Early in his address last night, President Barack Obama said something sensible followed by something extremely wrong, silly, even dangerous.
He spoke of the winding down of several war on terror-related conflicts but said serenity is a pipe dream. “We cannot erase every trace of evil from the world, and small groups of killers have the capacity to do great harm,” the president explained.
This was true before 9/11 and it was definitely true as he spoke to the country on the eve of the 13th anniversary of that dread day, this time readying us to send more troops and resources into the Middle East to combat the latest threat: called ISIS, ISIL or, lately, “the Islamic State.”
It “calls itself the Islamic State,” said Obama, but he wanted to “make two things clear.”
1. “ISIL is not ‘Islamic.’ No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim.”
2. “And ISIL is certainly not a state. It was formerly al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq, and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria’s civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border. It is recognized by no government, nor the people it subjugates. ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.”
Others can address Obama’s second “clear” statement in depth. Suffice it to say that ISIS does many things that distance it from most terrorist organizations in both scope and ambition if not in savagery.
But the first one, that was the real doozy. It showed Obama’s confusion over Islam and religion in one fell swoop. It also showed how wrongheaded America’s approach to the war on terror has been since days after the first 9/11.
After all, it was George W. Bush, not Barack Obama, who first insisted that Islam was a “religion of peace.” To take us back, here is Charles Paul Freund writing in Reason in late 2001, rebutting a critic’s take on America post-9/11 as a hotbed of anti-Muslim rage.
The tin eared critic, wrote Freund, “must have missed even the enormous pains taken by elite news outlets and public figures, especially President George W. Bush, to distinguish between the ‘true’ Islam of peace, as they often characterized it, and any variant that could justify and celebrate acts of mass murder. In his address to Congress, Bush actually assumed the role of Islamic theologian, pronouncing any such violent variant to be ‘blasphemy.’”
The second president Bush had his reasons for doing this. He didn’t want to inflame any anti-Muslim passions in the homeland and he sought the cooperation of majority Muslim nations abroad to isolate and stomp out al Qaeda.
But he, and Obama, have showed that maybe Western political leaders half a globe away are not the ideal figures for even understanding Islam, much less giving the world a definitive interpretation of what constitutes the true faith handed down by the prophet Mohammad.
So, no, presidents of the United States of America, Islam is not a religion of peace.
In fact, such things rarely exist.
Judaism gave us the ten commandments, including “thou shall not murder.” King David was explicitly forbidden by the God of the Old Testament from building a temple, because his legacy was drenched in blood. But their religion didn’t stop the Israelites from mounting massacres or wars of conquest and in a few cases actually spurred them on.
Nor did the near pacifism of Christianity’s founder hold Christians back. Some interpreted Jesus’s metaphor “I bring not peace but a sword,” quite literally and set about slaughtering heretics and launching wars, crusades, pogroms, you name it.
Hell, even Buddhists monks have been involved in wars and assassinations. No one expects the Dalai Lama, as Monty Python might say.
And, no, it is probably worth pointing out, Muslims are not Mongols. Islam has proven itself to be a religion that is capable of peace, sometimes for long stretches.
However, there are significant theological divides in the Muslim world that are every bit as deadly as the Protestant-Catholic conflicts that burned through Western nations just a few centuries ago.
Thirteen years ago today, one of those conflicts found its way to New York and greater Washington, D.C. President Bush set out not just to hit back anvil hard but to remake the Muslim world. In his own beige suit-wearing way, Obama has continued that mission.
It isn’t working. The meddling of U.S. Presidents has given us more failed states, more instability and war that gave rise to things like ISIS in Syria and Iraq and a resurgent Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
As Obama made clear in his speech last night, with talk of a four-part plan that would take us into war on two fronts – plus Ebola and American exceptionalism and puppies -, we literally do not know what we are doing over there anymore.
That’s an awful thought for this sad day, but there it is.