While the right wing was obsessing over Obama’s supposed “Muslim gang sign,” they missed something. During a terrorism summit this week, Obama made a speech regarding extremism. But unlike the headlines from Bloomberg and the National Journal suggest, he didn’t “split terrorism from religion” — rather, he did a one-eighty from previous policy and explained how the Islamic State is tied to radical Islam.
You know, that thing the right loves to tout. Obama spoke about that. But because they were worried about gang signs, they missed it.
Obama, while engaging in some “no religion is responsible for terrorism” platitudes, actually brought up the idea that the West is engaged in a war of ideals and ideas with radical anti-Western theology that, right now, has wrapped itself up in Islam (it’s also wrapped itself up in Christianity):
But if we are going to effectively isolate terrorists, if we’re going to address the challenge of their efforts to recruit our young people, if we’re going to lift up the voices of tolerance and pluralism within the Muslim community, then we’ve got to acknowledge that their job is made harder by a broader narrative that does exist in many Muslim communities around the world that suggests the West is at odds with Islam in some fashion.
The reality — which, again, many Muslim leaders have spoken to — is that there’s a strain of thought that doesn’t embrace ISIL’s tactics, doesn’t embrace violence, but does buy into the notion that the Muslim world has suffered historical grievances — sometimes that’s accurate — does buy into the belief that so many of the ills in the Middle East flow from a history of colonialism or conspiracy; does buy into the idea that Islam is incompatible with modernity or tolerance, or that it’s been polluted by Western values.
So those beliefs exist. In some communities around the world they are widespread. And so it makes individuals — especially young people who already may be disaffected or alienated — more ripe for radicalization. And so we’ve got to be able to talk honestly about those issues. We’ve got to be much more clear about how we’re rejecting certain ideas.
The right probably won’t care. They’re too busy trying to prove he’s a Muslim to worry about what he says regarding radical, anti-Western theology. Part of it, though, as Professor Mark Silk notes in his piece, is that the right-wing is also invested in the notion that Islam is incompatible with “Western values.”
Obama also touched on something else with his “Western values” comment: the phrase is another way to say Modernism, or, even more precisely, the Enlightenment values that gave us the modern world: representative democracy, human rights, tolerance, technology, progress, universalism, and egalitarianism. The war, then, isn’t against “Western values,” it’s against Enlightenment values. And there are plenty of Christians who are wrapped up in this war against the Enlightenment, as well; just look at the number of Christians who deny global warming, who deny evolution, who want to halt marriage equality, and who invented Biblical literalism as a means to defend slavery.
If you find it ironic that both right-wingers and ISIL are pushing the same talking points, this is why: both of them are vested in undermining the Enlightenment and the modern world. A friend of mine described ISIL as “time travelers from the 16th century.” I’ve met a lot of Christians who act and talk like they’re from even earlier.
That Obama pointed this out is pretty impressive, given the lengths that presidents like George W. Bush have gone to avoid it. That he was able to draw a clear distinction between Islam and the anti-Enlightenment strains of Islam shows he understands nuance far better than the guy who created this mess to begin with by invading Iraq.