Saturday, May 15, 2010

Are Terrorists' Motives and Ideology Mysterious? Only to Current U.S. Leaders

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By Barry Rubin

If you haven’t read the exchange between Attorney-General Eric Holder and Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas at the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee you should. It is the authoritative statement of how the Obama Administration views and portrays terrorism.

Briefly, Holder did everything possible to avoid suggesting that recent terrorist attacks on the United States had any connection whatsoever with Islam or Islamism to the point that he looked ridiculous. Of course, you'd have to know what happened before you can understand he looked ridiculous [see AP story, below]

I'll analyze the dialogue and you can read the full text at the end. [Option 1: Go to the end and read it before reading my analysis. Option 2: Watch it on video HERE]

How should Holder have responded?

First, by acknowledging the basic unity of the terrorist campaign rather than pretending there are many diverse motives. Sure, there is the possibility of right-wing violence, but it doesn’t appear very often. And of course there are individuals who are mentally ill or lose control over something (getting fired at a job; a bad divorce) who shoot people, but that isn’t the systematic problem.

If you don’t acknowledge that there is a conscious, orchestrated campaign against the United States how can one possibly deal with it or educate the public about it?

Second, why should Holder be afraid of saying something along the following lines:

There is a worldwide movement of revolutionary Islamism [if he prefers, he could say Salafism or something that doesn’t include the letters I-s-l-a-m in that order] which manifests itself in a number of movements. In trying to seize control of their own countries and destroy U.S. influence and interests, they target America. These groups send agents to the United States for the purpose of carrying out attacks. Their propaganda convinces some immigrants to the United States, converts, and those holding American citizenship to plan and participate in these attacks or to give aid and comfort to these terrorist groups.

Then he can add: Of course, this doesn’t characterize all of Islam, all immigrants, etc., etc., etc., to his heart’s content.

That wasn’t so hard, was it?

But here’s the thing. It isn’t just a matter of Holder not wanting to say certain things out loud lest the Muslim-majority world complain or whatever. The real danger is that what he says, and doesn’t say, reflects his own fuzzy thinking and that of the administration.

The other motive is fear of rioting mobs of Americans murdering Muslims and burning down mosques in revenge for terrorist attacks. While, of course, one should act reasonably to make sure such things don’t happen, the fact is that they haven’t happened and aren’t likely to happen.

A pogrom against Muslims is not the main threat, revolutionary Islamist terrorism (at home and abroad) is the main threat.

And how the U.S. government combat a threat its leaders don’t understand, indeed deliberately choose to misunderstand?

It’s interesting, by the way, to look at two reactions to the hearing. First, if you want to see an example of how key elements in the media have turned into government propaganda organs, check out the Associated Press “coverage” of the hearing, which sounds like a White House press release. In this version, Holder heroically triumphs over those stupid Republicans. The most important aspects (see the text below) aren’t even mentioned. Even in the current atmosphere, this is a shocking Soviet-style article..

Second, the deputy editor of al-Sharq al-Awsat, Osman Mirghani, produces precisely the kind of article the Obama Administration is trying to elicit, sort of. In "Why Didn't Obama Mention Islam?" he praises Obama for refusing to make any link between terrorism and Islam in U.S. government documents and statements.

Mirghani explains this as a defeat for American “extremists” who want to do something against the countries from which the terrorists come. Mentioning any link between terrorism and Islam, he adds, increases anti-Americanism.

This is a ridiculous notion. I don’t think that anyone—contrary to what Mirghani said—advocates invading Nigeria because of the Detroit airliner bomber or Pakistan due to the Times Square bomber.

He’s right when he says:

"The identity of the terrorist does not necessarily implicate the country he belongs to, in the same way that other adherents of the religion the terrorist follows should not be condemned.”

Correct! But it does implicate specific revolutionary movements and ideologies, doesn't it? And shouldn't that be said? Moreover, what Mirghani advocates--and attributes only to Obama-- has been U.S. policy all along under all presidents.

So what are the real issues that both Holder and Mirghani (and the AP) avoid?:

--How to understand the revolutionary Islamist ideology in order to combat it. If one doesn’t admit that it exists then you can't counter it, deprogram or detect extremists, or predict future attacks?

--Comprehending what’s going on in these countries that lead to such movements, their strength, and their targeting of the United States. This would involve doing things like asking what kind of schools and propaganda exist in countries like Pakistan or Saudi Arabia or the Palestinian Authority-ruled West Bank that produces such terrorists. Even those fighting terrorism against themselves often incite such attacks against the United States and others to deflect that threat.

And then Mirghani does something to spoils his whole case. He concludes that the fact that Faisal Shahzad (Times Square), Nidal Malik Hasan (Fort Hood), and even Anwar al-Awlaki (the Yemen-based cleric who incited them to terrorism) are U.S. citizens shows that this is really an American problem!

Get it? If you remove the Islamic and revolutionary Islamist factor why are there terrorists? Well, Mirghani rules out blaming anything connected to Islam or to their countries of origin. And so, he neatly concludes--wait for it!--that all this terrorism is America's fault!

After all, he says, all those specific terrorists mentioned above—and Mirghani even includes the Nigerian Omar Farouk Abdulmuttalib (Detroit plane) because he was influenced by al-Awlaki—are just another version of Timothy McVeigh (Oklahoma City). In other words, you cannot blame the country of citizenship for the creation of terrorists unless that country is the United States!

And this is where the Holder approach leads: It’s all America’s fault due both to domestic and foreign policies.

Here’s the full text of the Holder-Smith exchange:

SMITH: Let me go to my next question, which is: In the case of all three attempts in the last year, the terrorist attempts, one of which was successful, those individuals have had ties to radical Islam. Do you feel that these individuals might have been incited to take the actions that they did because of radical Islam?
HOLDER: Because of?
SMITH: Radical Islam.
HOLDER: There are a variety of reasons why I think people have taken these actions. It's -- one, I think you have to look at each individual case. I mean, we are in the process now of talking to Mr. Shahzad to try to understand what it is that drove him to take the action.
SMITH: Yes, but radical Islam could have been one of the reasons?
HOLDER: There are a variety of reasons why people...
SMITH: But was radical Islam one of them?
HOLDER: There are a variety of reasons why people do things. Some of them are potentially religious...
SMITH: OK. But all I'm asking is if you think among those variety of reasons radical Islam might have been one of the reasons that the individuals took the steps that they did.
HOLDER: You see, you say radical Islam. I mean, I think those people who espouse a -- a version of Islam that is not...
SMITH: Are you uncomfortable attributing any other actions to radical Islam? It sounds like it.
HOLDER: No, I don't want to say anything negative about a religion that is not...
SMITH: No, no. I'm not talking about religion. I'm talking about radical Islam. I'm not talking about the general religion.
HOLDER: Right. And I'm saying that a person, like Anwar Awlaki, for instance, who has a version of Islam that is not consistent with the teachings of it...
SMITH: But...
HOLDER: ... and who espouses a radical version...
SMITH: But then is -- could radical Islam had motivated these individuals to take the steps that they did?
HOLDER: I certainly think that it's possible that people who espouse a radical version of Islam have had an ability to have an impact on people like Mr. Shahzad.
SMITH: OK. And could it have been the case in one of these three instances?
HOLDER: Could that have been the case?
SMITH: Yes, could -- again, could one of these three individuals have been incited by radical Islam? Apparently, you feel that that they could've been.
HOLDER: Well, I think potentially incited by people who have a view of Islam that is inconsistent with...
SMITH: OK. Mr. [Attorney-General] it's hard to get an answer yes or no, but let me go on to my next question.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; The West and the Middle East (four volumes); and The Muslim Brotherhood: The Organization and Policies of a Global Islamist Movement. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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