A Palestinian test case, courtesy of President Obama.
It was the key national-security debate of the 2016 election. Donald Trump won the election, in no small part, because he appeared to be on the right side of it. Appeared is used advisedly: Trump was at least in the general vicinity of the bull’s-eye; his opponent wouldn’t even acknowledge the target existed — except in the most grudging of ways, and only because Trump had forced the issue.
The question boiled down to this: Are you willing to name the enemy?
After a quarter-century of willful blindness, it was at least a start. We should note, moreover, that it’s a start we owe to the president-elect. Washington, meaning both parties, had erected such barriers to a rational public discussion of our enemies that breaking through took Trump’s outsized persona, in all its abrasive turns and its excesses. Comparative anonymities (looking down at my shoes, now) could try terrorism cases and fill shelves with books and pamphlets and columns on the ideology behind the jihad from now until the end of time. But no matter how many terrorist attacks Americans endured, the public examination of the enemy was not going to happen unless a credible candidate for the world’s most important job dramatically shifted the parameters of acceptable discourse.
Trump forced the issue into the light of day. And once he did — voilà! — what was yesterday’s “Islamophobia” became today’s conventional wisdom. In reality, it was never either of these things. The former is an enemy-crafted smear (a wildly successful one) to scare off examination of the enemy; the latter is frequently wrong.
What we Cassandras have really been trying to highlight is a simple fact, as patent as it was unremarkable from the time of Sun Tsu until the 1993 World Trade Center bombing: To defeat the enemy, you must know the enemy — who he is, what motivates him, what he is trying to achieve. Being willing to name the enemy is a start. But it is just a start — the beginning, not the end, of understanding.
In his major campaign speech on the subject, Trump asserted that the enemy is “radical Islamic terrorism.” Terrorism, surely, is the business end of the spear, but “radical Islamic terrorism” is an incomplete portrait. Dangerously incomplete? That depends on whether the term (a) is Trump’s shorthand for a threat he realizes is significantly broader than terrorism, or (b) reflects his actual — and thus insufficient — grasp of the challenge.
The speech provided reasons for hope. For one thing, Trump compared “radical Islamic terrorism” to the 20th-century challenges of fascism, Nazism, and Communism. These were ideological enemies. The capacity to project force was by no means the totality of the threat each represented — which is why it is so foolish to be dismissive of today’s enemy just because jihadist networks cannot compare militarily to Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union.
Furthermore, toward the end of his speech, Trump used “radical Islamic terrorism” interchangeably with “radical Islam.” Ending the spread of radical Islam, he said, must be our objective. He even referred to it as an “ideology” — though he called it an “ideology of death,” which misses the point; it is an ideology of conquest.
Trump intimated some understanding of this, too. He vowed to “speak out against the oppression of women, gays, and people of different faith [i.e., non-Muslims].” He promised, in addition, to work with “all moderate Muslim reformers in the Middle East.” The objects of radical Islamic oppression are targeted because of ideological tenets that call for dominion by sharia, Islam’s ancient totalitarian law. It is those tenets that reformers are trying to reform.
In sum, Trump showed signs of awareness that there are more than bombs, hijacked planes, weaponized trucks, and jihadist gunmen to confront. Still, his focus was terrorists — specifically ISIS, which he claimed was created by Obama-Clinton policy. While he clearly knows there is more to the threat than ISIS, he explicitly added only al-Qaeda and “Iran-backed Hamas and Hezbollah.”
To the contrary, ISIS is a breakaway faction of al-Qaeda that existed before Barack Obama came to power. Hamas, though certainly supported by Shiite Iran, is a Sunni terrorist organization spawned by the Muslim Brotherhood. More crucially: All of the groups Trump listed, and the regimes that sponsor them, were created by the ideology. While I’ll go with “radical Islam,” the ideology is more accurately described as “sharia supremacism” — alas, in the parts of the world Trump was talking about, “radical Islam” is not so radical. It is the ideology that creates jihadist groups and regimes, not American policy, no matter how clueless and counterproductive our policy has been at times.
If ISIS and al-Qaeda disappeared tomorrow, other jihadist networks would take their places. It will be that way until sharia supremacism is discredited and marginalized.
That is a tall order, not to be underestimated. The audience in which the ideology must be discredited is not Western; it does not share our value system — our sense of what is credible and meritorious. Plus, the sharia that our enemies strive to implement (i.e., “jihad in Allah’s way”) is undeniably rooted in Islamic scripture. It will not be easy — it may not be possible — to discredit a literalist construction of Islam that has been backed by revered scholars for 14 centuries.
That is why some detractors of Islam argue with considerable force that we should stop mincing words: If the problem is rooted in Islamic doctrine, they contend, then the problem is Islam, not “radical Islam.” Yet this overlooks significant facts. There is fierce intramural Islamic debate about doctrinal interpretation. Our own Judeo-Christian experience tells us that doctrine and religious practice can evolve. Belief systems, moreover, are ultimately about more than doctrine. Culture counts for a great deal. Yes, sharia supremacism is pretty much the same wherever you go (and becomes more aggressive and threatening as its adherents increase in number); but the understanding and practice of Islam varies from Riyadh to Cairo to Kabul to Ankara to Jakarta to Tirana to London.
There is, furthermore, an on-the-ground reality of much greater moment than theological infighting: A large percentage of the world’s approximately 1.6 billion Muslims reject sharia supremacism. Many of them provide us with essential help in fighting the enemy. To condemn Islam, rather than those who seek to impose Islam’s ruling system on us, can only alienate our allies. They are allies we need in an ideological conflict.
The sensible strategy, therefore, calls for supporting the Islamic reformers President-elect Trump says he wants to befriend. That would be an epic improvement over outreach to Islamists, whom our government has inanely courted and empowered for a quarter-century. To the extent we can (and that may be limited), we should support the reinterpretation of what Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi courageously acknowledged as “the corpus of texts and ideas that we [Muslims] have sacralized over the centuries, to the point that departing from them has become almost impossible” even though they are “antagonizing the entire world.”
Sisi, it is worth noting, is a devout Muslim who knows a lot more about Islam than Barack Obama and John Kerry do. In any event, it’s better to confront with open eyes the scripturally rooted ideological foundation of radical Islam. As we’ve seen over the last three presidential administrations (or the last six, if you want to go back to Carter and Khomeini’s revolution), pretending that the ideology does not exist, or that it represents a “false Islam,” is fantasy. As a national-security strategy, fantasy is a prescription for failure.
It has been the Obama prescription, right up to the end.
While candidate Trump was demanding that the enemy be named, and me-too Hillary was thus goaded into the occasional mention of “jihadists,” Obama tried to defend his refusal to invoke radical Islam. The defense was classic Obama. Part One was flat wrong: “There’s no religious rationale,” he maintained, that would justify” the “barbarism” in which terrorists engage — something that could only be right if we ignore scripture and adopt Obama’s eccentric notion of “religious rationale.” Part Two drew on Obama’s bottomless supply of straw men: “Using the phrase ‘radical Islam,’” he lectured, will not make the terrorist threat “go away” — as if anyone had claimed it would.
The point, of course, is not that there is talismanic power in uttering an enemy’s identity. It is to convey, to the enemy and to an anxious American public, that our leader comprehends who the enemy is, what the enemy’s objectives are, and what drives the enemy to achieve them.
Obviously, Obama is too smart not to know this. After eight infuriating years, I am beyond trying to fathom whether his intentional gibberish masks some misguided but well-meaning strategy, some dogma to which he is hopelessly beholden, or something more sinister. The imperative now is to address the mess he is leaving behind, not unwind how and why he came to make it.
This week, Obama betrayed our Israeli allies by orchestrating (and cravenly abstaining from) a U.N. Security Council resolution. As I’ve explained, the ostensible purpose of the resolution is to condemn the construction of Israeli settlements in the disputed territories of East Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria that Israel has controlled since 1967; the real purpose is to declare that those territories are sovereign Palestinian land, and thus that Israel is “occupying” it in violation of international law (“international law” is the gussied-up term for the hyper-political, intensely anti-Israeli Security Council’s say-so).
What does this have to do with our enemy’s ideology? Everything.
The Palestinians and the Islamist regimes that support them frame their struggle against Israel in terms of Islamic obligation. Hamas, the aforementioned Muslim Brotherhood branch that has been lavishly supported by Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, and other Muslim governments, is more explicit about this than its rival for Palestinian leadership, Fatah. But both are clear on the matter. They take the doctrinal position that any territory that comes under Islamic control for any duration of time is Islam’s forever. (That’s why Islamists still refer to Spain as al-Andalus and vow to retake it, notwithstanding that they lost it half a millennium ago.)
Further, radical Islam regards the presence of a sovereign Jewish state in Islamic territory as an intolerable affront. Again, the reason is doctrinal. Do not take my word for it; have a look at the 1988 Hamas Charter (“The Covenant of the Islamic Resistance Movement”). Article 7, in particular, includes this statement by the prophet Muhammad:
The Day of Judgement will not come about until Muslims fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say, “O Muslims, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.” . . . (Related by al-Bukhari and Muslim).
Understand: Al-Bukhari and Muslim are authoritative collections of hadith. These memorializations of the prophet’s sayings and deeds have scriptural status in Islam. Hamas is not lying — this story of an end-of-times annihilation of Jews is related, repeatedly, in Islamic scripture. (See, e.g., here.) And please spare me the twaddle about how there are competing interpretations that discount or “contextualize” these hadith. It doesn’t matter which, if any, interpretation represents the “true Islam” (if there is one). What matters for purposes of our security is that millions of Muslims, including our enemies, believe these hadith mean what they say — unalterable, for all time.
Even after all the mass-murder attacks we have endured over the last few decades, and for all their claptrap about respecting Islam as “one of the world’s great religions,” transnational progressives cannot bring themselves to accept that something as passé as religious doctrine could dictate 21st-century conflicts. So, they tell themselves, the Israeli–Palestinian conflict is simply about territorial boundaries and refugee rights. It could be settled if Israel, which they reckon would never have been established but for a regrettable bout of post-Holocaust remorse, would just make a few concessions regarding land it was never ceded in the first place (conveniently overlooking that East Jerusalem and the West Bank are disputed territories, and were not “Palestinian” when Israel took them in the 1967 war of Arab aggression).
Transnational progressives see Israel as intransigent, notwithstanding its many attempts to trade land for peace. They rationalize Palestinian terrorism as the product of that intransigence, not of ideology. Thus their smug calculation that branding Israel as an “occupier” of “Palestinian land” in gross “violation of international law” is the nudge Israel needs to settle. This will effectively grant the Palestinians their coveted sovereign state. Thus accommodated, Palestinians will surely moderate and co-exist with Israel — if not in peace, then in the same uneasy state in which Parisians coexist with their banlieues and Berliners with their refugees.
It is not just fantasy but willfully blind idiocy. No one who took a few minutes to understand the ideology of radical Islam would contemplate for a moment a resolution such as the one Obama just choreographed.
Under Islamic law, the Palestinians regard all of the territory — not just East Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria but all of Israel — as Muslim territory. Furthermore, they deem the presence of a Jewish-ruled state on that territory as anathema. A Security Council resolution that declares Israeli control of the disputed territory not merely an “obstacle to peace” but illegitimate tells the Islamists that their jihad has succeeded, that non-Muslim powers accede to their sharia-based demands. It can only encourage them to continue their jihad toward their ultimate regional goal of eradicating the Jewish state. After all, Mahmoud Abbas has stated his racist terms: Not a single Israeli will be permitted to reside in the Palestinian state. As Islamists see it (and why shouldn’t they?), Obama’s reaction was not to condemn Abbas; it was to appease Abbas. As Islamists see it, Allah is rewarding their fidelity to Islamic doctrine; of course they will persevere in it.
We are not merely in a shooting war with jihadists. We are in an ideological war with sharia supremacists. Mass murder is not their sole tactic; they attack at the negotiating table, in the councils of government, in the media, on the campus, in the courtroom — at every political and cultural pressure point. To defeat jihadists, it is necessary to discredit the ideology that catalyzes them. You don’t discredit an ideology by ignoring its existence, denying its power, and accommodating it at every turn.
President Obama never got this. Will President Trump?
In his campaign, Trump made a welcome start by naming the enemy. Now it is time to know the enemy — such that it is clear to the enemy that we understand his objectives and his motivation, and that we will deny him because our own principles require it.
The new president should begin by renouncing Obama’s Palestinian power-play: Revoke any state recognition Obama gives the Palestinians; defund them; clarify the disputed (not occupied) status of the territories; move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem; reaffirm the principle that the conflict may only be settled by direct negotiations between the parties; and make clear that the United States will consider the Palestinians pariahs until they acknowledge Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, stop indoctrinating their children in doctrinal Jew-hatred, and convincingly abandon terrorism.
That would tell radical Islam that America rejects its objectives as well as its tactics, that we will fight its ideology as well as its terrorism. This is not just about restoring our reputation as a dependable ally. Our security depends on it.
— Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior policy fellow at the National Review Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.