The brutal murder of war correspondent James Foley drew a strange response from President Barack Obama. In his address to the American public, Obama told us that Foley’s murderers, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, are not Muslims, “for no faith teaches people to massacre innocents.”
Yet, in the name of Islam, we have seen repeated massacres of innocents. To say that these are unrelated to Islam is to say that the Inquisition had nothing to do with the Catholic Church.
Islam is not a monolith. Islam gives rise to different interpretations. Regrettably, with the infusion of oil money to sustain its most fundamentalist forms, Islam has moved to the extremes. Those who sought to inspire a conservative Islam failed to comprehend that they have launched a cart that is tumbling down a steep hill.
It was not always this way. On March 26, 1979, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menahem Begin signed the improbable Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. At the ceremony, President Sadat spoke of the intertwined cultures of Arabs and Jews and the religious traditions that bound together Islam and Judaism.
Sadat invoked Moses Maimonides, the great twelfth-century Jewish scholar.
Maimonides represented the cultural bridge between Islamic and Jewish traditions. By invoking a shared heritage, Sadat was referencing a common humanity.
Islam in the twelfth century was itself a bridge between the then contemporary world and the world of antiquity. It was a largely secular and universal culture.
The Islamic fundamentalist invasion from North Africa caused Maimonides to flee Spain and seek refuge in Egypt and destroyed that culture.
Sadat, by invoking Maimonides, was alluding to cultural Islam. Sadat’s murder at the hands of the fundamentalist Egyptian Islamic Jihad, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, represented the other face of Islam.
Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarack, kept Sadat’s peace for thirty years, albeit he ran Egypt as another Middle East dictatorship.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s fundamentalism not only inspired Sadat’s assassination, it also gave birth to Al Qaeda and Hamas.
A number of American administrations have been unable to separate the culture of Islam from Islam’s religious fundamentalism.
Obama is dealing with the threat of fundamentalist Islam by pretending it does not exist. Obama follows in the footsteps of President Jimmy Carter, who failed to comprehend that the Iranian revolution was not a democratic revolution but a theocratic one.
Similarly, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice prematurely pushed for elections in Gaza in 2006. Everyone but Rice seemed to understand that those elections would produce a victory for the fundamentalist Hamas.
Obama failed to learn from both these examples. Enamored of his own rhetoric, he believed that the Arab spring would produce democracy, ignoring that all politics is about power, and power goes not to those demonstrating in the streets but to those organizing for the eventual political contest, the Muslim Brotherhood.
Even after the Muslim Brotherhood came to power and revealed its authoritarianism, the Obama administration repeated the mantra of the democratic process that produced the victory of Mohammed Morsi, who soon sought to augment his power, precipitated a constitutional crisis, and was overthrown by the military.
Obama made a failed attempt to resuscitate Morsi, cutting off from the military government the $1.3 billion in aid the US gives to Egypt. Obama clung to Morsi with the same naiveté he clings to the fiction that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam.
The current reality is that Islam has come to power under the banner of the fundamentalists. The banner of Jihad waves not only across the Middle East but also in the streets of Brussels, Amsterdam, London, and San Francisco.
The culture of Islam that stimulated Maimonides’ creativity and led Sadat to seek peace with Israel is now irrelevant. Whether it will re-emerge from beneath the suffocation of fundamentalist Islam is another story. Right now, the Islam of the fundamentalists, like that which forced Maimonides to flee Andalusia, is on the ascendance.
Waiting for the other Islam to re-emerge is as dysfunctional a policy as pretending militant Islam does not exist. Dealing with the Islamic threat requires an understanding of the virulence of fundamentalist Islam. Obama repeatedly shows us that he is incapable of doing that. He has become a major obstacle to confronting the threat posed by the fundamentalists, a threat that will not end with the beheading of one intrepid American journalist.
Abraham H. Miller is an emeritus professor of political science, University of Cincinnati. He served on the faculty of the University of California, Davis and the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana.