Fourteen grim anniversaries separated from Sept. 11, 2001, some memories still come in high definition, like flashes of a strobe light. An e-mail from my deputy I read at home, five minutes before the first plane struck in New York: “Very little of note happening.” Headed in to the White House and seeing American Airlines Flight 77 on a low trajectory toward the Pentagon. Meeting with President George W. Bush a day later and hearing him say, for the first time, “We are at war.”
All of official Washington rising to sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” at the National Cathedral. Sitting with Bush when the draft of an ultimatum to the Taliban was walked into the Oval Office — return falsely imprisoned Americans, close every terrorist training camp, hand over the terrorists — demands that would be included in his Sept. 20 speech to a joint session of Congress. Knowing that everything, absolutely everything, had changed.
It hadn’t, of course. American life eventually returned to its normal diversions and divisions, which is preferable to the unity and focus that come from mass death and grief. But at least one thing has changed, and much for the worse.
During the speech, Bush explained, “The terrorists practice a fringe form of Islamic extremism that has been rejected by Muslim scholars and the vast majority of Muslim clerics — a fringe movement that perverts the peaceful teachings of Islam.”
This claim — that radical Islam is a violation rather than an expression of Islam — is controversial among many conservatives today. Bush’s formulation of this argument might well be disqualifying in the current GOP presidential nomination process. This change in language and attitude toward Islam represents the largest shift in Republican views of the war on terrorism since 2001.
During the last two presidential nomination cycles, Republican candidates, at various points, have proposed requiring a loyalty oath for Muslims to serve in government; ruled out Muslims serving in their Cabinet; called sharia law “a mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the United States”; raised alarms about the “creeping attempt” to “ease [sharia] law and the Muslim faith into our government”; warned of “no go” zones where sharia law rules; described Muslim immigration as “colonization” and warned that immigrants “want to come and conquer us”; said there were only a “handful” of “reasonable, moderate followers of Islam”; described Islam as “a religion that promotes the most murderous mayhem on the planet.”
All this is combined with a durable conviction among some Republicans that President Obama offers Muslims special favor and may be a Muslim himself. As well as an almost magical belief that saying the words “radical Islamic terrorism” — like reciting an incantation — is a victory in the war against terrorism.
These beliefs have become pronounced during the Republican Party’s current populist turn, in which the blaming of outsiders is a sure applause line (and, in some campaigns, a substitute for ideas and policy). The current rejection of “political correctness” has little to do with resisting oppressive campus speech codes; it has become a type of broad permission for the expression of properly repressed ethnic and religious resentments.
There are theological struggles within Islam of great public consequence. And there is a small but dangerous minority of Muslims who believe that Islam is a religion of war.
But it is integral, absolutely integral, to assert that they are wrong. Those who view jihad as an excuse for murdering civilians are a fringe movement that perverts the peaceful teachings of Islam.
Bush did not make this point only because he was a decent human being — though he is. Or because he wanted to avoid the mass prejudice that Japanese Americans suffered during World War II — though he did. He believed that any global conflict is first a conflict of ideas. Terrorists from the 9/11 hijackers to the Islamic State believe they will win if the world’s Muslims regard their conflict as Islam versus the West. Cultivating this belief is the main objective of their sophisticated propaganda.
Bush believed that we will win if the world regards this conflict as civilized humanity versus murderers who use religion as an excuse for hatred, tyranny and the will to power.
Perhaps seven years without presidential authority has left Republicans unfamiliar with presidential responsibilities. But this contest of narratives remains the most important ideological struggle of our time. And Republicans should engage that debate, not complicate it.
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