For this is also a time around the world when some of the fundamental ideals of liberal democracies are under attack, and when notions of objectivity, and of a free press, and of facts, and of evidence are trying to be undermined. Or, in some cases, ignored entirely…Taking a stand on behalf of what is true does not require you shedding your objectivity. In fact, it is the essence of good journalism. It affirms the idea that the only way we can build consensus, the only way that we can move forward as a country, the only way we can help the world mend itself is by agreeing on a baseline of facts when it comes to the challenges that confront us all.
—President Barack Obama, White House Correspondents Dinner, April 30, 2016
That’s the key, they tell us. We can’t get ISIL unless we call them ‘radical Islamists.’ What exactly would using this label accomplish? What exactly would it change? Would it make ISIL less committed to trying 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’s no magic to the phrase, ‘radical Islam.’ It’s a political talking point; it’s not a strategy.
—President Barack Obama, June 14, 2016
After several decades of post-modernism and attacks on the idea of objectivity in the academy, the President’s remarks on April 30 were music to the ears of any serious historian. “Taking a stand on behalf of what is true does not require shedding your objectivity” is a mantra dear to the hearts of thousands of scholars. It is a declaration neither of infallibility nor arrogance, but, as the President said, agreement on a baseline of facts is crucial for a functioning democracy.
Yet in his statement of June 14, after the Orlando massacre and with Donald Trump’s typically inflammatory response still befouling the air, the President’s comments about radical Islam illustrated the difference between scholarship and politics. Scholars seek, or should seek, truth above all. Political leaders, including wartime leaders such as President Obama, seek success. In that effort some facts may be too inconvenient or imprudent to mention. In the later statement, the President did not dispute the claim that there really is a set of ideas called “radical Islam” or “Islamism”—that it constitutes an interpretation, however distorted, of the key texts of the religion of Islam and that that this set of ideas has played a central role in the terrorist attacks carried out or facilitated by various groups such as al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, the government of Iran, and, more recently, ISIS (or ISIL as the President prefers). Yet he spoke as though this were not the case.
Given the vast amount of information flowing into his office and his own understanding of Islam, Obama must be familiar with the Islamist tradition and its infamous leading figures including Hassan al-Banna, Haj Amin al-Husseini, Sayyid Qutb, and Ruhollah Khomeini. He must realize that their interpretation of the Qur’an keys on hatred of the West, the Jews and Israel, liberal democracy, equality for women, homosexuals, and other assorted infidels. The President must know that it is not true—it is not a fact—that, as he put it previously, the Islamic State has nothing to do with Islam.
Anyone who has read the Qur’an, who is familiar with the history of the religion of Islam, and has read the now abundant scholarship in Islamism and terror, knows that this text, no less than the key texts of the world’s other major religions, is subject to multiple interpretations as a result of what the British cultural historian Raymond Williams called the labor of selective tradition. Some interpretations are more plausible than others but, just as the Nazis drew on one extreme interpretation of Christianity, namely its centuries-long antagonism to the Jews, so the terrorists of our own time find textual support for their hatreds in key Islamic texts. In both cases, we find the interpretation of the theology repellent and contradicted by other readings of key texts, yet read selectively these texts provide support for such forms of hatred and fanaticism. The authority and attractiveness of the terrorist organizations that speak in the name of Islam would be inconceivable without the legitimacy supposedly bestowed by reference to these key religious texts.
It is this complex but undeniable fact that first President George W. Bush and now President Obama have refused to express in public. Bush, who claims no expertise on what Islam is and is not, declared it to be a “religion of peace.” He did so first and foremost for political reasons, that is, to avoid an anti-Muslim backlash in the United States and a war of civilizations with Muslims around the world. When Obama refuses to name radical Islam as the source of the problem he shares Bush’s concern. He refuses to do so because, like Bush, he fears that such a statement would legitimize hostility toward Muslims in the United States and is convinced that doing so would inflame Muslim hatred of the United States and the West. As he put it on June 14, it would not gain us allies, would not make the threat go away, and “is a political distraction.” But Obama, unlike Bush, has through his life experience undoubtedly acquired familiarity with Islam. (This is not to say, as Donald Trump has falsely asserted, that Obama is himself a Muslim.) Yet as he refrained from taking a stand on what he must know is the truth about radical Islam, he was in effect abandoning the norms of objectivity, subtlety, and complexity that he advocates in other contexts.
The irony of Obama’s reticence to speak frankly about radical Islam in public is that such avoidance conflicts with his interest in respecting nuance in a world of simplifiers, none more so than Trump. In this case, nuance and subtlety call for him to educate the American and global public about the distinctions, as well as the connections, between Islamism and Islam. Obama’s refusal to take on such distinctions has had the unintended consequence of amplifying the voices of simplifiers like Trump. Trump’s proposal to ban Muslim or Middle Eastern immigration to the United States rests on the assumption that there is no way of distinguishing between Islamism or radical Islam and the religion of Islam itself.
By their reticence and euphemisms about “the war on terror” and on “organized extremism,” the last two Presidents have regarded the historian’s primary value of truth seeking and truth telling as a luxury that a nation at war cannot afford. The facts and the truth about both the distinctions and the connections between Islamist terror and interpretations of key Islamic texts have been judged too inconvenient to express in public. There is a cost to this reticence. If Presidents refuse to educate the public, it becomes more prone to the appeals of simplifiers, demagogues, and conspiracy theorists. If one treats the electorate as incapable of understanding the distinction between a minority’s extreme interpretation of a religion and the moderate interpretations found plausible by the majority of its adherents, then perhaps over time the electorate does become more stupid in this sense—that is, less able to embrace the values of nuance, complexity, objectivity, and attention to fact that the President says he advocates.
In recent years, we have seen numerous examples of writers and political figures—Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Salmon Rushdie, Boualem Sansal, Bassam Tibi and members of the Iranian diaspora in Europe and the United States—who have sought to criticize Islamism from within the Arab, Persian, and North African context. After the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the Jewish supermarket in Paris in January 2015, Manual Valls, the Socialist Prime Minister of France, declared that France was not at war with the religion of Islam, but it was at war with terror inspired by radical Islam. So is the United States. Are Americans any less capable than the French of understanding the distinction? Aside from everything else, would not speaking the truth about this matter offer encouragement to the majority of American Muslims who find the ideas and actions of radical Islam abhorrent?