Days after the video appeared of a Jordanian pilot horribly burned to death by an Islamic State death squad, President Obama told the National Prayer Breakfast that all faiths can be “twisted and misused in the name of evil” and that terrorists who profess “to stand up for Islam” are, in fact, “betraying it.” Critics found Obama’s timing offensive and his message about Islam naive: He should avoid moral equivalence, stop playing the theologian and recognize that Islam has a unique problem with violence and extremism.
Days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — in which temperatures inside the collapsing World Trade Center reached 2,000 degrees and the bodies of many passengers on the airplanes were consumed by burning jet fuel — George W. Bush took off his shoes, entered a prayer room at the Islamic Center of Washington, spoke with Muslim leaders and made a short statement. “These acts of violence against innocents,” he said, “violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith. . . . The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam.”
On Sept. 20, 2001, speaking to a joint session of Congress, Bush called the teachings of Islam “good and peaceful.” “The terrorists,” he said, “are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself.”
Later in his presidency, when the charge came that America was fighting a war against Islam, Bush answered that it was radicals who had “spread the word that this really isn’t peaceful people versus radical people or terrorists; that it is really about America not liking Islam.”
“I believe that Islam is a great religion that preaches peace,” Bush said. “And I believe people who murder the innocent to achieve political objectives aren’t religious people, whether they be a Christian who does that — we had a person blow up a federal building in Oklahoma who professed to be a Christian, but that’s not a Christian act to kill innocent people.”
Those who long for greater clarity in describing the peculiarly Islamic nature of terrorism (see Bobby Jindal: “Let’s be honest here: Islam has a problem”) should also be clear about something else. They are proposing a fundamental shift in the rhetorical strategy of the war against terrorism. In the Bush/Obama approach, terrorism is an aberration that must be isolated. Critics believe that it emanates from Islam and must be expiated. And some urge the president to declare that one of the Abrahamic faiths belongs in a special category of menace.
There are, of course, consequential historical differences among faiths. It is harder to separate divine law from positive law in a faith where the founder was also a political and military leader — though it was hard enough even in a faith where the founder was killed by political and military authorities.
But those who wish the president to publicly explore these matters are the ones urging him to act as a theologian. Presidential rhetoric on this issue should not be theological but phenomenological. The vast majority of the world’s Muslims — and an almost unanimous majority of American Muslims — believe their faith to be inalterably opposed to putting people in a cage and setting them on fire, or employing the mentally disabled as suicide bombers, or burying children alive. This is the actual division that matters most and the rhetorical division that best serves U.S. interests: peaceful people vs. the terrorists.
Most of those urging Obama to assert that Islam is somehow especially flawed among the great faiths have never been closer to power than a fuse box. There is no possible circumstance in which a president could say such a thing. It would cause a global firestorm, immediately alienating Muslim allies and proxies whom we depend on to help fight the Islamic State and other enemies. How would the king of Jordan, for example — a 41st-generation descendant of the Prophet Muhammad — be forced to react? How would the terrorists use such a critique in their own propaganda? Some of the president’s critics are blithely recommending a massive, unforced geostrategic blunder.
Obama’s speech at the prayer breakfast was cliche-ridden and historically shallow. But its basic framework — pitting true faith against nihilistic violence — will be adopted by every future president. Some of the intense reaction against Obama’s formulation is rooted in a broader fear that he is not serious enough in prosecuting the war against the Islamic State — a concern I share. But the answer is to prosecute that war more vigorously — not complicate it with careless and counterproductive rhetoric.