Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.
President Obama used the press conference at the conclusion of the G-20 conference in Turkey to reiterate and justify U.S. policy in the war against ISIS. Although pressed repeatedly he never broke stride in reiterating the fact that he believed that U.S. strategy as he had articulated and been executing for the past few weeks against ISIS was working in degrading their military capabilities.
While Obama’s faith in his current strategy is seriously debatable, there was one discussion at the end of the conference which was extremely important and very telling at the same time. In discussing the fact that ISIS does not represent all Muslims and that it does not speak for Islam he repeated his understanding that the terrorists should not be perceived as manifesting the values and beliefs of Islam. There was a need to distinguish terrorists from the true followers of Islam.
To what extent this is true is debated by theologians and Islamic scholars. What the President clearly preferred to avoid was the fact that there are many Muslims who do believe and support violence in the name of Allah and do call for jihad. This radical form of Islam is exciting, fulfilling, seductive, and—sadly—meaningful to many Muslims, especially young men.
The President then remarked more clearly than ever the responsibility of Muslim leaders—clergy as well political—to speak out and condemn the behavior of those who carry out terrorist attacks in the name of Islam.
Now, what is also true is, is that the most vicious terrorist organizations at the moment are ones that claim to be speaking on behalf of true Muslims. And I do think that Muslims around the world — religious leaders, political leaders, ordinary people — have to ask very serious questions about how did these extremist ideologies take root, even if it’s only affecting a very small fraction of the population. It is real and it is dangerous.
The President’s problem and the flaw in his charge is that it is politically, economically, as well as diplomatically impossible for Obama to demand that the Islamic shout-out come from where the problem really has evolved. Calling, as he did, upon the leaders of Turkey, Malaysia, and Indonesia—“…countries that are majority Muslim, but have shown themselves to be tolerant and to work to be inclusive in their political process….” to address the issue of radical Islam is fine; but to have real sway the reply can come if the West can persuade Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt, and the rest of the Arabs countries in the Middle East—who have overwhelming majorities of Muslims and from whence most if not all of the terrorists originate—to speak out against radical Islam.
To this point the President did say:
And to some degree, that is something that has to come from within the Muslim community itself. And I think there have been times where there has not been enough pushback against extremism. There’s been pushback — there are some who say, well, we don’t believe in violence, but are not as willing to challenge some of the extremist thoughts or rationales for why Muslims feel oppressed. And I think those ideas have to be challenged.
This is the test for Western leaders; but also for the countries themselves and their leaders who also feel threatened by radical Islamists festering in their own lands.