of journalists and burning alive of hostages received enormous media coverage and genuinely shocked a worldwide audience. Last week’s Paris terrorist attacks, like the slaughter of Charlie Hebdo journalists, seemed to signal a frightening new type of low-cost, indiscriminate urban terrorism. But I don’t think that’s enough to explain this new public discourse. Jihadists have always sought to use terrorism to polarize politics, spread their ideas, discredit moderates and advance their preferred narrative of clashing civilizations. They have not always been so successful in winning mainstream acceptance for their narrative.
I would highlight three possible explanations. One part of the answer may be the pervasive effects of social media. By this I do not mean the Islamic State’s use of social media for recruitment and propaganda, as impressive and interesting as this phenomenon has been. Instead, I mean the ways in which social media itself is structured, creating new openings for extreme ideas to gain traction with the broader public. Social media networks typically tend to encourage ideological clustering, in which self-selected communities of the like-minded cultivate shared narratives, identities and arguments. Today’s pervasive social media is organically interwoven with broadcast media and more traditional print publications in ways that facilitate the movement of these narratives from isolated clusters into the mainstream. The 9/11 attacks took place at a moment when blogs had only just begun to reshape the American political public sphere, but the Islamic State’s rise has occurred in an era of near complete social mediation of information and opinion. Such an environment seems highly conducive to the cultivation and nurturing of radical fringe ideas – and their transmission into the broader public arena.
A second strand is the absence of George W. Bush. For all his other foreign policy struggles, Bush was staunchly opposed to the demonization of Islam, and frequently argued — as Hillary Clinton does today — that America was not at war with Islam. He understood the importance of denying the al-Qaeda narrative of a clash of civilizations. Bush’s stance acted as a check on the anti-Islamic impulses of the right wing base. That obstacle has long since passed from the scene. President Obama’s invocation of the same themes invites the opposite response. The right wing now can be unified against this rhetoric, without Bush to restrain them. Meanwhile, the waning of the Obama presidency has encouraged a large portion of the policy community to position themselves against the outgoing administration, which typically means adopting more hawkish and interventionist positions. By the old political math, the majority of Democrats combined with the Bush Republicans to block the anti-Islamic trend. By the new political math, the vast majority of Republicans combines with enough Democrats to push the “center” well to the right.
A third factor is the real changes within the Islamist landscape, far beyond the Islamic State itself. Syria has generated a wide variety of jihadist groups, which often position themselves against the Islamic State. Local insurgencies that once took on the al-Qaeda label now embrace the Islamic State’s franchise. Above all, the 2013 Egyptian military coup and subsequent repressive campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood severely weakened one of al-Qaeda’s traditionally most powerful competitors. The destruction and demonization of the Brotherhood has likely contributed to eroding the idea of a mainstream Islamism buffering the jihadists. The political push by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to label the Brotherhood a terrorist organization has reshaped the politics of the issue as well. Propaganda from the region against the Muslim Brotherhood then refracts through the Western public discourse. Old debates revolving around the Brotherhood’s role as a firewall against extremism are now far less relevant, with its organization shattered and ideology of peaceful participation discredited. Analysts who follow Islamism closely are now in uncharted territory, creating openings for those peddling simple, well-rehearsed narratives about Islam.
All of this may help to explain the timing of this eruption of anti-Islamic political discourse into the mainstream political public. But this does not make it any less disturbing. Obama was on the mark when he warned recently, using another name for the Islamic State, that “I cannot think of a more potent recruitment tool for ISIL than some of the rhetoric coming out of here in the course of this debate. ISIL seeks to exploit the idea that there’s war between Islam and the West … that feeds the ISIL narrative.” The seemingly endless recurrence of the “clash of civilizations” narrative, after long years of hard-fought analytical progress and painstaking policy work, is an object lesson in the resilience of populist ideas in the face of academic and public criticism.
Promoting a clash of civilizations and destroying the reality of productive coexistence between Muslims and non-Muslims was always at the heart of al-Qaeda’s strategy. The Islamic State has avowed the same goal of eliminating the “gray zones” of toleration. With American political discourse these days, the prospects for escaping the iron logic of this strategy have never looked more dismal.