During his address to the nation last week President Obama said that ISIS “is not Islamic.” Yesterday NY Times’ columnist Thomas Friedman undercut the President’s claim, albeit without ever pointing out that Obama got it wrong.
Friedman’s piece is titled “Take a Deep Breath.” It makes the case for the U.S. doing as little as possible about ISIS, arguing that states closer to the action have more at stake. Part of the reason Friedman thinks a minimal response is appropriate is his answer to a fundamental question about the conflict: “What’s this war really about?” Here is Friedman’s answer:
“This is a war over the soul of Islam — that is what differentiates this
moment from all others,” argues Ahmad Khalidi, a Palestinian scholar
associated with St. Antony’s College, Oxford. Here is why: For decades,
Saudi Arabia has been the top funder of the mosques and schools
throughout the Muslim world that promote the most puritanical version of
Islam, known as Salafism, which is hostile to modernity, women and
religious pluralism, or even Islamic pluralism.
Saudi financing for these groups is a byproduct of the ruling bargain
there between the al-Saud family and its Salafist religious
establishment, known as the Wahhabis. The al-Sauds get to rule and live
how they like behind walls, and the Wahhabis get to propagate Salafist
Islam both inside Saudi Arabia and across the Muslim world, using Saudi
oil wealth. Saudi Arabia is, in effect, helping to fund both the war
against ISIS and the Islamist ideology that creates ISIS
members (some 1,000 Saudis are believed to be fighting with jihadist
groups in Syria), through Salafist mosques in Europe, Pakistan, Central
Asia and the Arab world.
Calling this “a war over the soul of Islam” makes clear that this is a battle between extremists and moderates taking place within Islam. This is an argument Friedman has made before. Here he goes farther by explaining how he believes ISIS arose as a product of Islamic extremism. In other words, President Obama was absolutely wrong about the fundamental nature of ISIS.
Curiously though, Friedman doesn’t note, even in passing, that he is directly rebutting Obama’s argument. That’s especially odd since earlier in the piece he writes, “Obama is right that ISIS needs to be degraded and destroyed.” So when he thinks the President is on target, Friedman makes sure to say so. When the President is badly off target, Friedman doesn’t mention it.