Islamists are winning their war to silence critical commentary in the West about Islam. So says Flemming Rose, culture editor of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which originally published the now-infamous images of Muhammad, in his recent book, “The Tyranny of Silence.”
Whether motivated by a cowardly nature or by an obsequious desire to be nice, much of the media and the Obama administration now adhere to a common vocabulary when discussing violence motivated by Islamist theology. There is simply no reference to the theological motivations so relevant to the perpetrators of religiously inspired terror.
We are told that The Islamic State is not Islamic (rather a terrorist “jayvee team”), the Taliban is not an Islamist terrorist group (rather an “insurgency”), the Charlie Hebdo massacres were not coordinated by radical Islamists (rather “individual terrorists”), the Fort Hood murders were not acts of terror (rather “workplace violence”), the terrorist attack on our embassy in Libya was not instigated by imams preaching Islamic blasphemy laws (rather by our own exercise of free speech) and so on.
In fact, the U.S. government has purged the worlds “Islam” and “jihad,” and any language deemed “Islamophobic,” from counterterrorism training manuals, thereby neutering the ability of U.S. law enforcement to identify the motivational factors behind Islamist terrorism.
However, the ad nauseam repetition that “Islam is a religion of peace” every time a terror attack is carried out in the name of Islam no longer has any traction. Even some who, in the past, felt impelled to employ fatuous statements about the lack of Islam’s responsibility for Islamist terrorism seem recently to have constrained themselves. For instance, at a recent panel discussing the “Causes of Radicalization” at the National Press Club, Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution commented that he no longer feels comfortable employing this phrase. Muslims must admit that for many, terrorist violence has become Islam, he said, adding, “ISIS has emerged out of a particular context.”
No matter how much the White House wants to deny it, the Islamic State group version of Islam is very real for its crucified and decapitated victims. Saudi Arabia’s version of Islam is very much a reality for the homosexual teenagers publicly hung for defiling Wahhabi Islam. Boko Haram’s version of Islam is very real for the children slaughtered while attending schools deemed too westernized for the group’s convictions. And the Taliban’s version of Islam is very real for the women put to death for being raped or walking without a male escort, both violations of the Pushtun traditional social code of honor as encapsulated by Shariah law. These violent versions of Islam, prevalent in the Muslim world to varying degrees, must be studied, debated and taken very seriously, especially within our counterterrorism apparatus.
Nevertheless, the administration is persistent in its efforts to obscure the theological motivations of self-described Islamist terrorists. Washington’s latest use of this obfuscating tactic is its declaration that the Taliban is not a terrorist organization. Rather, the Taliban is an insurgency, a mere rebellion against an authority. Yet one can be a terrorist group and be engaged in acts of insurgency at the same time — the two are not mutually exclusive.
In contrast to the White House’s misleading rhetoric, both the Treasury and the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center list the Afghani Taliban as a global terrorist group, and the State Department designated the Pakistani Taliban a Foreign Terrorist Organization. The White House’s semantics appear calculated to lessen the blow as President Obama hands over Afghanistan to the Taliban, the very terrorist group that too much American blood and treasure have been spent attempting to defeat. We’re supposed to buy into Mr. Obama’s “end of conflict” narrative, except anyone sensible would acknowledge that as long as the Taliban exists, there will be violence and conflict in the region. That is because the Taliban is a terrorist group that kills innocent civilians for both religious and political purposes, and does so on a consistent basis.
The United States has effectively adopted the same policy as Qatar-funded Al-Jazeera English, which has banned the use of the terms “terrorist,” “militant” and “Islamist,” and describes terrorist attacks in the context of a geopolitical dimension rather than as having been generated by religious motivations.
Those who seek to rationalize the violence of Islamist terrorists have shifted the blame away from a literal reading of the Koran to discriminatory social polices of European societies, lack of economic opportunity, and political exclusion of Arab citizens in EU countries. Commentators on “the radicalization process” have created a sociological construct that proceeds through a pseudo-scientific progressive series of stages before a believer becomes an actor. Some apologists for these “disaffected youth,” such as John Esposito of Georgetown University, suggest that among the causative factors are the West’s support of dictators in the Mideast, American policies in the region, and, of course, perceived U.S. support for Israeli “occupation” of “Palestinian territories.”
Other more “objective” observers prefer to employ less polemical, rational reasons for the horrific acts of Islamist terror: a sense of victimhood, feelings of disenfranchisement, a search for identity, peer pressure and a deep desire for belonging. Linked with this narrative is the recently proffered concept that many of these perpetrators are only superficially conversant with Islamic theological concepts.
While such factors can contribute to the likelihood of recruitment, proffering them as the sole motivational factors in radicalization, while ignoring the theological justifications of their recruiters, is nothing more than a cop-out designed to spread a disingenuous narrative while stigmatizing the counterterrorism community for addressing the real, immediate and unique threat of Islamist terrorism.
• Brooke Goldstein is a New York City-based human rights attorney, and the founder and director of the Lawfare Project. She is the author of “Lawfare: The War Against Free Speech” (Center for Security Policy, 2011).