There are good reasons not to run around shouting “Islamic terrorist”

The whining is so tiresome, and the motivation so transparent, that I usually shake my head and ignore it each time the usual suspects launch a new “Dontcha Just Hate Obama” offensive.   Last week when the president talked about efforts to fight back against recruitment efforts by terrorist groups, we all got to see the righteous indignation of true Americans who were appalled, appalled I say, by the president’s refusal to refer to the terrorists as “Islamic” terrorists or extremists or zealots or whatever.

I gotta wonder, what effing difference does it make if the terrorists are Muslim?  Really.  If they’re terrorists, if they’re waging war on America and Americans, we have the right and the responsibility to fight back.  It doesn’t matter why they’re doing it unless we can use that to persuade them to stop.  (I have a similar feeling about “hate crimes:” murder or assault or whatever the crime is, it’s a crime because it’s against the law, not because of why they did it.)

But, haters gonna hate.  And even though I believe that words can work wonders, I’ve long since given up on the idea that valid, cogent argument grounded in demonstrable fact may ever again be persuasive once one has chugged the Kool-Aid of the radical right.  However, when I came across this terrific unpacking of reasons why it makes absolute sense in a reasonable world for the President of the United States to choose his or her words carefully, I wanted to share.

While [Barack] Obama has not used those words, he has acknowledged Islam plays a role in the Islamic State’s strategy. Obama has said that even though the Islamic State uses religion to justify its extremism, its ideology does not mesh with mainstream, modern Islamic thought.

“They try to portray themselves as religious leaders — holy warriors in defense of Islam.  That’s why ISIL presumes to declare itself the ‘Islamic State.’ And they propagate the notion that America — and the West, generally — is at war with Islam,” Obama said at the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism last week. “We are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.”

(snip)

Why such a careful choice of words? Experts we contacted offered a few theories.

For one, the Islamic State is just one of numerous jihadist groups that the United States is fighting in the Middle East and North Africa, including al-Qaida and its affiliates. And the Islamic State has several qualities that set it apart from other jihadi groups, such as their desire to immediately create a caliphate. In that sense, it would be misleading to lump these groups into one singular enemy code-worded Islamic extremism, said James Gelvin, a history professor at the University of California Los Angeles.

Additionally, several countries helping the United States fight the Islamic State and other terrorist groups are Muslim nations, including Jordan and Saudi Arabia. In those cases, it is in the United States’ interest not to be at war with a religion.

(snip)

The Islamic State adheres to strict, literal interpretations of the Koran and Islamic teachings rooted in 18th-century religious philosophy called Wahhabism. This ideology, the dominant faith in Saudi Arabia, is focused on a return to the “truth faith” of the first caliphate established after the death of Mohammed, a time when Islam was not “polluted” by Christianity, paganism or governmental interference, said Richard Brennan, a Middle East expert at the nonpartisan think tank RAND Corporation.

The result is a puritanical practice of Islam that views government as a problem within society, as a man’s allegiance should only be to allah. For some recruits, the Islamic State represents a “fight against the normative world order” of Shia rule, Sunni suppression, and Western colonization and invasion, Mohammed said. “The idea is that after centuries of weakness, some Muslims are fighting back.”

The Islamic State goes even further than traditional Wahhabism by adhering to takfir — which is the belief that some people who say they are Muslim are not truly Muslim, and therefore there is reason to kill them, Gelvin said. The vast majority of the Islamic world tends to believe that if someone professes they are Muslim, then they are, no matter how they specifically practice their faith.

Even al-Qaida and other Islamic extremist groups don’t accept takfir, Gelvin said.

(snip)

Just as Muslims worldwide refused to take up [Osama] bin Laden’s brutal brand of Islam, the vast majority of Muslims are also not heeding the call of the self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Tufts University religion professor Kenneth Garden said accepting the terror group’s self-description would amount to “an own-goal” by the United States.

“I am confident that eventually the butchers of ISIS and their like will be roundly rejected and fade away,” Garden said. “But I am afraid this is the work of a generation. There is no quick fix for this, and little role for non-Muslim voices.”

And then, there was Jon Stewart on The Daily Show noticing with exasperation that Obama apparently “still thinks he can persuade us through reasoned argument.”  See for yourself (click the pic):

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Reflecting on September 11: a call to our better angels

In the entry hallway at our house we have a framed picture of the night skyline of Lower Manhattan as seen from New Jersey, the twinkling twin towers of the World Trade Center the focal point.  The caption under the photo reads, “We’ll never forget.”  Not forget what happened that day?  That’s the easy part.

That morning I was at my desk at work with the television tuned to CNN, trying to concentrate on the newspaper, when I became barely conscious of talk about a plane hitting one of the towers.  They got my attention when I saw the video of smoke coming from the north tower and heard the anchor talking to someone who said he saw a passenger jet hit the building.  That’s ridiculous, I thought: those planes would never accidentally hit a downtown building, and you could see on TV that the sky was a clear, brilliant blue…must have been a small private plane or something.  My office mate walked in and I brought him up to date on what they were saying, then we sat and watched…and saw a passenger plane come into the frame and slam into the other building!  My first thought: this is not an accident.  (Firm grasp of the obvious, eh?)

I didn’t move from the TV.  Another plane hit the Pentagon.  I watched the towers collapse, fascinated at how they seemed to accordion down on themselves, and not believing the size of the dust cloud they sent up.  Then we were all sent home from our government office in Houston because no one knew what might be the next target.  I sat in front of my television at home the rest of the day trying to get it all straight in my head—what do we know, as opposed to what we think we know—as I had done sitting at a microphone in a radio studio in Houston more than 15 years earlier, on the day space shuttle Challenger blew up.

In the next few weeks we learned that the hijackers who died along with almost 3,000 innocent victims on September 11 were connected to a global terrorist network called Al Qaeda, founded by Saudi-born Osama bin Laden, and which was implicated in prior attacks on American targets around the world.  Apparently, Al Qaeda was attacking those it saw as enemies of its fundamentalist interpretation of Islam.  Before the end of the year, President Bush sent American troops to Afghanistan to get bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders and their protectors within the Taliban.  We’ve been at war ever since.

Not just an impossible to quantify war on “terrorism,” which is really more a tactic than an enemy, but an actual boots-on-the-ground bullets-in-the-air war, and there’s still no end in sight.  One big reason, I believe, is that “we” aren’t at war.  Our armed forces are at war, and so are their loved ones, but when have the rest of us felt like we were at war?  There haven’t been any shortages of goods, damn few protests, and no tax increases to pay for a war.  Absent any kind of personal connection it’s not surprising that many Americans find it hard to remember that “we” have been fighting war constantly since late 2001—and for much of that time, two wars.  We have come to think of it, when we think of it at all, as a perfectly normal situation; for many of our soldiers, sailors and Marines, being in a shooting war is all they know professionally, and what their spouses and kids assume to be a normal life.

We went to war in Afghanistan to get the people who attacked us on September 11.  We finally killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan this year, but there’s no sign of an end to our presence in Afghanistan.  We went to war in Iraq to…go ahead, you fill in the blank, but we know it wasn’t to get Al Qaeda, since they weren’t there, or to stop Saddam Hussein from using his weapons of mass destruction, which also weren’t there.  Ironically, the war we chose to fight in Iraq only strengthened our enemy there, if it didn’t actually create an enemy where he didn’t previously exist.  Last month, some eight and a half years after that war began, was the first month that there were no American casualties in Iraq.

The attacks of September 11 were a shot to the solar plexus of the American people.  In the immediate aftermath we did what Americans do after a surprise attack, whether from a mortal enemy or from Mother Nature: everyday men and women responded heroically in the face of the crisis, then we all took care of those who needed to be taken care of.  We opened our hearts and our purses without complaint or even a second thought, and helped each other through until the shock wore off, then turned our attention to those who attacked us.

Unfortunately, we didn’t see the second surprise attack, the one launched by cynical politicians and government functionaries who took advantage of our fear and anxiety.  The news media, shamefully fearful of even being accused of being less than loyal patriots, stood by and let officials get away with murder, in the figurative if not the literal sense.  We let our fear overpower “the better angels of our nature” and spent parts of the next ten years squandering our time, our treasure and our good karma.

We crawled all over each other with demonstrations of the trappings of patriotism as if that was all that was required to be a patriot, as if claiming allegiance to America’s ideals was just as good as living up to those ideals when it really matters.

We let natural wariness in unusual circumstances turn into fear of The Other.  We treated Americans who are Muslim, and those who came here from the Middle East and southern Asia, as though they were in the cockpits of those planes in spirit that day.  People whose only sin was that they practice a particular religion—including those in the peaceful mainstream of that religion, not in the violent, radical extreme—or trace their heritage to a particular part of the world weren’t given the benefit of any doubt but that they were enemies of America.  How much time have we wasted on things like trying to ban shariah law, or trying to stop Muslims from building mosques where some loudmouth decided it’s not appropriate?

How is it that we really spent breath fighting with each other over whether it’s all right to torture prisoners, or just OK to secretly send them to friendly countries where they do the torturing for us?  Were we napping when the government enacted Patriot Acts at the expense of our own civil liberties?  Why did we devote our time and energy to a blue ribbon investigation into ways we could better protect ourselves in the future, and then not implement the recommendations?

How did we sit still for the manipulators who used this attack on our country to whip up sympathy for a war against a country (and its people) that had nothing to do with that attack, with the result that a larger number of Americans have died in that needless war—Americans who bravely, selflessly volunteered to protect the rest of us—than died in the original attack?  And that’s to say nothing of the cost in dollars, and the resulting impact that has had on our national economy and well being.

Back then, I thought that a few months after the attacks, when the shock subsided, we’d regain our perspective, but it seems that I was thinking about a different America, one which perhaps only ever existed in dreams: one where we followed the rules we set for ourselves, even when we were frightened; where people who hijack our airplanes and use them to kill thousands of our fellow Americans have the right to a fair and public trial; where, when crazy people who claim to adhere to the tenets of one of the world’s great religions but are in fact an extremist group led by a delusional maniac with a messiah complex attack our cities and our government institutions, we don’t ignore facts and logic to leap to the conclusion that every person in the world who practices that religion is part of a plot to get us.

Today we have the chance to do better, and I believe we can.  We can work to put aside our fear and get over the juvenile impulse to attack anyone different from ourselves.  Let’s choose to deal with people based on who they really are and what they really do, rather than relying on our fevered imaginations to do our thinking for us.  Let’s start, for example, by recognizing the difference between Al Qaeda and Al Jazeera, or the difference between a community center and a terrorist training camp.

Not forgetting the events of September 11, 2001—that’s the easy part.  If we don’t do the hard part, and act like the people we pride ourselves on being, then the terrorists have already won.

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The Extent of Pandering-ization in the American Political Community

What’s causing me a good bit of non-specific discomfort about Rep. Peter King’s hearing today ("The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community’s Response") is the premise that we should investigate if Muslims are cooperating with law enforcement in the fight against terrorism.  Why isn’t he investigating the cooperation of Baptists, or Buddhists?  Or the Unitarians or the Wiccans or the Scientologists?

Because they didn’t attack America on September 11?  No, they didn’t; a few adherents to a twisted interpretation of Islam did.  But “Muslims” as a group did not, and certainly Muslim Americans didn’t.

First, King has only a handful of anecdotal examples of Muslims not cooperating with the FBI or other law enforcement agencies in investigating homegrown terrorism; certainly nothing to justify this hearing, which could actually have been something constructive if it had been used as an opportunity for Muslims in America to talk about what they really believe.

Second, he’s wrong: research shows that law enforcement’s biggest source of help in fighting domestic terrorism comes from Muslim Americans and Muslim organizations (page 6).

Third, it shows the rest of the world just how stupid we can be at times, and might help Al Qaeda convince a few feeble-minded individuals that America really does hate Muslims.

That’s not to say that no Muslim Americans hate America or sympathize with Al Qaeda; crazy people belong to every religion—religions don’t test for crazy when they you sign up.  But this hearing targets people for suspicion because of their religion, and that’s just not right.

People are not the groups they belong to.  As Harry Reasoner put it, labels only lump me in among people with whom I have one thing in common.  Granted, it’s much easier to stereotype…once you understand that all Irish are drunks, all Mexicans are lazy, all Hindus worship cows, and all Muslims want to kill Americans, then no hard thinking is required.

Go Army! (Navy, Air Force and Marines, too!)

If you can hear me over the complaining about the “insensitivity” of the plan to build a Muslim community center—including room for religious observance—two and a half blocks from the hallowed ground of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, listen to this: one way the Defense Department responded to the attack on the Pentagon that same day was to build a chapel for religious observance by all faiths—including Muslims, every single day—at the exact spot on that hallowed ground where the hijacked airliner smashed into the building!

Army spokesman George Wright said he is unaware of any complaints about the Muslim services from either 9/11 families or anyone in the building.

(That’s all…talk amongst yourselves.)

Political opportunists exploit Ground Zero, and not in a good way

September 11 is right around the corner, and this year it is likely to spike the hysteria over the planned construction of a community center two and a half blocks from the World Trade Center site.

Doesn’t that sound a lot less creepy and threatening than “a mosque at ground zero”?  That’s the gist of the problem.

A Muslim group in New York City wants to build a community center, including space for religious observance, at 45-51 Park Place in lower Manhattan, a site near the hole in the ground where the Twin Towers stood.  Google the address to see the distance between it and the pit.  There have been complaints from people who find the idea of a mosque at ground zero appalling and insensitive, and in some cases a symbolic victory for the people who carried out the September 11 attacks (and who are, it is true, still at war with the United States and plotting our destruction).  It’s not been made clear (to me) if there are objections to the swimming pool and meeting rooms in the plan, or just that there would be areas for Muslim religious activity.

I don’t follow how building a community center shows insensitivity to the victims of a terrorist or criminal act, unless you blame the builders of the center for the attack.  The man behind the Cordoba House has some questionable beliefs, but no associations with Osama bin Laden or Al Qaeda.  If the people behind this proposal aren’t directly connected to the 9/11 hijackers, is the objection some sort of guilt by association?  I’d like to believe that association with Islam is not the cause of the opposition, since Islam didn’t attack us—that was done by some people with a perverted interpretation of Islam.  They’re no more representative of Islam than the (insert name of your favorite religious fringe group here) are of Christianity.

People who commandeer passenger jets and use them as missiles deserve our attention.  The last president let his administration turn that attention into fear, and enough of the fear became irrational enough to be exploited as a wedge to grab power and start a war that had nothing to do with finding the people who attacked us, merrily ignoring civil liberties along the way.  It’s not too big a leap to say that irrational fear, and political opportunism, are pumping up the volume in this case.

Charles Krauthammer makes a compelling point about preserving sacred ground, although he doesn’t say how far away would be far enough, and Ross Douthat has an interesting column about how the constitutional America and the cultural America are in conflict on this issue, and I see his point.  But I’m no culture warrior: no one’s made an argument that the proposed construction is illegal, the necessary governmental authorities have approved the plan, neighborhood and business groups approve, we’re not religious bigots…and it’s two blocks down and around the corner, for crying out loud.  Let’s move on.

Want more?  William Saletan does a skillful job taking down the anti-mosque arguments on their face, and their proponents with them.

How about a joke?  This is ridiculously close to a real news item:

The Statue of Liberty was briefly evacuated today after a faulty sensor in an elevator shaft falsely indicated smoke. While there were no immediate reports of injuries, the very idea that someone might build a Muslim community center just across the water from the site of that undamaged sacred ground was compared to a stab in the heart by a bunch of racist yahoos.