What Obama’s Valentine Story Says About His Islamic Extremism Response

Samuel Corum - Anadolu Agency/AFP
Samuel Corum - Anadolu Agency/AFP

The president’s speech at the conference on combating violent extremism Wednesday wasn’t nearly as bad as some of his other recent statements on the topic. He did not repeat the silly claim that ISIS is not Islamic. He did not refer to the Crusades or the Inquisition. And he at least attempted to explain why he refuses to adopt the phrase “Islamic extremist.”

On this last point, Obama may not believe in a clash of civilizations, but he does believe in a clash of narratives. ISIS’s narrative is the one that says they are the pure, uncompromising face of Islam. The counter-narrative—the one the President is pushing—is equally simple: ISIS is wrong about everything.

One can disagree with the president’s reasoning and still admit there is a stubborn, internal logic to his approach. In fact, it helps explain his “JV team” comments from last year. In a sense, the president has changed his language somewhat, but not his approach. He still believes ISIS can be dissed into submission. He still thinks that denying them legitimacy is the key to success.

The other thing that came through most clearly in Wednesday’s speech was some sense of his internal timeline for resolving the conflict. The President doesn’t seem to hold out much hope of defeating Islamic extremism in the near term or even the medium term. Sure, he said he wanted to “vanquish” ISIS (a good word), but the solution closest to his heart was one that appears to be generational in scope. That includes promoting democracy and free markets abroad (jobs over jihad). But his long-game approach was put into clearest relief by a story he told to conclude his remarks.

I’m thinking of a little girl named Sabrina who last month sent me a Valentine’s day card in the shape of a heart. It was the first Valentine I got. I got it from Sabrina before Malia and Sasha and Michelle gave me one. So she’s 11 years old, she’s in the 5th grade. She’s a young Muslim-American, and she said in her Valentine, ‘I enjoy being an American.’ And when she grows up, she wants to be an engineer or a basketball player, which are good choices. But she wrote, ‘I am worried about people hating Muslims. If some Muslims do bad things, that doesn’t mean all of them do. And she asked, ‘Please tell everyone that we are good people, and we are just like everyone else.’ Those are the words and the wisdom of a little girl growing up here in America, just like my daughters are growing up here in America. We’re just like everybody else. And everybody needs to remember that during the course of this debate as we move forward with these challenges.

We all have responsibilities. We all have hard work ahead of us on this issue. We can’t paper over problems. We’re not going to solve this if we’re always just trying to be politically correct, but we do have to remember that 11-year-old girl. That’s our hope. That’s our future. That’s how we discredit violent ideologies, by making sure her voice is lifted up. Making sure she’s nurtured. Making sure that she’s supported. And then recognizing there are little girls and boys like that all around the world.

It’s interesting how often Obama’s policy choices seem to come down to imagining that someone else is his son or, in this case, just like his daughters. Maybe there’s a kind of idealism in that, but it also comes across as dangerously parochial at times.

I’m prepared to assume Sabrina has good parents which means she has no knowledge at this age of ISIS’s barbaric beheading videos. She doesn’t know about their justification of sexual slavery of Yazidi women. She has no idea there is widespread Muslim support for Sharia law, including things like killing apostates and stoning women for adultery. She has never seen Islamists burn anyone alive. She has no idea that domestic abuse is not recognized as illegal in many Muslim countries. She has no inkling that groups like the Taliban and Boko Haram have made it their mission to prevent girls just like her from getting an education by burning down schools and killing and enslaving girls. She probably would not believe that some legislators in Morocco and other Muslim-majority nations think a girl should be forced to marry her rapist. She would probably be surprised to learn that at 11 years old, she would be considered eligible for marriage in several Islamic countries based on their interpretation of the Koran.

It should go without saying that Sabrina’s ignorance of all these things—her essential innocence—is a blessing. Were Sabrina living in a nation where Islamic law is taken more seriously, things might be very different for her. That’s what we expect the adult president to understand, even if his juvenile Valentine author does not.

What an increasing number of Americans seem to feel is needed at this moment is less concern for Sabrina’s fears of a Muslim backlash, which have little basis in reality, and more attention to the real victims of the weekly and daily atrocities committed by the Islamic State, Boko Haram, and other similar Islamic groups around the world. The US is not at war with Islam, but it is at war with Islamic extremism. For the sake of women and girls not lucky enough to live here in America, that’s a war we should be eager to win sooner rather than later.