Today President Obama gave a speech at the U.N. which was, in part, a revised version of his prime time address to the nation about ISIS. This 2nd draft was a big improvement over the first and seemed to drop one of the most contentious claims the President made two weeks ago, i.e. that ISIS is not Islamic.
Two weeks ago President Obama gave a speech which seemed motivated more by domestic political concerns than anything else. Just days after his tan-suited-flub about not having a strategy for dealing with ISIS, the President commanded an audience to reassure us he did in fact have a strategy.
But the national address had its own serious problems. In the 4th paragraph the President announced, “ISIL is not Islamic. No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim.”
At best this was a kind of aspirational statement which might be appropriate in a college bull session but, given the context of a President about to order Americans into combat abroad, felt feigned and a bit out of touch with reality. Whether or not such an army of violent killers could exist in the absence of Islam is moot. ISIS sees itself as an outgrowth of Islamic ideology, in fact as the purest and truest form of the faith.
The speech the President gave at the United Nations today was an improvement. Of course the President still emphasized that America is not at war with Islam, which is appropriate. Nevertheless, he backed away from the claim that ISIS itself is not Islamic and returned to language he has used before calling ISIS is a perversion of Islam. [Emphasis added]:
In this century, we have faced a more lethal and ideological brand of
terrorists who have perverted one of the world’s great religions…
I have made it clear that America will not base our entire foreign
policy on reacting to terrorism. Rather, we have waged a focused
campaign against al Qaeda and its associated forces – taking out their
leaders, and denying them the safe-havens they rely upon. At the same
time, we have reaffirmed that the United States is not and never will be
at war with Islam. Islam teaches peace. Muslims the world over aspire
to live with dignity and a sense of justice. And when it comes to
America and Islam, there is no us and them – there is only us, because
millions of Muslim Americans are part of the fabric of our country.
So we reject any suggestion of a clash of civilizations. Belief in
permanent religious war is the misguided refuge of extremists who cannot
build or create anything, and therefore peddle only fanaticism and
hate. And it is no exaggeration to say that humanity’s future depends on
us uniting against those who would divide us along fault lines of tribe
or sect; race or religion.
This is not simply a matter of words. Collectively, we must take
concrete steps to address the danger posed by religiously motivated
fanatics, and the trends that fuel their recruitment.
Obama did come close to paraphrasing himself a few paragraphs later when he said, “No God condones this terror.” However he also made clear that ISIS ideology was a particular problem for Islam, a branch of their worldview which needs to be rejected. He is, at least in some small degree, laying the responsibility where it belongs [Emphasis added]:
It is time for the world – especially Muslim communities – to
explicitly, forcefully, and consistently reject the ideology of al Qaeda
It is the task of all great religions to accommodate devout faith with a
modern, multicultural world. No children – anywhere – should be
educated to hate other people. There should be no more tolerance of
so-called clerics who call upon people to harm innocents because they
are Jewish, Christian or Muslim. It is time for a new compact among the
civilized peoples of this world to eradicate war at its most fundamental
source: the corruption of young minds by violent ideology.
That means cutting off the funding that fuels this hate. It’s time to
end the hypocrisy of those who accumulate wealth through the global
economy, and then siphon funds to those who teach children to tear it
There is a hint of ecumenism here but not enough to obscure the focus. Without naming the culprits funding this extremism, Obama is undoubtedly referring first to Saudi Arabia and also to Qatar, both of whom spend a lot of money funding Salafi extremism.
In two weeks the President has gone from the tendentious claim that “ISIL is not Islamic” to stating that Islam needs to forcefully reject and cut off funding for Islamic extremism which feeds groups like ISIL. Instead of making a theological claim he can’t support, the President is now making an economic claim no one can deny. Instead of trying to downplay or whitewash ISIS’ Islamic motivation, he is now calling them “religiously motivated fanatics.” That difference in tone may not stifle the President’s critics but it does seem like a noteworthy shift in his framing of the argument.