President Obama opened this week’s White House Conference on Violent Extremism with a speech about community-based counter-radicalization efforts, and his Administration is being roundly mocked for its refusal to use terms like “Muslim terrorism” or “Islamism.” The mockery is deserved. Foreign policy is not a Harry Potter tale of good versus He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. And war cannot be won against an enemy we refuse to describe except in meaningless generalities.
But there is a deeper problem with the Administration’s semantic dodges. Al Qaeda, Islamic State, Boko Haram and other jihadist groups are waging more than a military conflict. They are also waging an increasingly successful ideological war for the soul of Islam and its 1.6 billion followers.
Their version of jihad is gaining adherents precisely because it is motivated by an idea that challenges the values and beliefs of moderate Islam, the West and modernity. The free and non-fanatic world won’t win this deeper struggle if the Obama Administration refuses even to acknowledge its nature.
The 9/11 Commission Report put this front and center. Its second chapter, “The Foundation of the New Terrorism,” traces what it calls “ Bin Ladin ’s Appeal in the Islamic World.” It discusses the late al Qaeda leader’s faith in “a return to observance of the literal teachings of the Qur’an and the Hadith.” It underscores bin Laden’s reliance on Muslim theologians, from Ibn Taimiyyah in the 14th century to Sayyid Qutb in the 20th. And it explains how bin Laden turned Islam into a licence for murder.
“Qutb argued that humans can choose only between Islam and jahilyya,” referring to a world of licentiousness and unbelief. “No middle ground exists. . . . All Muslims—as he defined them—therefore must take up arms in this fight. Any Muslim who rejects his ideas is just one more nonbeliever worthy of destruction.”
None of this is denied in the Muslim world, which is well aware of the increasingly radical bent of mainstream Islamist theology. Not for nothing did Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi recently visit Cairo’s al-Azhar university, Sunni Islam’s premier center of religious learning, to leading clerics of where Islam is heading: “Let me say it again, we need to revolutionize our religion.”
That’s exactly right, but it’s hard to see how such a revolution might take place—much less who might carry it out—if Islam can barely be mentioned in the context of a conference on “violent extremism.” In his speech Mr. Obama acknowledged that “al Qaeda and ISIL do draw selectively from the Islamic texts,” and he called on Muslim leaders to reject grievance narratives against the West.
But the President also insisted that the West must never grant al Qaeda and Islamic State “the religious legitimacy they seek” by suggesting they are Muslim religious leaders rather than mere terrorists. That’s a fine sentiment, but it elides the fact that the two categories aren’t mutually exclusive. The Islamic State may speak for only a minority of Muslims, but it is nothing if not Islamic in its beliefs, methods and aims. Ignoring that reality for the sake of avoiding injured feelings helps nobody, least of all Islamic State’s many Muslim victims or Islam’s would-be reformers.
The useful analogy here is to the Cold War, when the world was also challenged by an ideology that professed its superiority over an allegedly decadent West. The difference then is that Western leaders didn’t shrink from describing the evil of that ideology and defending the superiority of our way of life. The same needs to be done now.
This will have to include more sophisticated arguments to counter radical Islamism. Jihadist ideology has gained millions of adherents because it makes fundamental claims about personal virtue and social justice. Countering that narrative requires something more than making an appeal, as State Department spokesperson Marie Harf did this week, to working on “root causes” such as insufficient schooling and job opportunities in the Arab world. There is little or no correlation between poverty and Islamist extremism, many of whose most notorious figures are wealthy and well-educated.
It will also require far more support for reform-minded Muslims, from granting political asylum to persecuted Muslim intellectuals to funding civil society groups seeking to spread liberal concepts of individual liberty and religious tolerance.
Above all, we need to recognize that the strength of radical Islamists is directly correlated to their battlefield success, and the growing perception that they are the strong horse against moderate Muslim leaders. Communist ideology lost its appeal when it was seen to fail against the prosperity and freedom of the West. Islamic State will lose its allure when it is defeated and humiliated in the arena it cares about most, which is the battlefield. Mr. Obama and other Western leaders must summon the will to win the war on the ground, or they will find themselves in permanent retreat in the war of ideas.