By Thomas J. Whitley
Do as I do and not as I say. This seems to be the message of President to Obama to the world when it comes to religious acceptance. But first, the context.
The White House hosted a summit this week that brought together representatives from over 60 countries to discuss how they can individually and cooperatively combat violent extremism. President Obama spoke to attendees on both Wednesday and Thursday. One of Obama’s main messages was that everyone needs to do their part to foster freedom of religion and religious acceptance in their own countries to combat the narrative that the West is at war with Islam because this is “the foundation upon which terrorists build their ideology and by which they try to justify their violence.” This narrative, Obama said, “is an ugly lie.”
The President is right in this regard. Groups like ISIS do use narratives such as this to bolster their message (I just wrote about this here). That this narrative is an “ugly lie,” though, strains credulity as any viewing of the evening news in any number of western countries will demonstrate. Obama did, it should be said, recognize the work that must be done in this regard and challenged his audience toward the work that would make this narrative false.
Obama returned to a recent staple of his when speaking about ISIS and again made normative statements about what does and doesn’t represent Islam. I’ve already written about this rhetoric with regard to ISIS (see here and here) and Obama using the same rhetoric in his speeches at the summit this week is nothing new. What stands out, though, is the juxtaposition in this speech of such a rhetoric with his imperative that religious acceptance is necessary if violent extremism is to be squelched. At one moment Obama says that ISIS represents “twisted interpretations of Islam” and that everyone has “a responsibility to refute the notion that groups like ISIL somehow represent Islam, because that is a falsehood that embraces the terrorist narrative.” Yet it is in this very same speech that he is arguing for acceptance of everyone regardless of religion or ethnicity. Why is ISIS not afforded this same pluralistic acceptance? Obama answered this question quite clearly on Wednesday:
We must never accept the premise that they put forward, because it is a lie. Now should we grant these terrorists the religious legitimacy that they seek. They are not religious leaders — they’re terrorists. [Emphasis added]
Even when Obama’s message is one of religious tolerance and acceptance it does not extend to ISIS because, in his classificatory system, they are not religious, and thereby not worthy of the West’s pluralistic acceptance. Obama and his aides have now moved beyond determining what does and does not count as true Islam (he said on Wednesday that he “reject(s) the notion that terrorists like ISIL genuinely represent Islam.”) to determining what does and does not count as religious. it should go without saying, but apparently does not: Obama’s words here are feeding into the ISIS narrative. Obama is propping up the very “us” vs. “them” dichotomy that he professes is part of the problem (in his Thursday speech he said, “Violent extremists and terrorists thrive when people of different religions or sects pull away from each other and are able to isolate each other and label them as ‘they’ as opposed to ‘us;’ something separate and apart.”). To be sure, he is honest about his attempts to delegitimize ISIS and part of this process is trying to isolate the group by pitting “the more than 1 billion people around the world who do represent Islam” against this small, radical, extremist group of terrorists. But the fact remains that his rhetoric in this regard is not all that different from that of ISIS.
This is further seen in a quote we’ve already looked at wherein President Obama said that everyone has “a responsibility to refute the notion that groups like ISIL somehow represent Islam, because that is a falsehood that embraces the terrorist narrative.” The implication here is that by suggesting that ISIS may “somehow represent Islam,” one is guilty of embracing the terrorist narrative and this means that one is lending legitimacy to the group. J.M. Berger argued in Business Insider today that “religion is not the most useful way to understand ISIS” (this is in response to Graeme Wood’s in depth piece in The Atlantic that came out this week, “What ISIS Really Wants,” from which everyone has cherry-picked the quote “The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.”). Berger’s argument is that ISIS should instead be understood as “identity-based extremism and [as a] millenarian apocalyptic cult.” The points that Berger makes about identity-based groups are good, but he makes the same mistake that Obama makes when he says that,
Religion is therefore of primal importance in the narrative created by an extremist group’s adherents, but a group’s extremism does not naturally proceed from its claimed religious basis.
Berger’s assumption is that there are some things that do “naturally proceed” from a group’s religious basis. Indeed, Obama is exhibiting the same assumption when he speaks of Islam as a religion of peace and of ISIS as “people who have perverted Islam.” That is, according to Obama and Berger, peace and tolerance “naturally proceed” from Islam, whereas apocalypticism and violence do not. We cannot hope to successfully wage a war against the ISIS narrative if we are unwilling to understand the group on its own terms, or, in President Obama’s words, to “embrace the terrorist narrative.”