Facing a Middle East embroiled in violence and political turmoil, President Obama took a moment on Thursday to reiterate a point he’s made before, but that deserves repetition: “The notion that the West is at war with Islam is an ugly lie.”
The savages who call themselves “the Islamic State” are neither a state nor Islamic in any way that would be recognizable to the vast majority of the world’s Muslims. They are a death cult that has seized on historical grievances to give their terrorist ideology a legitimacy it does not deserve by claiming adherence to one of the world’s great religions.
Their brutal absolutism has managed to attract the allegiance of a tiny percentage of alienated youths around the world, but their confusion over what constitutes true Islam should not confuse the rest of us. There are 1 billion believers in Islam, which means that those who have actually joined the latest terrorist wave, an estimated 20,000, are an infinitesimal minority in no way representative of the religion.
There is no doubt they present a genuine challenge to the safety and security of Western nations, and their own, as well. But buying into the idea that this is some sort of “clash of civilizations” only helps their cause.
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At times during his speech on Thursday to a White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, Mr. Obama voiced a certainty about the future that left too many questions unanswered. He declared, “The Syrian civil war will only end when there is an inclusive political transition and a government that serves Syrians of all ethnicities and religions.”
Well, sure, but he was frustratingly vague on when and how that would come about, and his own policy on Syria has come under deserved criticism for being too little, too late.
His speech, however, constituted an important statement on the root causes of Middle East turmoil and smart ways to tamp it down. Calling out the powerful forces in the region who supply the money and ideology that drive the forces of terror was particularly useful:
“At minimum, as a basic first step, countries have a responsibility to cut off funding that fuels hatred and corrupts young minds and endangers us all.”
Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, he’s talking to you. Many madrassas in both countries inflame their young pupils with a version of Islam that rejects tolerance, demeans women and condemns democracy. This is a recipe for continued strife and ignorance, and it could not exist without official sanction and funding from the wealthy. If anything, Mr. Obama’s words were not strong enough.
At times, the president seemed to be channeling his inner Rodgers & Hammerstein, whose 1949 musical South Pacific included a song with the lyrics:
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
“Young people are taught to hate,” the president echoed, pleading for an end to the discrimination against other races and religions that fuels alienation and misunderstanding.
The specific steps the president outlined will not bring an end to extremist violence anytime soon. Certainly not during his own White House tenure. But it needed to be said, if only to underline that Muslims, Christians and other religions have a stake in the fight against terrorism. “We are all in the same boat,” the president said. “We have to help each other.”