Friday, May 28, 2010

President Obama's Ayatollah Explains Islam to the Muslims

By Barry Rubin

The president’s advisor on terrorism, John Brennan, who I’ve dubbed the worst foreign policy official in the Obama Administration, has made a new statement that is very interesting and deserves serious debate, not just dismissal or endorsement.

You can see his basic line as it has developed, with full administration support, over the last year:

“Nor does President Obama see this challenge as a fight against jihadists. Describing terrorists in this way, using the legitimate term `jihad,' which means to purify oneself or to wage a holy struggle for a moral goal, risks giving these murderers the religious legitimacy they desperately seek but in no way deserve. Worse, it risks reinforcing the idea that the United States is somehow at war with Islam itself. And this is why President Obama has confronted this perception directly and forcefully in its speeches to Muslim audiences, declaring that America is not and never will be at war with Islam.”

Brennan also said that the United States is not at war with “terror,” which is merely a tactic, but only with al-Qaida.

There are two issues here:

1. Should U.S. strategy be to make a theological judgment about the relationship of Jihad and Islam, deciding what is the "proper" Muslim stance?

2. Should U.S. strategy be to declare that there is a war only with al-Qaida and not with terrorism or anyone else?

Regarding the first point, for Ayatollah Brennan to define jihad as only peaceful and for “a moral goal” is ludicrous. All Muslims know that, at a minimum, jihad also includes a violent struggle for conquest as its main component, even if they also believe there is an internal moral aspect to it or a non-violent jihad (a jihad to be a better person; a jihad against illiteracy). Brennan saying otherwise isn’t going to change any minds or win over any hearts.

In English there's a mocking saying about one trying to be "more Catholic than the Pope." Isn't Brennan trying to prove he is a better understander of Islam than Usama bin Ladin? Should we say speak of those-who-claim-to-be-Jihadists-but-aren't?

At any rate, the key point made by al-Qaida and other contemporary Jihadists is that they are waging a “defensive jihad” to save Muslims from a Western “Crusader-Zionist” attempt to destroy Islam. They define this as “a holy struggle for a moral goal.” At times, they are more open about the use of Jihad to gather all Muslims into a single state ruled by a caliph.

So it is reasonable to have a U.S. policy that doesn’t define the enemy as Jihad; it is mandatory to have a U.S. policy that doesn’t define the enemy as Islam (President George W. Bush set that theme on September 12, 2001) but it is ridiculous for the United States to compete with imams and ayatollahs in defining Islam. And this is especially true when the specific claims made about Islam are so obviously nonsensical.

And doesn't this whole approach seem to be the very act of aggression against Islam to many Muslims, a war on Islam, that Brennan and the Obama administration want to avoid? After all, if the U.S. government sets itself up as interpreter of Islam that really does seem like a threat to reshape Islam in an American image. Already, radicals, not all of them Jihadists, proclaim that there is a battle between “proper Islam” and “American Islam.” And that tactic is certainly used to enhance the "religious legitimacy" of the revolutionaries.

If U.S. policy wants to deal with this issue, it should suffice to cite a long list of Muslim theologians and leaders who disagree with al-Qaida and denounce it as proof that the group does not deserve the religious legitimacy it claims. The U.S. government should cite the casualty figures of Muslims murdered by the revolutionary Islamists, the cost in living standards, and overall suffering produced by them.

Regarding the point as to who is the enemy, an argument can certainly be made for narrowing the conflict in terms of definition. Having fewer enemies is preferable. Yet doesn't this pose of a U.S versus al-Qaida war send a signal to all attacked by anyone not part of al-Qaida that the United States is standing on the sidelines.

The United States isn't "at war" with Hamas, Hizballah, or revolutionary Islamists who attack Indonesia, India, Israel, the Philippines, Thailand, and other countries. But should it go out of its way publicly to define them as non-enemies, even when these groups have killed Americans? In fact, Brennan has repeatedly defined Hizballah, the group which has murdered--if one omits September 11--more Americans than al-Qaida to be not terrorist at all in large part.

And what about the Taliban in Afghanistan? Why are U.S. troops there if it isn’t an enemy? All that would be needed are small numbers of Special Forces’ soldiers seeking to kill al-Qaida leaders in hiding.

In discussing all these issues, U.S. policy should stick to national definitions. It was wrong of Obama to make a pitch to Muslims in the Cairo speech. After all, if the great conflict is between those seeking a national and those seeking a religious definition of their identity, why should the United States undermine this? Let it speak instead of Iraqis and Egyptians, Saudis and Pakistanis.

By the way, a further convenience here is that technically al-Qaida doesn’t have state sponsors. Yet Syria and Iran have been enablers of al-Qaida, most notably in Iraq, and Pakistan has done so in Afghanistan. Part of the administration’s effort here is to provide an excuse not to deal with these aspects of the problem.

It is better not to have a simplistic definition at all. The United States is at war with those who have attacked it. The United States is in conflict with those who are trying to destroy its allies—whether it be Israel or Saudi Arabia, Thailand or India--since, if that isn’t true, in what sense are those countries allies?

There is also a hint of a sleazy side-stepping plea: Don't attack me, attack those Lebanese and Israelis, Thai Buddhists and Filipino or Nigerian or Sudanese Christians! It is a tactic reminiscent of those "anti-terrorist" Muslim clerics whose opposition to murder is restricted to proclaiming that those who kill fellow Muslims are not proper jihadists, where as those who kill non-Muslims are A-OK.

What Brennan does have in mind, and says so elsewhere, is something prevalent in administration thinking: drawing a line between good and bad guys, moderates and radicals, in which those who seek to overthrow allied countries or destroy U.S. interests are redefined as good guy moderates. Like those nice clean-cut Muslim Brotherhood revolutionaries who, for tactical reasons, believe the revolution requires mass organizing today, leaving armed struggle for some future stage.

You don’t have to be at war with Iran and Syria, Hamas and Hizballah, the Turkish regime and various others to recognize that they are in fact enemies of the United States. You don't have to see groups like the Muslim Brotherhood blow up things to know that they, too, are enemies of the United States.

And no verbal gymnastics will change that fact; they will only weaken the U.S. ability to deal with the struggle at hand.

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