President Obama used the bully pulpit on Sunday night in a way which he has not done very often over the past seven years. Speaking from the Oval Office the President sought to reassure the American people that despite the terrorist tragedy in California, America was succeeding in its global effort to destroy ISIS. His overall message was little more than a reiteration of the Administration’s position with one significant and important change. Recognizing clearly that the terrorist couple had embraced radical Islam and that indeed this was a clear terrorist incident, the President urged Muslim leaders and clerics to condemn the hateful attacks being perpetrated by individuals and groups in the name of Islam. It was a rally around the flag speech with little punch or dynamism plus one plaintive urging.
On the other extreme, the current leader of the Republican response team, Donald Trump, shot off an outrageous counter to how to deal with radical Islam. His notion that the U.S. should forbid Muslims from entering the country—even U.S. citizens—not only is impossible and illegal but is one step away from expelling all Muslims. Surely, even Trump understands that it is not only current Muslims that are being affected and radicalized by the preaching of dangerous Islamic clerics, but non-Muslims being seduced by the messages from these apocalyptic Imams. This suggestion fundamentally violates the basic principles upon which this country was founded.
There is further critical and dangerous observation about Trump’s behavior in this instance as well. Trump has no interest or concern to backtrack or change his opinion. As is the case with demagogues in general, even when one is wrong a demagogue responds not by correcting ones words but by doubling down on what one said. Feed the public what their appetite craves.
The President had the correct idea but he will not push the envelope hard enough because of the political costs. America needs to demand two critical responses from Muslim leaders. First, in the region, the political and religious leaders must demonstrate that they will lead the fight against ISIS and radical Muslims. They must show that they are prepared to take control of the military battle and not expect the U.S. and its Western allies to lead. If they do not, the West must destroy the major weapons caches in the region from the air and let the Muslims sort out their differences however they wish. The human tragedy is and will continue to be horrific but it is not one of our doing. Second, these same leaders and especially those Muslim leaders in the U.S. and throughout the West must monitor, control, restrict, and eliminate where possible, all inflammatory radical Islamic teachers and hatemongers. It is the responsibility of Muslims to stop the radicalization, especially of young people. Silence is acquiescence.
To date the focus on gun control on the one hand or stopping Muslims from entering the country will not stop ideas from travelling through cyberspace, etc. Government and public leaders must do their part, but terrorism and radical activity in the name of Islam will not be deterred by rhetoric, demagoguery, or prayer. To reduce terrorist actions—it cannot be eliminated—requires Muslims to accept the fact that many of their own are preaching and encouraging violence directly and indirectly. Meanwhile Americans must be vigilant, but must continue with their lives, otherwise they will have lost the fight.