One of the bizarre features of today's academic life in the West is the treatment of young adult college students as children. And not just any children, but fragile, delicate creatures who are easily upset by disconcerting ideas or words. The disparaging word "snowflake," originally taken from a Chuck Palahniuk novel, which is used to describe these sensitive people has itself now quickly become an outworn cliché.
This exaggerated care for the exquisite feelings of others has now even bled into the field of counterterrorism among a few experts, and among rather more non-expert journalists and pundits positing variations on the theme of "Trump is helping ISIS" or "Trump's policies will help ISIS's recruitment." Some of those making such an argument are important scholars worthy of respect. But used permissively by others with a political agenda, it actually demeans Muslims, as if they are easily swayed yet dangerous children susceptible to becoming terrorists because of immigration policy or harsh words that supposedly hurt their feelings.
Lacking in much of this coverage is the realization that the process of actual terrorist mobilization is a rather complex one. Any honest person with even a superficial exposure to the research would caveat any sort of sweeping charge with a bit of humility. After all, the great rise of the Islamic State itself and its explosive growth in 2013-2015 occurred with a Democrat in the White House and a Socialist in the Elysee Palace. And even earlier, the announcement of an organization called Al-Qaeda, and its first spectacular acts of mayhem, preceded Guantanamo or the 2003 invasion of Iraq or the rise of right-wing populism in the West. Al-Qaeda meticulously planned 9/11 in the era of President Bill Clinton – which should give us pause about glib claims of causality.
The charges that candidate Trump was a "recruiting sergeant for terrorists" and that his rhetoric was "giving aid and comfort to our adversaries" were made by the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2016. Once inaugurated in January 2017, the new administration faced a flurry of such charges when on January 27 it announced a temporary travel ban affecting seven Muslim majority countries. The step seemed far more modest than candidate Trump's December 2015 call, following the San Bernardino terrorist attack, for a much broader ban, but still provoked a furor.
One respected New York Times correspondent reported that ISIS had called the measure "a blessed ban" (based on something that ISIS members in West Mosul supposedly told a NYT fixer who then told the American reporter). Despite the indirect nature of the claim, the reporter described it as "ISIS members and supporters jumping up and down with glee at the ban." Others relied on online quips from ISIS supporters. Former Obama administration officials seized upon the phrase with delight, as if it was concrete confirmation of their position and as if whatever ISIS says to Westerners or in its propaganda should be treated as gospel.
After some reversals in court, the Trump administration launched a revised temporary travel ban on March 6, 2017, featuring six countries (Iraq was removed from the list). The U.S. does not have a resident embassy in five of the six listed countries, and the sixth is still listed as a State Sponsor of Terrorism. This may trigger another round of "he's doing what ISIS wants."
A similar round of recriminations and punditry has surrounded the new administration's use of the term "radical Islamic terrorism," with articles quoting individuals as varied as Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif opining negatively on the matter. It seems strange to quote authoritarian figures – especially these three – as having some sort of insight on the use of such a term. President Erdogan recently compared the government of that "leader of the free world" Angela Merkel to Nazi Germany.
That three-word phrase can mean very little or much, depending on how it is ultimately expressed and translated into policy. If it is part of a smart and subtle effort to challenge the ideological underpinnings of Salafi-jihadism, then it is a good thing and long overdue.
Often missing in the criticism of using the term "radical Islamic terrorism" is that NOT using it can be problematic. In the Obama administration, the avoidance of it was aimed not only at not offending, but also at avoiding the hard discussion and policy formulation required to work behind the scenes to counter a powerful and durable ideological challenge.
The new American administration could very well take positions that will create an environment conducive to the further growth of Salafi-jihadi organizations, but it has not done so yet. And the constant near hysteria of partisan critics makes reasoned discussion more difficult than it should be.
It should be obvious that the principle motivation of groups like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State is based on a specific view they have of the world and of Islam, and that this view is shared by a substantial minority in Muslim countries. A 2015 Pew poll found small percentages of Muslims who have a positive view of the Islamic State, yet those small percentages still amounted to millions of people. The percentages that claimed to have "no view," that is, not negative, about ISIS were often larger. Interestingly enough, a more recent Pew poll, from February 2017, found that negative Western views of Muslims are matched by negative Muslim views of Westerners.
In my regular monitoring of jihadi propaganda, especially that of ISIS, over the past five years two basic themes drive their views of the Other and have remained consistent in their messaging no matter who is in office in the United States or anywhere else in the "infidel" world:
First, Salafi-jihadi groups see the Other as hostile because they are not Muslims, or, in the case of Muslim governments and their supporters, not Muslim enough or the wrong sort of Muslim. Using chapter and verse about their enemies, about the Kufar (infidels) or Mushrikeen (polytheists) or Murtadeen (apostates), jihadis constantly underscore the conflation of religion and revolutionary goals, which is an essential part of their worldview and the propaganda approach that they take.
Secondly, these groups focus extensively on the foreign policy of their adversaries, in what they do or do not do in the Muslim world, especially in the Middle East. That is why at the height of its recruitment success, the Islamic State focused on the carnage in Syria and on the West's complicity in it to mobilize thousands to either migrate to the region or to try to commit acts of violence in the West. The focus on Syria was ultimately subsumed into the rise of the ISIS Caliphate as the key element in ISIS propaganda starting in 2014.
The fact that the United States under Obama was seemingly complicit in the Syrian slaughter while cozying up to Iran was a major, lasting gift for ISIS and similar groups, and explains why many Arab regimes have openly welcomed the Trump administration and are still saying positive things about it. The same is even true to a certain extent with Erdogan's Turkey. For them, Trump's promise is that he is not Obama.
Obama's actual policies helped the growth of terrorism – both in the rise of ISIS and in the growing ambitions of the Islamic Republic of Iran – in profound ways that Trump has not. Maybe he will surpass his predecessor, but so far there seems to be grotesque exaggeration by his critics, motivated by partisan ire.
Jihadi groups will indeed throw out all sorts of messages about all sorts of things to see what sticks. You can find all sorts of comments, and they are nothing if not prolific. ISIS recently has messaged about the killing of Rohingya Muslims by Burmese Buddhists. A February 2017 ISIS video focusing on Uighurs used images of Obama with President Xi Jinping. Controversial right-wing politicians outside of government, like the Le Pens or Geert Wilders, never appear in terrorist videos, yet Pope Francis, that gentle pontiff who downplayed any religiously based terrorism, is frequently featured because his image is an essential part of the toxic jihadi narrative about the infidel Other.
A temporary visa ban alone means very little in a long-term "narrative fight" against ISIS. The same is true about the term "radical Islamic terrorism." They are most certainly not "Islam's own version of Pearl Harbor" as one anti-Trump obsessive put it.
The challenge is more about an overall approach and concrete policies on the ground rather than one or two items plucked by progressives and malcontents to beat Trump with. An administration that finds some relief for the suffering Syrian people or confronts the regime in Tehran, on the other hand, could improve America's battered image in the Middle East. A better sort of governance in Raqqa and Mosul could also have lasting helpful effects.
But even such, in my view, positive and urgently needed steps are only one part of a long, twilight conflict which is ultimately less about us – our good and "bad" deeds – and more about a struggle for supremacy within and about the Muslim world. A foreign policy approach with this in mind at least treats Muslims as adults with real interests, rather than easily tricked children distracted by the latest shiny bauble.
*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice-President of MEMRI.
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