One wouldn’t call them bedfellows, strange or otherwise, but President Obama and Donald Trump are both inadvertently helping the Islamic State through rhetoric that is either too cautious or too rash.
It shouldn’t be difficult to discern which is which.
Obama, through his studious avoidance of explicitly calling terrorists or the Islamic State either Islamic or Muslim, is “silly,” perhaps “cowardly” and likely unproductive. And Trump, with his other-izing approach to problem solving — targeting adherents of Islam for special scrutiny — contributes to recruitment and radicalization by marginalizing Muslims.
This composite appraisal comes from two authorities on Islam-inspired terrorism — Boston University professor Jessica Stern, author of “ISIS: The State of Terror,” and Abdullah Antepli, an imam and senior fellow at Duke University’s Office of Civic Engagement.
The two were among several speakers at a recent Faith Angle Forum, sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center, which twice annually convenes journalists and scholars to delve deeply into issues related to religion, culture and current events.
Antepli was also critical of moderate Muslims who feel the need to defend Islam even in the wake of terrorist attacks. A jovial fellow whose students have nicknamed the “Turkish Delight Imam,” Antepli said he’ll “scream and pull my hair out” if he hears one more time that Islam is a religion of peace.
It is and it isn’t, depending on which text one uses for one’s purposes. Just as the abolitionists used scripture to end slavery, the Islamic State uses the Koran to resurrect slavery.
No religion, said Antepli, is one thing. Every religion, especially those that are centuries old, is many things. Understanding requires familiarity with what Antepli identified as the three main categories of all religions: history, people and, last, theology.
In other words, religion is only part of the terrorist equation, but denying it altogether is a mistake, both agreed. On this score, Obama’s critics may be correct, though others would argue that naming Islam risks alienating moderate Muslims.
Antepli also said that moderate Muslims are just as repelled by the Islamic State — and are just as often its victims — as the rest of the world.
The question that puzzles the civilized world is why the Islamic State is so successful in recruiting. For your edification, only about 120 Americans thus far have been recruited, about 40 percent of whom are converts to Islam, Antepli said. We know that the Islamic State has a sophisticated propaganda machine and a viral social media presence. But most won’t know how poorly we perform comparatively. Every day, the Islamic State tweets tens of thousands of times, compared with the State Department, which sends about a dozen tweets.
Stern emphasized that the radical jihadist ideology is undergirded with a narrative of humiliation, reinforced with branding and perverse promises — sex slaves, drugs, power — all of which can be justified with Koranic text. The promises would be especially irresistible to a certain kind of person: The typical jihadist is a male between ages 14 and 35 who has a mental-health history and feels alienated.
Yes, some percentage of recruits are surely psychopaths attracted to the brutality the Islamic State justifies with text. And some are true believers. But many of the remainder are simply ripe for the picking. We do ourselves no favors when we play into the Islamic State’s hands by reinforcing their propaganda that America hates Muslims.
Nor is it useful to fight ideology with violence, which only nurtures brutality in the jihadi mind. And certainly not by creating divisions between them and us, a propagandist tool for recruitment and radicalization.
My favorite approach relates to a method Antepli uses in his work to de-radicalize young Muslims. He told the story of a young man who was considering joining the Islamic State. Antepli, who is often called in by parents concerned about their children, said though it was the lad’s decision, he should thoroughly understand all the parts of Islam before making a decision.
The young man agreed to listen. By the time Antepli had finished his recitation of the nuances, history and reality of the Islamic State, the erstwhile sympathizer said, “I don’t want anything to do with that. It’s boring!”
Indeed, evil isn’t only banal; it’s a big bore.