On Sept. 17, 2001, shortly after the 9/11 terror attacks, President George W. Bush declared that “these acts of violence violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith, and it’s important for my fellow Americans to understand that.” According to Bush, “the face of terror is not the true face of Islam,” because “Islam is peace.” To Americans who feared that Muslims would face violent reprisals in the wake of the attacks, Bush’s words were welcome. Yet there was something awkward about the fact that the president, by all accounts a devout Christian, had decided not only to say that our Muslim fellow citizens ought to be treated with respect, but also that those who’d commit such a horrific crime had—and here Bush literally quoted from the Quran—“rejected the signs of Allah and held them up to ridicule.”
No one should doubt Bush’s good intentions in describing Islam as a religion of peace. But by invoking Islamic scripture, and by weighing in on a debate that can only be settled by those who identify as Muslims themselves, he contributed to a confusion that persists today. The real problem with people who kill innocent people in the name of Islam is not that they’re incorrectly interpreting their faith. It’s that they are killing innocent people.
Like Bush, President Obama has weighed in on matters that must ultimately be left up to Muslims. Take his remarks this Wednesday, when he said, quite rightly, that “we are not at war with Islam.” Not content to stop there, or to simply explain that we are at war with various apocalyptic death cults that have declared war on us, he added that “we are at war with people who have perverted Islam.”
In great detail, Obama explained that ISIS, also known as the Islamic State, and other extremist groups seek religious legitimacy in order to recruit young people to their cause, and that they “depend upon the misperception around the world that they speak in some fashion for people of the Muslim faith.” According to Obama, these groups base their claims to legitimacy on falsehoods and selective readings of Islamic texts. Obama’s position seems to be that the leaders of these groups aren’t sincere in their beliefs. He suggests that what ISIS is really after is power, as if its obsessive focus on acting in accordance with practices that were widespread in the days of Muhammad is merely window-dressing for thuggery and theft. But why do the leaders of ISIS have to be insincere in their beliefs in order for us to reject their brutality?
Might the president be acting in deference to America’s Muslim allies? For decades, the United States has worked closely with Saudi Arabia, a state that has enthusiastically spread a form of Islam widely viewed as puritanical and chauvinistic, to combat Islamist terrorism. You might not like Saudi Arabia and the various Gulf petrostates that have proven such unreliable friends. I certainly don’t. But try to imagine waging war on terrorist groups rooted in the Arab world without them. So perhaps Obama, like Bush before him, is engaging in a sophisticated from of diplomacy by telling the world that while we choose to remain silent on the radical Islam practiced by our friends, we will insist at every turn that the radical Islam practiced by our enemies is not Islam at all.
What could be wrong with this approach, if its intention is to strengthen our alliances in the Muslim world? A lot, actually. First, the Saudis are our allies not out of any great affection for our heathen ways, but because our interests happen to align. There is no need to condescend to them with talk of Islam as a religion of peace. Second, and more importantly, loose and lazy talk about what is and is not authentic Islam might actually undermine efforts to dissuade Muslims from embracing terrorist violence. When Obama condemns one radical theology that cuts against American national interests while papering over others that don’t, he practically invites cynicism and distrust.
This week, Graeme Wood published an excellent cover story for the Atlantic on ISIS, which has deservedly drawn a great deal of attention. What he has found is that ISIS is attracting not just psychopaths motivated solely by bloodlust, but also sincere believers who embrace it for its rigorous, uncompromising adherence to the doctrines of early Islam. As Bernard Haykel, one of the experts Wood interviews, puts it, Islam is perhaps best understood as “what Muslims do, and how they interpret their texts.” Other Muslims can certainly reject the interpretations of ISIS and its followers as perverse, as the vast majority of them do. But it’s not as though these Muslims, let alone two Christian presidents of the United States, have some unquestioned monopoly on the right to interpret Islam. You can declare that the leaders of ISIS are in fact apostates. You can also declare that Shiite Muslims or Ahmadiyyas are apostates, as Salafi Muslims do as a matter of course. To do so won’t settle anything, as no one owns Islam, just as no one owns Christianity.
That’s not to say there isn’t room for someone to make the theological case against ISIS. Many Muslims are doing just that, and I applaud them for doing so. May their efforts sway Muslims from taking up ISIS’s ugly cause. Who knows? There might even be a place for the U.S. government to covertly give a boost to Muslim defenders of pluralism and modernity, just as the Cold War CIA bankrolled intellectuals on the anti-communist left. Our president, however, would be wise to stay out of theological controversies. It’s not the place of Bush or Obama to engage in dialogue with Islamic extremists over the finer points of the Quran or the life and times of Muhammad—it’s to protect American lives.