Why Obama’s Crusades Reference Was Counterproductive

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

The President seems to think he is doing the Lord’s work in defending Muslims from any association with ISIS, but in the long run, he is short-circuiting the path to progress.

Last week, President Obama made a reference to the Crusades in his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast. The reaction on social media was instantaneous and not favorable. As the white-hot glow of outrage died down, some observers argued that Obama’s point was factually accurate and therefore should be unobjectionable or even admirable. Others went farther, arguing that the reaction itself was proof of a desire to hate all Muslims.

All of these hot takes managed to overlook the larger context of Obama’s remarks. Well before his reference to the Crusades last week, the President’s critics have been bemoaning his inability to accurately identify the enemy. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer last month:

And what is so frustrating now as we look at the situation there, our administration refuses to recognize who our enemy is. And unless and until that happens, then it’s impossible to come up with a strategy to defeat that enemy.

We have to recognize that this is about radical Islam. This is as much a military war as it is an ideological war, and we’ve got to understand what that ideology is and challenge it, understand it so that we can defeat it and protect our citizens, protect the American people.

Also last month, Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League echoed the same concern telling Haaretz, “If Obama cannot articulate the words ‘radical Islam’, then it’s a lost cause.” Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, a former DIA Director, said much the same at a conference last month: “you cannot defeat an enemy you do not admit exists.”

Obama’s reference to the Crusades is just his latest contribution to an ongoing argument with his critics. In general, Obama has tried to insulate and isolate the violent extremism taking place around the world—think ISIS beheadings, Boko Haram kidnappers, Paris attackers—from Islam. His critics, on the other hand, want him to acknowledge or even emphasize the connection between the violent extremism and Islam.

To use a metaphor, Obama behaves like the host of a party who has just witnessed a guest spill a drink on the carpet. “We’ve all done it!” he announces loudly, adding for good measure, “Your grandparents’ parents spilled some pretty big ones, remember?” That’s all the President’s reference to slavery and the Crusades was about, an attempt to bypass the awkwardness someone is feeling. As he told us last week, he wants to make sure no one is up on a “high horse.”

It should be said that the President probably has good motives for making these arguments. He held a meeting with Muslims at the White House last week, just a day before his comments at the National Prayer Breakfast. According to one attendee at the meeting, the guests expressed their concern about the demonization of Islam. The President clearly shares their concerns.

In the past, Obama has gone even further than this. Last September, he opened a speech about ISIS by saying, “ISIL is not ‘Islamic.’ No religion condones the killing of innocents.” The Washington Post‘s Aaron Blake correctly noted at the time, “He didn’t say they are perverting their religion; he said they’re not even part of that religion.”

In a sense then, Obama’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast can be seen as a slight backing away from an even more extreme stance. Obama isn’t quite saying ISIS is no part of Islam. Now he’s saying it’s a perversion of Islam like some other examples from history. But as Obama is being dragged, even slightly, off his marker, he seems to be becoming more insistent, hence the Crusades and slavery as examples. He is signaling he is willing to offend some people to avoid moving any further in this debate.

How Occupy Went from Hero to Zero in a Matter of Weeks

Despite his presumably good intentions, the President is wrong to try and insulate or excuse the current violence from Islam. In order to explain why, it might be helpful to step away from the current hot-button issue to something a little cooler.

Back in 2011, an important new social movement arrived on the scene. It was called Occupy. Originally the brain-child of an anti-capitalist magazine, Occupy set up camps around the country. To anyone who visited one of the camps, Occupy was a hodge podge of views ranging from the communist left to the anarchist left. Their semi-coherent message about wealth inequality was widely embraced as a worthy topic by lots of people who were not sleeping in parks. Polls initially showed that Occupy was quite popular, with favorability as high as 54 percent.

But something funny happened on the way to the socialist utopia. Reports of assault, theft, drug use, vandalism, even rape, and arson, began to trickle out of local news outlets. In a matter of weeks, the once-popular movement was struggling to find support even in San Francisco. And once the support collapsed, tolerance for the dying movement did too. The camps were shut down by authorities.

Even the movement’s founder admitted they had lost control of the media narrative and needed to retreat temporarily. Attempts to revive Occupy a few months later in warmer weather collapsed when the FBI revealed a plot by former members of one group to blow up a bridge in Ohio.

There were probably never more than about 50,000 people nationwide who, at the movement’s height, were actually willing to sleep outside in a park somewhere. Those people were insignificant by themselves. What gave Occupy power was the support it had from millions more people who weren’t about to brave the cold but liked the message they were hearing. It was those fair-weather friends who abandoned Occupy once it became too controversial.

Here’s the important point: The broader left’s commitment to Occupy was contingent on its ability to make them feel good about their common beliefs. The moment the group became an embarrassment, it was abandoned in droves. In Occupy’s case, the turn around only took a few weeks.

Isolating ISIS

Turning back to the hot topic, there is plenty of evidence that the Islamic world needs to move away from its own extremist fringe. A 2013 Pew survey of Islamic attitudes shows a shocking number of Muslims around the world share beliefs in common with ISIS. For example, 64.5 percent of Egyptians say they support killing apostates. In Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country, 34.5 percent of the population says they support stoning women for adultery. One poll found that 16 percent of French citizens support ISIS.

Most of the people answering these poll questions aren’t rushing off to join ISIS any more than people who supported Occupy were rushing outside with their sleeping bags. But hundreds of millions of Muslims identify with very conservative views of their religion. All of them have a choice between sliding further toward extremism or further away from it. One thing which will likely determine which way they go is whether they feel ashamed by their own extremist fringe (i.e. ISIS) or in some way proud of it.

That’s precisely why the President’s language matters. Calling what ISIS is doing Islamic violence has at least two virtues: a) it’s the truth and, b) the shame of that fact can be a powerful engine for change among those who are not part of ISIS’s camp. As the Pew survey of Islamic attitudes suggests, there are plenty of people in the Islamic world who think stoning women for adultery or killing apostates is a good idea, at least in theory. They should be reconsidering in light of the brutal reality of ISIS’s horrific but similar outlook. In a word, they should be ashamed.

But the appeal of extremist Islam won’t be diminished so long as world leaders pretend it is not part of Islam at all. The President’s comments about the Crusades only serve to short-circuit the necessary process of transformation in the Islamic world.


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