By Richard Cohen
February 23, 2015
Looking around the world, I see little but debacles. Vladimir Putin has his way with Ukraine, treating Europe and the United States with the contempt they have so assiduously earned. Libya, where NATO intervened, is now one vast gang fight, tribes against tribes — massacres, beheadings and widespread looting. Shall we press on to Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and that hideous entity called the Islamic State, all situations where the United States has intervened? Our intentions have been honorable. The results are another matter entirely.
In general, I have been an interventionist. I was for going into Afghanistan to get al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and then into Iraq to get Saddam Hussein, and then into Libya to avert a massacre — and I still think an early intervention in Syria would have saved thousands of lives. I cheered last year when the United States came to the rescue of the besieged Yazidis in Iraq. The Islamic State vowed to kill all the men and make concubines of the women. That was a timely intervention. Now, though, we are at war with the Islamic State, and sooner or later it might carry the war to us.
President Obama, the most reluctant of warriors, is now being asked to employ the supposedly proper nomenclature and use the term “Islamic terrorism.” The New York Post, Rupert Murdoch’s heart (the Wall Street Journal is his brain), has mocked Obama for his refusal to call terrorism indisputably carried out in the name of Islam “Islamic.” The president defends himself by saying that the Islamic State is not true Islam. In fact, according to an influential article in the Atlantic magazine, the Islamic State, what with its beheadings, massacres, crucifixions and slavery, may well be about as Islamic as possible.
The piece, by Graeme Wood, makes two important points. The first I have already mentioned — that the horrendous practices of the Islamic State, as well as its goals, are deeply embedded in Islam. The second is that the Islamic State is just itching for combat with the United States. “The biggest proponent of an American invasion is the Islamic State itself,” Wood writes. “The provocative videos, in which a black-hooded executioner addresses President Obama by name, are clearly made to draw America into the fight.” This is a fight the Islamic State should be denied.
And yet we should have learned that it is a bad idea to get into a ground war with people whose idea of victory is martyrdom. Just as America ultimately lacked the stomach to fight the North Vietnamese and their allies in the south — what American soldier is going to live in a tunnel? — so, too, would we be unable to put up with the cost to us of suicide attacks, children bearing bombs and the like. Obama is pressing the fight the right way: from the air. We cannot win that way, but in the end, an exhausted and increasingly besieged Islamic State can lose. The caliphate of old is not about to be restored.
Once again, the United States — and the West in general — is facing a culture it little understands. Obama, true liberal that he is, thinks that Islamic radicalism can be defeated with something akin to a jobs program for the Arab world or, in the hands of State Department propagandists, a better idea. The tenacity of culture is something we little appreciate, and so we assume a shared humanity and that all religions have common values — the Hallmark-card school of theology. So both the president and countless others insist, with a conviction possibly produced by religious tolerance, that the Islamic State is not genuinely Islamic. It is, however, genuinely fascistic.
Still, what can be gained from applying the label “Islamic” to the horrible word “terrorism”? We would forever be sticking qualifications after the term: Not Shiites, whom the Islamic State is out to slaughter. Not the Saudi regime, which is loathed by the Islamic State. Not all of Indonesia, the world’s most populous Islamic country, or India, the second-most. Not the Kurds and certainly not the Turks, whose own caliphate, the Ottoman Empire, lacked the proper religious bona fides. This is an intra-Muslim fight. Obama, correctly, doesn’t want to make it a Christian-Muslim one.
For the most part, non-Muslims declaiming about Islam is a theological gong show. I have read some of the Koran and still am humbled by my ignorance and in awe of that of others. (Is Wood even right?) We have a sorry record in Muslim lands. Before we apply a label to others, we ought to consider what will be applied to us.