Could this argument be any dumber?
That’s how I began a column over a month ago in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. My point was that by making it an ideological priority to deny the Islamic nature of Islamic terrorism, the White House was in fact encouraging people to talk more about terrorism and Islam, not less. It’s a simple fact of human nature that if you deny the obvious, you invite people to debate the obvious. If you don’t believe me, walk into a bar and insist that Michael Jordan didn’t play basketball. Or proclaim that we didn’t win World War II.
One month later, the answer to my rhetorical question — Could this argument be any dumber? — is, on the one hand, absolutely yes. On the other hand, maybe not.
Let’s start with the dumber part. Ever since the Paris attacks, when Muslim terrorists shouted “Allahu akbar” as they slaughtered people in the name of their god, the Obama administration has continued to twist itself into lexicological pretzels, insisting that Islam had nothing to do with those attacks or any others committed by self-declared mujahedeen around the world.
Indeed, the just-concluded White House summit on “Countering Violent Extremism” is a perfect example of the rhetorical and logical cul-de-sac President Barack Obama has crashed into. It was a community-organizing confab dedicated to a problem the community organizer in chief refuses to acknowledge exists. He found himself arguing that Islamic terrorism is an oxymoron, like “jumbo shrimp” or “good flan.”
“No religion is responsible for terrorism,” the president proclaimed. “People are responsible for violence and terrorism.”
Now obviously, there’s some truth to this. We judge people more by their actions than their beliefs. But reasonable people also recognize that our actions often have a causal relationship with our beliefs. This is hardly a controversial — or even debatable — insight. Orthodox Jews don’t avoid bacon because it tastes bad; they do so because they’re kosher. One cannot intelligently discuss why Mother Theresa helped the poor without referring to her faith. And one cannot discuss why the Islamic State burns, rapes and enslaves people without taking their religious beliefs into account.
In an essay for the Wall Street Journal, Secretary of State John Kerry asserts that “violent extremism can’t be justified by resorting to religion. No legitimate religious interpretation teaches adherents to commit unspeakable atrocities” such as those committed by the Islamic State, al-Qaida and other Muslim fanatics. For those who invest in John Kerry supreme religious authority, that statement is unquestionably true. The problem is that very few people take their religious cues from Kerry — or Obama.
The White House repeatedly suggests that terrorism is like crime and that Islamic terrorists simply invoke religion as a convenient mask or marketing ploy. But this is an otherworldly farce, intended to please the ears of those who want to deal with the world as they wish it, not as it is.
The thousands of young men (and women) abandoning the West to join the apocalyptic project of the Islamic State are not doing so simply because they are murderers or petty criminals looking for a convenient excuse. (In the current issue of The Atlantic, Graeme Wood offers a blistering brief on the religious motivations of the Islamic State that should have been required reading at the extremism summit.) No doubt people susceptible to jihadist appeals have their “issues,” but trying to understand jihadists without consulting jihadism is like trying to explain why there are relatively few Amish nuclear engineers without referring to Anabaptism.
By insisting that religious violence is an oxymoron, Obama, Kerry and their spinners are saying that religion can only be a force for good (a view many on the left loudly insist is not the case, at least when it comes to Christians in America). This is obvious nonsense.
And that brings us to the silver lining to Obama’s stubborn refusal to speak plainly about the plainly obvious. As I said at the outset, when you deny a given truth, you force people to explain why the truth is a given. Nearly everyone agrees the Earth is round, but if you meet someone who says it’s flat, you’re forced to explain — with facts and logic — why it’s not flat.
Obama’s flat-eartherism on radical Islam is clearly an embarrassing failure in deterring Islamists, but it is forcing serious people to think more deeply about the challenges we face. It’s not the debate Obama wants, but it’s valuable nonetheless.
Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor of National Review. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.