Opinion: The Spell 'Radical Islam' Casts
Why that magical phrase is so important to so many
This week, two days after the deadliest gun massacre in modern American history, the President of the United States felt it necessary to explain why his disinclination to use the apparently magical term “radical Islam” has not actually impeded the country’s attempts to defeat ISIS (and, implicitly, why he won’t resign the Presidency in disgrace for his failure to use it):
What exactly would using this label accomplish? What exactly would it change? Would it make ISIL less committed to try to kill Americans? Would it bring in more allies? Is there a military strategy that is served by this?
The answer is none of the above. Calling a threat by a different name does not make it go away. This is a political distraction …
There has not been a moment in my 7.5 years as president where we have not able to pursue a strategy because we didn’t use the label “radical Islam.” Not once has an adviser of mine said, “Man, if we use that phrase, we are going to turn this whole thing around,” not once.
Prominent Republicans’ insistence that Obama use the magic words does seem infantile. (It is.) But there’s a logic behind it. It’s a handy taunt, for one; Obama has explained multiple times, and again Tuesday, why he doesn’t want to use the term, which renders it an evergreen talking point. Even more important, though, it reflects one of the cornerstones of conservative (and neoconservative) thought since the early days of the Cold War: that the American people need to view their country’s role in the world as that of the indispensable good guy in a global morality play.
I first ran across this concept through a 2004 BBC documentary, directed by Adam Curtis, titled The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear. I don’t agree with all of Curtis’ conclusions; he exaggerates in some spots, oversimplifies in others. But I think his basic premise is sound—the most hawkish elements of the American foreign policy apparatus have, since about 1950, told a consistent story about America under perpetual assault from two Big Enemies: the Soviet Union until 1991; and Islamic terrorists from then until now. To fulfill the bad guy role, these enemies can’t be temporary or containable. They have to be existential threats to the Republic, to our very Way of Life. Much of this thinking, Curtis says, comes from the German-American political philosopher Leo Strauss.
[Voiceover] Strauss believed that the liberal idea of individual freedom led people to question everything—all values, all moral truths. Instead, people were led by their own selfish desires. And this threatened to tear apart the shared values which held society together. But there was a way to stop this, Strauss believed. It was for politicians to assert powerful and inspiring myths that everyone could believe in. They might not be true, but they were necessary illusions. One of these was religion; the other was the myth of the nation. And in America, that was the idea that the country had a unique destiny to battle the forces of evil throughout the world. This myth was epitomized, Strauss told his students, in his favorite television program: Gunsmoke …
[The late Professor Stanley Rosen, a former student of Strauss’] The hero has a white hat; he's faster on the draw than the bad man; the good guy wins. And it's not just that the good guy wins, but that values are clear. That's America! We're gonna triumph over the evils of… of… that are trying to destroy us and the virtues of the Western frontier. Good and evil.
“Noble lie” stuff, in other words. But just what the hell is “radical Islam,” anyway? How do you define it? Known members of terrorist groups? State sponsors of terror? Lone wolves like the Boston Marathon bomber and Orlando shooter? Better not to even ask; like pornography, you know it when you see it. It’s an ingenious phrase, really, granting its user plausible deniability against accusations of persecution on solely religious grounds. We don’t consider all Muslims our mortal enemy, just the radical ones, the term implies, which serves as a handy wink-and-nod to the untold numbers of Americans who make no distinction between the two.
The delicate line the President and others in the reality-based community have to walk lies in a qualification: Islamic terrorists are a threat, of course, capable of killing and maiming in any American city thanks to the easy availability of assault and other weapons. But they constitute an existential threat only if they accomplish the chief goal of any terrorism, which is to literally frighten a populace out of its wits and values.
Well, here we are. Tuesday night, during a rally in Greensboro, Donald Trump called again for a ban on Muslim immigration to the United States ("We have a radical Islamic terrorism problem folks. We can say we don’t. We can pretend like Obama that we don’t.") and repeated a baseless estimate that 11 percent of Muslims are “radical” as members of the crowd chanted, “Kill them all.”