By Hisham Melhem
22 February 2015
“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”
President Obama is a wordsmith. His relatively short political life has been chiseled and shaped by the possibilities and the limits of his language. He bursts on the national stage when he delivered a memorable keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. In fact, he defined his campaigns and his presidency by few pivotal speeches that tried to explain his vision of America, domestic decisions, and how he sees the world. Obama the wordsmith struggled with his language the way Obama the president struggled with his decisions. And just as his leadership style and some of his decisions were characterized by tentativeness, excessive caution and deliberation, his language can also oscillate between that which is inspirational and that which is deliberately ambiguous, deceptive and downright Orwellian. His framing of the Syrian conflict and his claims that his options were the extremes of doing nothing or invade Syria are a case in point.
Of Terrorists and Sophists
President Obama inherited from his predecessor many burdens; a debilitating economic crisis and America’s two longest wars, in addition to an illegitimate ugly child named the “War on terror.” If former President George W. Bush was known for not doing nuance, for tripping over his tongue and for his absolute “us vs them” formulations, including the “War on terror” and “Islamo-fascism”, President Obama is the President who lives in a parallel territory where words and their meanings are at best implied and much more elastic and nuanced to a fault. Towards the end of George W. Bush’s presidency, some of his senior officials dropped the much maligned term War on terror when it lost its original meaning (the war against Al Qaeda) and after it became in many Arab and Muslim eyes synonymous with a war on Islam.
President Obama did the right thing when he dropped this term (after all terror is a tactic) and tried to frame the conflict as one against a specific enemy with a known name; Al Qaeda. But Obama and his aides wanted so much to be the antithesis of Bush, to the point where they wanted to drop the word terror and to deny any connection, even if very fuzzy between the terrorists they were meeting on the battlefields and their professed Muslim religion, even where it was clear that the faith has been distorted or highjacked. Thus, the “War on terror” evolved in Obama’s world into the “overseas contingency operations, a term reminiscent of the way the Pentagon designated the war in Vietnam as an international armed conflict. Other verbal gems followed. When Major Nidal Hasan attacked his supposed comrades in arms at Fort Hood, the professional sophists in the Obama administration, bent on denying the politically motivated crime, neutered the word terror from the deed and gave us the term workplace violence.
Leaving the Burdens
President Obama’s obsession with leaving the burdens of Iraq, Afghanistan and the wars on Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups behind him has muddled his political approach to these challenges and muddied his diction. Obama told the nation at the beginning of last year that America must move off a permanent war footing while almost simultaneously denying the mounting threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) describing it in an interview with the New Yorker as a junior varsity basketball team.
The verbal obfuscation and intentional ambiguity of the President and his aides regarding the terror employed by groups that wrap themselves with a perverted Islamist cloak like ISIS and those inspired by it, is disingenuous and downright insulting. When a man claiming allegiance to ISIS attacked a kosher deli in Paris killing four Jews, because of who they were, President Obama suggested that “a bunch of folks” were “randomly shot.” And when ISIS in another ritualistic act of savagery slaughtered 21 Egyptian Christians in Libya, because of who they were, the White House statement condemning the killing deliberately omitted their faith. In his recent Op-Ed in the Los Angeles times, the president had to restore their faith. This is the same president who told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria in January “I don’t quibble with labels. I think we all recognize that this is a particular problem that has roots in Muslim communities.”
Countering Violent Extremism
This week the White House held a three day seminar, strangely dubbed as “a summit,” to empower local communities, and protect youth against the seductive and sleek online propaganda of ISIS and other terrorist groups. Community and religious leaders, including American Muslims, civil society organizations and government officials deliberated and highlighted their experiments in three “pilot” programs in Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Boston. The last day included a session in which the President and foreign representatives in the international coalition against ISIS, including foreign ministers from some Arab countries spoke briefly.
The Semantic Presidency
It was time for the semantic presidency to employ its considerable evasive lexicon for a final framing of the issue at hand. The president had to address the criticism of his administration’s refusal to concede that groups like ISIS, Al Qaeda, al-Shabab in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria and Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan are “extremist Islamists” because they are animated by a body of literature of fanatical interpretations of the sacred texts of Islam, intolerant religious rulings and fatwas and selective use of religious dogma to justify their horrific ritualistic violence and their warped eschatology. Understanding the “theoretical” underpinnings of these groups, particularly ISIS, will go a long way in developing an equally powerful counter-narrative that admittedly Arabs and Muslims should wage.
The president first stated the obvious “We are not at war with Islam; we are at war with those who have perverted Islam.” Then came the counterattack. “Leading up to this summit, there’s been a fair amount of debate in the press and among pundits about the words we use to describe and frame this challenge, so I want to be very clear about how I see it,” the President said to the conferees. He added “Al Qaeda and ISIL and groups like it are desperate for legitimacy. They try to portray themselves as religious leaders, holy warriors in defense of Islam.” But President Obama said that “we must never accept the premise that they put forward, because it is a lie.” These pretenders “are not religious leaders- they are terrorists.”
In his Op-Ed, the president wanted to say that violence and terror is not and should not be identified with a single group, by mentioning the “tragic killings at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in 2012 and at a Jewish community center in Kansas last year.” Obama talked also about the three young Muslim Americans who were brutally killed in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, while acknowledging that we still don’t know why they were murdered, but “we know that many Muslim Americans across our country are worried and afraid.” But surely, while these acts of violence are abominable, they are or maybe hate crimes carried out by individuals driven by religious and/or ethnic hatred. They cannot and should not be equated with the terror campaigns waged by the likes of ISIS, Al Qaeda and others capable of paralyzing states and whole geographic regions.
The September 2001 attacks exacted a tremendous economic and political cost and led the U.S. to the two longest wars in its history. ISIS’s brutality and challenge have forced President Obama to deploy a small contingent of American advisors and Intelligence operatives.
What’s In a Name?
By not acknowledging the “theological” underpinnings of ISIS, perverted as they may be, President Obama’s academic approach and evasive vocabulary muddies the intellectual and religious counter-narrative that should accompany the military assault on ISIS. Political and intellectual clarity in identifying the enemy and the way it frames its ideology and how it sees the world, is an imperative. To deny that ISIS and Al Qaeda have nothing to do with that long history of “Muslim grievances” real or manufactured, or their identification with marginal and extreme historic “scholars” behind some of the most perverted interpretations of Muslim teachings and sacred texts, is to deny that the Crusades or the Inquisition have nothing to do with extreme interpretations of Christianity.
The Israeli settlement drive in the occupied Palestinian territories, notwithstanding its grounding in economics and politics, cannot be fully understood without its Jewish underpinnings.
Marxian purists claim, somewhat correctly, that Leninism distorted Marxism; but there is no denying that Leninism could not have been the powerful movement that it was in the early 20th century, had it not been the illegitimate child of Marxism. A similar relation exists between the theoreticians and ideologues of some Islamist movements such as Sayyid Qutb, the radical, intolerant and powerful theoretician of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, and his atavistic and warped interpretation of the Islamic corpus. Osama Bin Laden’s rants echoed loudly and clearly with Qutb’s fanatical views.
President Obama urged the nations represented in the conference (mostly the Muslim ones, although he did not say so explicitly) to address the economic and political grievances in their societies and expand the space for human rights and empowerment. These are intrinsically positive demands, although poverty, as he himself admitted does not explain why some people are drawn to terror and violence, or why most terrorist leaders and ideologues happen to be educated and well to do, and operate in advanced and democratic societies, as the history of terrorism in the West since the French Revolution shows. But the President did touch on an important issue that is at the core of the propaganda of Al Qaeda and ISIS against the West.
The Victimhood Narrative
The President said that Muslim scholars and clerics have a “responsibility to push back not just on twisted interpretations of Islam, but also on the lie that we are somehow engaged in a clash of civilizations; that America and the West are somehow at war with Islam or seek to suppress Muslims, or that we are the cause of every ill in the Middle East.” There is no denying that the “West” bears some responsibility for the sorry state of affairs in the Arab world (The legacy of colonialism, military interventions, support for autocratic regimes, and not enough opposition to Israel’s denial of Palestinian rights) there is also no denying that a “victimhood” narrative has been developed over the years and it has been peddled by many Arab scholars, public figures and commentators, be they Islamists or Arab nationalists, claiming that outsiders are in the main, responsible for the miserable conditions in most Arab states and not the Arabs themselves.
At times Arab autocrats, who were supported by the U.S. - such as former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak - encouraged their media to demonize the West, particularly America and Israel (sometimes in ugly anti-Semitic tones) and blame them for almost all the ills that the rulers are responsible for. Wild conspiracy theories are employed to interpret complex and not so complex issues and developments such as the U.S or Israel are behind ISIS, or the 9/11 terror attacks, America wants to divide Iraq or even Egypt, or the West exploits Arab oil.
In recent years the Islamists have waged this propaganda campaign with renewed vigor using the incredible proliferation of the Arabic speaking satellite television channels (owned by Arabs and non-Arabs) and the social media. Yes, it is true that the terrorists are small numerically, but let’s remember that great events and revolutions, political movements AND terrorist groups were led by numerically small minorities, highly motivated and determined “vanguards,” and yes they have changed history, and not necessarily for the better. There is a minority of radical fanatical Islamist Jihadists, aided by many “useful idiots” in the academic world and media, that enjoys the “soft support” of a significant number of people in a number of Arab and Muslim countries for the Islamists dark views of their own societies, and their animus against the West, particularly the United States.
Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya.