Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) went to San Bernardino and gave a speech that deserves notice from everyone who is thinking about America’s decade and a half-old (and counting) conflict with radical Islam. It’s now up on YouTube:
The most important part (transcript via the Weekly Standard):
“I am not a Muslim but as an American I stand and defend the rights of American Muslims to freely worship even though we differ about important theological matters. In America we are free to believe different things and to argue about those beliefs. It matters what you think about the nature of God and whether he’s revealed himself, what you think about salvation matters, heaven and hell matters, but these things are so important that we don’t try to solve them by violence. And we come together as a community, a community of Americans who believe in the constitutional creed, to unite around those core American values like freedom of religion.
“We are most certainly though at war with militant Islam. We are at war with the violent Islam. We are at war with jihadi Islam. We are not at war with all Muslims. We’re not at war with Muslim families in Dearborn, Michigan who want the American dream for their kids. But we are at war with those who believe that they will kill in the name of religion.
If this speech were to change the way Americans talk about the war on terror, Sasse will have performed a service to the nation. To see how, look at two moments from seminal speeches since 2001.
After September 11, President Bush declared that terrorists “hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.” Bush had touched on something vital: Radical Islamists hated those things because they see them not as freedoms, but as grave wrongs—as invitations to apostasy, atheism, and libertinism. The problem was, he never fully fleshed this out. As a result, this speech became easy to caricature in later years: That simpleton Bush couldn’t possibly imagine why anyone would have a beef with the U.S., so he invented a cartoon enemy.
But just because Bush was inarticulate, doesn’t mean he wasn’t on to something. Radical Islamism identifies as good that which we identify as evil, and vice versa. In doing so, Islamic radicals are like many of America’s past enemies—Nazis, Communists—who also espoused a cohesive worldview diametrically opposed to America’s classical liberalism. And it is this moral and politico-religious frame that many Americans feel has been missing from this conflict. Bush left many legacies, but an enduring frame for the global conflict against radical Islam was not one of them. He spent much of his Presidency trying to fight particular states and terror groups. His Wilsonian belief that the desire for democracy dwelt in every heart, and that, given a chance to flourish, it would cure the Middle East’s ills, also caused him to underestimate just how deep the problems in the Islamic world run.
President Barack Obama, for his part, has veered between downplaying the conflict as a whole (Matt Yglesias, as recently as this week, characterized the President as attempting “to meet the psychological needs of a frightened nation” while not engaging in actions that are “widely counterproductive”) and sweeping pronouncements on Islam (“ISIL is not Islamic.“) The damage that these tactics—which to many smack of deliberate obtuseness—have done to the public’s trust in the government is increasingly acknowledged by both Left and Right.
But less recognized is how President Obama misses opportunities to present America’s viewpoint to the Islamic world. Take, for example, his 2009 Cairo speech. Heavy on rhetorical gestures that he (and, by extension, America) understood the Islamic world, the speech simply took for granted that the Islamic world understood America’s philosophy:
I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.
But to radical Islamists, “the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed” is seen, as it was in Medieval Europe, as an invitation to error, misrule, and license. Similarly, freedom of religion, which Obama went on to extoll, is seen as the road to apostasy. Like Bush, but unlike Sasse, Obama did not explain why America believes these things. Instead, by acting like there’s shared ground (“all people yearn for certain things”) where none exists, Obama tried to pretend there isn’t a theological controversy where there is one.
This approach—pretending that everyone in the world (excepting perhaps a fringe minority) on some level agrees with America’s founding principles—has become a hallmark of Obama’s approach to the problem of radical Islam. But until the basic controversy over right and wrong is acknowledged, and America’s viewpoint fully explicated, it will be very hard for American leaders to persuade the majority of Middle Eastern Muslims, who are caught in a civilizational crisis, to understand what we are offering, what we are asking of them, and why. Just as importantly, to many Americans, the Obama approach seems like papering over a serious problem with platitudes.
Sasse, who has a Ph.D. in history from Yale but also ran a small, Lutheran college in Middle America, is offering a way to thread the needle. On the one hand, his speech shows how to reassure a frightened American public while respecting our Constitutional obligation not to be sectarian. On the other, it demonstrates how to explain our worldview cogently and firmly to a Muslim world in turmoil. As Sasse explained, America’s freedoms, such as freedom of speech, are not libertine declarations that we do not care for higher truth, but rather are integral to the search for it. Knowledge of God is vital to human life, but impossible to find or enforce by the sword. Therefore, free examination and freedom of conscience are our best hope. This belief, born out of the wars of the Christian Reformation, was the tradition in which America’s founders, both Revolutionary and colonial, wrote the First Amendment and in which they framed our democracy as providing a chance to adhere more closely to what one thought was a good and true life, very much including a religious life. This wisdom has been confirmed by American history, as groups such as Roman Catholics and Mormons, whose religions had previously been thought to be incompatible with pluralism, have lived and prospered under this approach. And as Sasse rightly points out, millions of American Muslims today thrive in their faith under this same liberal tradition.
Sasse is at once more humble in his ambitions than our current crop of leaders (he doesn’t claim to understand Islam better than many leading Islamic scholars, for instance), and more effective in his outreach. By connecting with America’s history and the importance of religion in ordinary Americans’ lives, the Senator reassures the country that he “gets” it. From there, he builds a way of viewing the conflict that Americans of all faiths can understand and rally around. Finally, he provides fruitful ground for outreach, by establishing common ground—care for the questions that all religions try to answer—before expressing differences and concerns. Insisting that Islam doesn’t really matter (or is just a flag of convenience for crazies) hasn’t been working, at home or abroad. Perhaps it’s time to take a cue from Senator Sasse and try something different.