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Bad Metaphor Watch: Everything Is Like ISIS Edition

There’s a bizarre and deeply offensive new meme in contemporary American politics: Comparing one’s enemies to the Islamic State.

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There’s a bizarre and deeply offensive new meme in contemporary American politics: comparing one’s enemies to the Islamic State.

Wisconsin Governor and 2016 presidential hopeful Scott Walker is the most recent and notable offender, but he’s by no means alone. Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference late last month, Walker argued that his experience busting unions in Wisconsin has left him well prepared to deal with the threat posed by the militants.

“I want a commander in chief who will do everything in their power to ensure that the threat from radical Islamic terrorists does not wash up on American soil,” Walker said. “If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world.”

After being widely criticized for the remark, the Wisconsin governor explained that he didn’t intend to compare Midwestern union activists who converged on Madison to defend their collective bargaining rights with the terrorist group currently beheading Christians and Western hostages, destroying priceless ancient artifacts, and imposing brutal Islamic law on millions of Iraqis and Syrians.

“One of the most significant actions taken in foreign policy in my lifetime was when Ronald Reagan — he was a governor before he was president — fired the air traffic controllers, even though it had nothing to do with foreign policy, I think it had a tremendous impact because it sent a powerful message around the world that this guy was serious,” Walker told Bloomberg by way of explanation.

In making that unfortunate comparison, Walker has been joined by a laundry list of politicians from both parties. As a then-candidate for the Colorado statehouse last August, a Republican with the wondrous name of Gordon Klingenschmitt described Congressman Jared Polis, an openly gay Colorado Democrat, as a future executioner for the Islamic State. “Democrats like Polis want to bankrupt Christians who refuse to worship and endorse his sodomy,” Klingenschmitt wrote in his newsletter, Pray In Jesus Name Project. “Next he’ll join ISIS in beheading Christians, but not just in Syria, right here in America.”

Klingenschmitt, who won his election and now serves as a Republican member of the Colorado House of Representatives, was apparently unaware that the Islamic State doesn’t look kindly upon homosexuality. Klingenschmitt later apologized for the remark in a video. Then he challenged Polis to the so-called “ice bucket challenge.”

But this bad metaphor isn’t limited to Republicans. In September, J.T. Smith, a congressional candidate in Alabama, tweeted that the “greatest country on earth is being bullied from within. Actions of Republicans in congress are worse than #ISIL.” Smith later tried to walk back that comment. “I am not saying that the republican party is beheading people in the streets, obviously,” he wrote on Facebook. “Here in America, because we are a civilized democracy, we do not use violence against each other as a means of control. The republicans have used the economy as a means to terrorize the people of this country.”

In January, the neurosurgeon and Tea Party darling Ben Carson put the metaphor to weirder use, comparing Americans who fought against the British during the Revolutionary War to the Islamic State. “A bunch of rag-tag militiamen defeated the most powerful and professional military force on the planet. Why? Because they believed in what they were doing. They were willing to die for what they believed in,” Carson said during the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting. “Fast forward to today. What do we have? You’ve got ISIS. They’ve got the wrong philosophy, but they’re willing to die for it while we are busily giving away every belief and every value for the sake of political correctness. We have to change that.”

Then you have Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has compared the Islamic State to both Hamas, a Sunni Islamist militant group, and Iran, a Shiite theocracy. During the opening of the U.N. General Assembly last year, Netanyahu told the world leaders there that they “evidently don’t understand that ISIS and Hamas are branches of the same poisonous tree.”

While both Hamas and the Islamic State have engaged in acts of terrorism, the groups are very different in both their ideology and their goals. Hamas has killed hundreds of Israeli citizens and wounded many thousands more, but it has a political arm, indirectly works with Jerusalem to provide basic services in the Gaza Strip, and has limited its attacks to Israel and the West Bank. The Islamic State is far more brutal in its tactics and far more expansive in its goals, which include conquering and then maintaining a huge caliphate spanning much of the current Middle East.

In his high-profile address to Congress this week, meanwhile, Netanyahu raised eyebrows even among his supporters by arguing that the Islamic State and Iran are “competing for the crown of militant Islam.”

“Both want to impose a militant Islamic empire first on the region and then on the entire world,” he said. “They just disagree among themselves who will be the ruler of that empire.”

That statement ignores the fact that Tehran has done more to combat the group on the ground than any other nation, including the United States, and has become a de facto ally of Washington in the fight against the Islamic State.

But no matter. Facts become wonderfully, awfully malleable when tarring and feathering one’s opponent as an ISIS-lackey.

NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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