President Barack Obama in the Situation Room of the White House
While America debates the Right-to-Not-Be-Offended and free speech, the relative merits of trigger warnings and the ill effects of coddling the nation’s youth, disagreements over language and its appropriate usage have seeped into American foreign policy. Through attempts to at once uphold political correctness and smash it as a false idol, American politicians have found themselves in a dangerous war of words with Islamic State (IS), one in which they have inadvertently coopted both its methods and its rhetoric.
If the would-be Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, were to design a self-defeating mechanism meant to showcase all the contradictions of Western liberalism and its accompanying values, he could not do half as well as the current crop of American presidential candidates. Indeed, an IS media team would be hard-pressed to outdo the rhetoric being used in discussions of refugees, Muslims, Islam, and the campaign against IS by America’s presidential candidates and its current commander-in-chief. Charges from President Obama that IS is not Islamic not only obfuscate the inherently Islamic nature of the group, but also tragi-comically engage it in its own dangerous game of apostasy. Likewise, there are few better ways for a radical Islamic group to prove to the disaffected Muslims of the world that peaceful coexistence with the West is impossible than to livestream the town hall meetings of some American presidential hopefuls, or to lend weight to IS’s claims of the impending apocalypse than to call the American intervention a clash of civilizations.
These two trends – the maddening debate over the religious or irreligious nature of IS, and the Manichean worldview enveloping American public discourse – are not only counterproductive and injurious to American national security in their own right, but also verbatim mirror the abhorrent rhetoric of IS itself, to the gleeful relish of the group’s members.
Islamic State, Perhaps Islamic
Islamic State is an Islamic group. Taken out of context, these six words may ignite bigoted celebration, raucous denunciation, or an oblique recognition of their truthful banality. They are a foundational, if contentious, component of the effort to destroy the group. Yet they require the due diligence of all who seek to utilize their descriptive and prescriptive power, as the likelihood of their misconstruction is as high as their potential to cause damage. The labels attached to issues of foreign policy have practical importance, as they provide an analytical framework within which to view and respond to those problems. The religious nature of the group cannot be denied any longer, though every effort must be made to achieve precision in describing it.
The group is Islamic in the limited sense that it derives its ideology from the texts and teachings of Islam, rather than Islamist, which would imply a desire to politicize a specific interpretation of Islam for the purposes of political competition and governance. The Muslim Brotherhood, or the Ikhwan, exemplifies the Islamist movement, with its abortive attempts to effect political change in order to bring about more Islamic rule in countries such as Egypt. IS considers the Ikhwan and many other Islamists to be heretical, as most Islamism, or political Islam, is thought to be a bastardization of God’s will. IS believes that man should only be ruled by institutions explicitly ordained by God, not by anything man has arrogantly wrought himself.
IS’s ideology is beyond Islamism, based upon an extreme form of Salafism, itself an already fundamentalist variant of Sunni Islam, that employs an exceedingly literalist interpretation of scripture and other Islamic texts, commonly referred to as the Prophetic methodology. IS, however, must not be conflated with Salafism in general, which maintains a wide range of adherents, sizeable numbers of whom sharply disagree with IS and its methods. The group seeks to return to the days of Mohammed and the three generations that followed him, employing a 7th-9th century interpretation of Islam that, as noted theologians calmly point out, largely ignores the entirety of more than a millennium of advancements in Islamic jurisprudence.
Like so many hyperlinks in an online article, the group incessantly cites Quranic verses and other quotations in its publications, official statements, and social media posts. These jihadi footnotes give extremist justification to its methods and ultimate goal – to establish and expand a caliphate while preparing for the apocalypse. Crucial to its objective is the practice of takfir, or excommunication, which allows the group to label large categories of coreligionists as heretics and therefore make them eligible for bloody, often theatrical liquidation. Such groupings may include all Shia, Sufis, and potentially all non-Salafist Sunni.
While the group is undeniably Islamic, it is also ahistorical, deviant, and too radical for the likes of al-Qaeda. The danger of such a statement arises when certain groups within America stop at the first clause and roundly condemn Islam writ large, or when other groups, careful to avoid such generalizations, refuse to call it Islamic at all. A number of Democratic presidential candidates, particularly Hillary Clinton, have routinely declined to acknowledge the Islamic roots of IS.
They fear, with good reason, that to call the group Islamic, even with a qualifier like radical, deviant, or extremist, will fuel America’s mounting Islamophobia and feed into IS’s own propagandistic cries of war between the West and Islam. Even former US president George W. Bush, ever prone to putting his foot in his mouth, was careful with his words in his now immortalized “Islam is Peace” speech in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.
Obama, at pains to explain that America is fighting one group and not an entire religion with 1.6 billion adherents, has gone so far as to claim that IS is “not Islamic.” Yet this rhetorical escapism is perhaps the worst transgression, as it takes the Christian president of the United States, of a Muslim family background himself, into the dark realm of determining who is, and is not, a Muslim. In his attempts to demarcate a clear intellectual and theological border between IS ideology and the rest of Islam, however, Obama only buys into IS’s own narrative. Playing takfir with al-Baghdadi, unintentionally or otherwise, is not a route likely to be conducive to gains with the broader Muslim community. Obama’s claim, lest it be forgotten so quickly, is also false.
In contemporary parlance, the word Manichean denotes the stark demarcation of all matters into the categories of good and evil without middle ground, often used to describe a worldview which subscribes to such a divide. Historically, the term is derived from the actual religion of Manichaeism, named for its 3rd century founding prophet, Mani. Etymologically, the word is thought to stem from the Aramaic phrase which means “Mani lives,” a refrain of Mani’s followers after his death in a Persian prison. Manichaeism preached a doctrine of moral dualism, that all of life was a struggle between the light of the spiritual world and the darkness of the material world, a view that eventually gave way to its modern usage.
Manichaeism not only shares a common religious heritage, Zoroastrianism, with the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but also directly affected their evolution on its own. It very well could have become the predominant monotheistic religion in the world had the Romans opted for it over Christianity, rather than purging it from their empire in the 4th century. Skeptics should note that Augustine of Hippo was a devout Manichaean before the threat of execution forced him to reconsider. That the religion was so widespread, reaching as far north as the British Isles and as far east as Tibet, extending its roots into Christianity and Islam, and that its terminology remains in common usage long after its origins have been forgotten, should evidence the intellectual accessibility and emotionally satisfying nature of its most basic dogma.
The Prophetic methodology is a rabidly Manichean one, with the world divided into two camps. There is the camp of kufr, the unbelievers – the Crusaders from the West, the religious innovators and deviants, and the apostates – and the camp of Islam. These camps are locked in an existential battle that, ultimately, will be decided near the Syrian town of Dabiq, the prophesied first site of a series of apocalyptic battles at which the armies of Rome will be destroyed. It is also the namesake of the group’s polyglot online periodical.
With professionalism that would win Hermann Göring’s admiration, Dabiq offers embellished accounts of life under caliphate rule, its battlefield victories in gruesome detail, and explanations of the group’s religious underpinnings. It is a remarkably candid publication at times, especially for it being unabashed propaganda, offering valuable glimpses into the minds behind IS. What is quickly apparent is that the group closely watches Western politics, and frequently quotes politicians, defense officials, and think tank reports in a regular column called “In the Words of the Enemy.”
In one prominent article from its February 2015 issue, Dabiq ran a 13-page feature entitled “The Extinction of the Grey Zone,” describing the middle ground between the two camps, where ignorant, misguided, and trapped Muslims have long resided. With the establishment of the caliphate, however, there is now a viable camp to which all pious Muslims can shift – away from the camp of kufr. Thanks to a process hastened by IS and the West itself, Dabiq notes, this grey zone is quickly disappearing, forcing ordinary Muslims to pick a side in the face of the impending apocalypse.
What is most telling about the piece is that it excitedly begins by noting that “as Shaykh Usama ibn Ladin (rahimahullah) said, ‘The world today is divided into two camps. [George W.] Bush spoke the truth when he said ‘Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.’ Meaning you are either with the crusade or with Islam.’” IS could not agree more with this vision, and is delighted to have their worldview emphatically vindicated by a former American president.
Were this line a one-off statement made after a horrific national tragedy, perhaps it could be let alone. However, Manichean rhetoric predominates in American foreign policy and has frequently taken on derogatory and exclusionary tones of late. Divisive language spoken out of fear-driven ignorance is not only pervasive within Republican discourse, but is systematically and reflexively voiced in reaction to every potential IS threat on America’s greatest public stage – presidential campaigning.
From its assiduous observation of Western reactions to terrorism since the 1998 American embassy bombings, IS is all too aware of what the West will do, and what has already begun to happen. In responding to the attacks on Paris and the heightened risk of attacks on American soil, Republican presidential candidates have time and again provided invaluable credibility to a fundamental component of IS ideology.
IS’s narrative is one of inseparable incompatibility and vulnerability – true Islam is not compatible with the Western way of life, and so the West and true Islam must forever be in conflict. The Islam of IS, an uncompromising and narrow minority within a minority, is the only true Islam, and it is under siege from legions of powerful Western Crusaders and hordes of apostates. This is the glorious and romanticized cause to which tens of thousands of foreign fighters have rushed headlong, and one that Republican candidates have thoroughly endorsed.
In denigrating rejections of Arab Muslim refugees, calls for the surveillance and possible closure of “certain mosques,” and claims that “This is a clash of civilizations…There is no middle ground on this,” candidates are evincing very specific claims made by IS. The same Dabiq article explicitly notes that “The presence of the Khalifah also magnifies the political, social, economic and emotional impact of any operation carried out by the mujahidin against the enraged crusaders. This magnified impact compels the crusaders to actively destroy the grayzone themselves…” and continues on to say how Muslims that remain in the camp of kufr will be persecuted until they are forced to convert or to leave for the caliphate, regardless. Republican candidates have assumed the persecutory role cast for them by IS with gusto, all too eager to incorporate their own Manichean roots into a rapidly devolving hucksterism of bigotry and terror.
Such harmful invective, so similar to the writings of IS that its spokesman, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, might as well be Donald Trump’s or Ted Cruz’s speechwriter, cannot continue. Such men have done more to aid IS recruiting in the last several weeks than anything al-Adnani has written himself in months. Scholars of IS have shown that its propaganda moves nascent radicals to action around the world, sometimes within only days of its release. When an American presidential candidate speaks, it is not only the electorate that listens. Mani lives, indeed.
Know-Nothings, Knowing Nothing, and American Foreign Policy
The culture wars of America today are informing its zeitgeist, one in which the norms of public discourse have evolved to at once hamstring oratory while also inflaming it, to restrict speech to meaningless contortions while simultaneously driving it to bombastic hyperbole. In the rush to champion the 1st Amendment or the new political correctness, the application of policy-relevant terminology has been sacrificed upon the altar of presidential primaries.
America continues down this path at its own peril, for ordnance dropped on Raqqa today means nothing if America’s politicians can neither accurately describe the adversary that resides there nor restrain themselves from unwittingly ghostwriting the next cover story for its flagship publication. To request some form of self-censorship would be quintessentially un-American, but to admonish, reproach, and demand more of America’s president, presidential candidates, and citizenry through pointed editorial is perhaps more in line with tradition.
Chris Newton is a recent graduate of the University of Notre Dame, pursuing a one-year fellowship with AVSI Foundation in Juba, South Sudan.