Shadow Government

Can Obama Spur a Reform Within Islam?

The president is well poised to create real change — if he's willing to go the distance.


President Barack Obama’s Oval Office address in the wake of the San Bernardino attack was almost universally panned. And rightly so. Telling the American people that our strategy to defeat the Islamic State is on track when fanatics inspired by the group have just committed mass murder on our shores is hardly a winning message.

That said, there was one part of the president’s statement that I found particularly important. It should not go unremarked. I’m referring to the section where he spoke directly to Muslims about the “extremist ideology” that has spread within some of their communities. “It’s a real problem,” Obama said, “that Muslims must confront without excuse.” Critically, he didn’t focus simply on the need to denounce the Islamic State’s hateful ideology and the violence perpetrated in its name by a relatively small gang of terrorists. Instead, the president significantly widened the aperture of America’s legitimate concern, pressing “Muslim leaders here and around the globe” to also “decisively and unequivocally reject … those interpretations of Islam that are incompatible with the values of religious tolerance, mutual respect, and human dignity.”

That, to say the least, is a much larger target. Not just terrorism itself. Not just the teachings that openly advocate violent jihad. But all interpretations of the faith that seek, even through non-violent means, to impose their vision of Islam on the broader community or society. Islamism, in short. The ideology of Islamic supremacism. The aspiration for theocracy that is innately hostile to modern liberalism, pluralism, individual freedom and, indeed, the West itself — where these values are most ardently practiced, extolled, and defended.

What the president was getting at, of course, is the reality that the growing danger of radical jihadism has not emerged in a vacuum. The Islamic State, al Qaeda, and other Islamist terrorists operate in a much broader sea of intolerance that has spread to significant corners of the Muslim faith. He seems to be agreeing with British Prime Minister David Cameron’s observation, “It is not simply enough to target and go after violent extremists after they become violent. We have to drain the swamp in which they inhabit.” That means combatting the ideology of Islamism itself, in all its variants, that serves as the essential building block and breeding ground of jihadism, what Cameron referred to as the conveyor belt to radicalization and violence.

San Bernardino offers several illustrations of the broader problem. After the attack, a lawyer for the family of the male shooter, Syed Rizwan Farook, said that his clients “were totally shocked that this could take place. None of the family knew of him as being extreme.” Along similar lines, Farook’s father told the Italian daily La Stampa that he was in “complete disbelief” over his son’s actions.

Yet, astonishingly, in the same interview the father also acknowledged that his son “shared [Islamic State leader] Al Baghdadi’s ideology and supported the creation of the Islamic State,” while also being obsessed with destroying Israel. Moreover, Farook admitted that in trying to dissuade his son from the need to wage war against the Jewish state, he sought to reassure him that “in two years Israel will not exist anymore … Russia, China and America don’t want Jews there anymore. They are going to bring the Jews back to Ukraine.”

In other words, the work of destroying Israel will soon be taken care of by others, so why trouble yourself, Syed?

So that was the ideological milieu within the terrorist’s own family — a wholly American family, mind you. A place where the desirability of destroying Israel, America’s closest Middle Eastern ally and the region’s only liberal democracy, is more or less a given. A place where expressions of sympathy for the world’s most dangerous terrorist group that is actively recruiting young Muslims in the West to murder the infidels where they live doesn’t immediately trigger overwhelming suspicions of extremism — much less a call to authorities to alert them that real trouble may be brewing. In that environment, the road from quiet family man supposedly living the American dream to violent jihadist doesn’t appear nearly so long and arduous a path. The ideological speed bumps and roadblocks, if they existed at all, seem to have been few and far between.

A recent New York Times story hinted at a parallel situation half a world away within the family of the other shooter, Farook’s wife Tashfeen Malik. In an interview from Pakistan, Malik’s sister, Fehda Malik, insists that Tashfeen was not an extremist. Fehda claims, “I am the one who spent most of the time with my sister. No one knows her more than me. She had no contact with any militant organization or person, male or female … She knew what was right and what was wrong.”

But then we learn that the sister’s standard of what does or does not constitute extremism may be, well, somewhat askew. On the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Fehda apparently posted a picture on Facebook of a plane crashing into the World Trade Center, along with an anti-American comment. The source of her outrage, the article suggests, was a recent American commando raid into Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden.

So Malik, too, seems to have emerged in a troubling setting where radical views have, in essence, been mainstreamed and are, accordingly, hardly considered radical at all. A place where it may be quite normal to believe that America in some ways got what was coming to it on 9/11. Where the killing of the mastermind of the most deadly terrorist act in history is not cause for celebration, but public outbursts of anti-Americanism instead. From that kind of warped mindset to picking up an AR-15 and mowing down 14 innocent civilians is a major leap, for sure. But it’s hardly an inexplicable one. As Obama’s admonition to Muslim communities suggests, we ignore the causal connections at our own peril.

Zoom out from these specific cases and the picture doesn’t look a great deal more encouraging. The invaluable polling expert David Pollock has consistently conducted some of the most reliable opinion surveys in Arab and other Muslim-majority countries. Pollock’s good news is that in poll after poll the overwhelming majority of Arabs, consistently upwards of 95 percent, express a negative view of the Islamic State. More importantly, that number has been increasing over time.

Interestingly, expressions of support for the Islamic State are somewhat higher in non-Arab Muslim societies — from 8 percent in Turkey, to 11 percent in Malaysia and Senegal, to as high as 20 percent in Nigeria. As Pollock properly cautions, even the relatively small support that the Islamic State registers across all these Muslim countries still amounts to tens of millions of people, a potentially serious counter-terrorism challenge, no doubt. But in no country does support for the Islamic State come close to constituting a mass movement that could seriously threaten to topple governments.

Now for Pollock’s not-so-good news. While support for the Islamic State among the Arabs is consistently in the low single digits, support for some of the Islamic State’s tactics and core elements of its ideology are considerably higher. According to Pollock, typically between 20 and 60 percent of Muslims are at least “somewhat supportive” of violence, suicide bombings, and terrorism so long as it is perpetrated “in defense of Islam.” Similarly, in several key countries, support for other hardcore Islamist movements — the Muslim Brotherhood, in particular — regularly draws support from as many as one-third of respondents.

The numbers Pollock cites on violence match up reasonably well with an older, but very comprehensive survey that Gallup conducted in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The 6-year effort polled tens of thousands of people in more than 35 countries with Muslim majorities or substantial minorities. As analyzed by the highly-respected Middle East scholar Robert Satloff in 2008, the survey found that 36.6 percent of respondents — at the time a whopping 475 million Muslims — told pollsters that the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 were at least “somewhat justified.” As Satloff notes, that is truly a vast sea of intolerance, hatred, and anti-Americanism that the violent jihadists — al Qaeda then, the Islamic State today — are swimming in.

So President Obama is clearly on to something very important when he raised this broader concern in his Oval Office address. But what exactly to do about it is much harder to say. As the president suggested, the fight against intolerant interpretations of Islam is ideally one that Muslims would themselves lead and win. On this issue, however, Pollock’s findings are less than hopeful. When asked whether they support “interpreting Islam in a more modern, tolerant or moderate way,” overwhelming majorities — typically about 80 percent — say no.

Pollock, it must be said, was only talking about Muslim majority countries, both Arab and non-Arab. Whether there’s greater hope for reformist interpretations of Islam triumphing in the United States — at a minimum bolstering our homeland defenses against more San Bernardinos — is not clear. One would definitely hope so.

It’s almost certainly the case that this is a movement that President Obama seems almost tailor-made to help encourage — if he’s willing to follow through. Whatever his shortcomings as a wartime commander in chief, Obama’s sincere goodwill toward the Islamic faith generally, and toward American Muslims specifically, would seem to leave him with ample credibility to prod, pressure, support, encourage, and empower reformist Muslim-American leaders. The alternative is to do nothing, continue mouthing platitudes about Islam as a religion of peace, wait until the next San Bernardino and then reap the whirlwind that will descend upon us all. Into that vacuum of concerted action and leadership will rush not an enlightened Obama, but far, far darker forces. In recent weeks, we’ve gotten a brief taste of what that might look like. It’s not pretty. All of us — Muslim-Americans first and foremost — have a profound stake in avoiding that outcome.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

John Hannah is a senior fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America and a former national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney.

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