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December 8, 2015
The Romans had a saying, “Experience is the teacher of fools.” On Sunday night Obama addressed the nation about the San Bernardino attacks, and among the usual lefty Democrat talking points about preventing a “backlash” against Muslims and fretting over “assault rifles,” he gently called out the Muslim community.
That [avoiding a “war with Islam”] does not mean denying the fact that an extremist ideology has spread within some Muslim communities. This is a real problem that Muslims must confront, without excuse. Muslim leaders here and around the globe have to continue working with us to decisively and unequivocally reject the hateful ideology that groups like ISIL and al Qaeda promote; to speak out against not just acts of violence, but also those interpretations of Islam that are incompatible with the values of religious tolerance, mutual respect, and human dignity.
Has the overwhelming, graphic experience of jihadist mayhem opened one of the numerous ideological locks closing the president’s mind?
Some commentators thought the words a “big deal,” as the Daily Beast put it. The Washington Post called it “unusual.” But such estimates are convincing only by comparison with Obama’s stubborn refusal to acknowledge any link between the numerous jihadist outfits perpetrating thousands of violent attacks, and the doctrines of Islam. The statement does mark a slight shift away from the usual talk of generic “violent extremists,” and from his willingness to condemn Christianity for the Crusades and Inquisition, while never, ever linking Islam to the 14 centuries of Muslim violence. But it is still light years from the sort of clarity and honesty about Islam we need to demand from Muslims.
Take his claim that “Muslim leaders here and around the globe have to continue working with us to decisively and unequivocally reject the hateful ideology” of jihadists. Really? If these “leaders” have been doing this, they have been remarkably unsuccessful. I wonder if Obama had in mind Dr. Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Sheikh and Grand Imam of Al Azhar University. As the Freedom Center’s Raymond Ibrahim reports, one of the world’s most important experts on Sunni Islam refused to denounce ISIS as un-Islamic: “Al Azhar cannot accuse any [Muslim] of being a kafir [infidel], as long as he believes in Allah and the Last Day—even if he commits every atrocity.” Yet the good doctor has no problem denouncing Muslim liberals and secularists as “infidels” and “blasphemers,” both of whom are worthy of death.
If a doctor of Sunni Islam in the most revered Islamic university in the world believes this way, is there any wonder that despite all the alleged efforts of “Muslim leaders,” that hundreds of millions of Muslims worldwide have no problem with jihadists waging war on infidels just as their confessional ancestors had done for centuries. Nor do they consider jihad a “hateful ideology,” but rather a communal obligation of the Islamic ummah?
This brings us to the core of Obama’s delusion, one alas indulged by many Republicans who should know better. He wants these “moderate” mainstream Muslims “to speak out against not just acts of violence, but also those interpretations of Islam that are incompatible with the values of religious tolerance, mutual respect, and human dignity.” Here we go again with the “highjacking” of the “religion of peace” excuse. Sometimes this trope is accompanied by a call for a “reformation” of Islam. The fact is, of course, that “reformation” in Islam has always meant a return to the pure Islam of the “rightly guided caliphs” under whom Islam went on to conquer two mighty empires and occupy a third of Europe.
Thus whenever Islam has faced setbacks, writers have appeared who chastise Muslims for falling away from Islamic doctrine and whoring after strange gods. In the early 14th century, for example, the Mongols’ devastating invasions of Syria provoked from the theologian Ibn Taymiyah a defense of jihad: “Since lawful war is essentially jihad and since its aim is that the religion is God’s entirely and God’s word is uppermost, therefore according to all Muslims, those who stand in the way of this aim must be fought.”
Similarly the European penetration of the Muslim Balkans in the 17th century saw the rise of Wahhabism in the Arabian peninsula, and the dissolution of the caliphate in the early 20th was followed by the Muslim Brotherhood and other salafist movements from which the current congeries of jihadist organizations have sprung.
This history will not surprise anyone even casually knowledgeable about the doctrines of Islam, which for all the “children of Abraham” nonsense are radically different from those of Judaism and Christianity. That’s why all this talk of “reform” has it backwards: ISIS et al. are the “reformers,” in the sense that they want, like the Protestant reformers of the 15th century, to return to a purer form of their faith. It is the so-called “moderates” who are the “hijackers,” promoting “interpretations” that “pollute” that purity with infidel ideas like religious tolerance, sex-equality, human rights, and democracy, none of which can find any warrant in the traditional doctrines and writings of Islam.
This makes Obama’s last claim about ISIS’s understanding of Islam, that its “interpretations” of Islam “are incompatible with the values of religious tolerance, mutual respect, and human dignity” remarkably obtuse. No, it is traditional Islam that cares nothing for religious tolerance, or mutual respect, or human dignity, as we understand those goods. The quote from Taymiyah above, consistent with numerous passages from the Koran, Hadith, and biographies of Mohammed, illustrates this reality. The point is not that these goods don’t exist in Islam, it is rather that they must be understood as good for faithful Muslims, not those still dwelling in the “House of War.”
So yes, it is a tiny step forward for the president to realize that it is not a coincidence that Muslims today commit the vast majority of terrorist violence. But his mind, and that of many others, is still firmly shut against accepting the reality that traditional Islamic doctrines lie at the heart of contemporary jihad, and that those doctrines are incompatible with liberal democracy and human rights, goods that do not depend on what faith you believe. We need to demand that clarity both from ourselves, and from those Muslims who do not want to follow those doctrines.
Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, a Research Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, and a Professor of Classics and Humanities at the California State University. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays on classical culture and its influence on Western Civilization. His most recent book, Democracy’s Dangers and Discontents (Hoover Institution Press), is now available for purchase.