“Now let’s make two things clear: ISIL is not Islamic. No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim. And ISIL is certainly not a state.”
– President Barack Obama in his address to the nation on Wednesday.
About the second point reasonable people can quibble. The terrorist army that calls itself the Islamic State is certainly trying to build a state — and not just a state, but a super state or caliphate. They’re not there yet; their delivery of social services seems spotty at best, though they do collect taxes and uphold the law (in a fashion).
More relevant, it doesn’t really matter whether it’s a state. Morally, this weed stinks just as much whether you call it a state or a soccer league that rapes, tortures and murders people on the side. And legally, statehood would only matter — and not very much — if the U.N. and other bodies agreed to recognize the fledgling caliphate’s legitimacy. That’s not going to happen even if the Islamic State opens up post offices and DMVs on every corner.
The president’s first assertion is trickier. Is the Islamic State “not Islamic”? Moreover, is it really “clear” that it’s not Islamic?
Not even a little? Is it Islamic-ish?
If we’re talking clarity, I’d say the Islamic State is clearly not Mormon. Or Lutheran. Or Buddhist. It most certainly is not the most extreme example of Quakers gone bad ever recorded.
As for it not being Islamic, that’s at best unclear, if not just clearly wrong. And the fact that the majority of its victims are Muslim is irrelevant. Lenin and Stalin killed thousands of communists and socialists; that doesn’t mean Lenin and Stalin weren’t communists and socialists. If such terrorists who kill Muslims aren’t Muslims, why do we give them Korans when we imprison them?
The president faces the same dilemma that bedeviled George W. Bush, and I sympathize with him. It is not in our interest for the Muslim world to think we are at war with Islam, not just because it is untrue, but more specifically because we desperately need the cooperation of Muslim nations. That’s why Bush constantly proclaimed “Islam means peace.”
But it also seems flatly wrong for an American president to be declaring what is or is not Islamic — or Christian or Jewish. Given the First Amendment alone, there’s something un-American in any government official simply declaring what is or is not a religion. Bush’s formulation in his September 20, 2001, address to Congress was better: “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.”
Regardless, I’m not the kind of purist who would object to Obama’s version — if it worked. Aeschylus first noted more than 2,400 years ago that the first casualty of war is the truth. And if saying that the Islamic State is guilty of religious false advertising makes it easier to win a war, that’s fine by me.
But does it work?
Bush’s assurances that “Islam means peace” had little to no discernible effect. It’s unlikely that Obama’s non-Islamic classification will do any better.
Anyone who thinks jihadism is authentically Muslim won’t change his mind because Obama (or Bush before him) says so.
In fact, maybe it’s a mistake to concede the point up front? Instead of Americans trying to persuade Muslims of the world that terrorism is un-Islamic, why shouldn’t Muslims be working harder to convince us?
Think about it. Whenever a tiny minority of bad actors hurts the reputation of its ethnicity, faith or cause by doing terrible things in the name of its ethnicity, faith or cause, the responsible thing is for the moderate, decent majority to cry “Not in our name!” or “They don’t speak for us!”
That is what morally decent Jews, Christians, atheists, whites, blacks, Italians, Irish, liberals, conservatives, libertarians, socialists, environmentalists and pretty much every other classification of people I can think of do whenever their cause is hijacked or their identity besmirched. Silence may not automatically imply consent, but it does invite suspicion of consent.
To be sure, there are Muslims who have had precisely this reaction as well. But can anyone deny that the world would be a better place if more Muslims felt — and demonstrated — that terrorists were giving them a bad name?
Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and editor at large of National Review Online. Reach him at email@example.com.