Trump’s transition is taking shape and it doesn’t look like any political bridges will be built, at least not through who he appoints in his administration. Matt Apuzzo and Mark Landler have an interesting article in the NYT discussing the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama as attorney general, Representative Mike Pompeo of Kansas as C.I.A. director and Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn as national security adviser.
These three don’t mince words when discussing Islam and terrorism. Some of the quotes and positions attributed to these three are outright ridiculous.
General Flynn similarly favors the immigration ban and has expressed support for the idea of forcing Muslims in the United States to register with the government. He once erroneously wrote on Twitter that Shariah, or Islamic law, was in danger of taking over the country.
Mr. Pompeo has said Muslim leaders contribute to the threat of terrorism by refusing to repudiate it, although Islamic leaders and advocacy groups have done so repeatedly, and often. “Silence has made these Islamic leaders across America potentially complicit in these acts and, more importantly still, in those that may well follow,” Mr. Pompeo said in 2013.
From reading the article, it’s clear that all three nominees share the idea that there is a special relationship between Islam and terrorism. As William McCants, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution states, “The thinking here is that…religion is the key factor that influences everything else.”
This is what is bothersome about these appointments. I’m no apologist for Islam. There is a good amount of evidence to support the argument that Islam has a unique relationship with terrorism. Most, if not all, recent large-scale terrorist attacks have been done in the name of Islam. I don’t know of any modern Christian equivalent to 9/11 and I’ve never seen a headline about a Jew beheading a journalist in the name of Judaism. And it is not just those who commit terrorism but the sympathetic outlook of many Muslims. You can find plenty of similar survey data but here are 2010 results on Muslim views of Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden. Indonesia, usually offered as an example of the compatibility of Islam and modern governance, had 25 percent of surveyed Muslims express confidence in Bin Laden.
My take on how to approach the relationship between Islam and the terrorism is to remind myself that (1) Muslim attitude can be differentiated by area and (2) the issue of Islam and terrorism is relatively new. Two antidotes generally shape my thinking.
Regarding the first point, the Muslim community in the United States is, on average, well adjusted. There have been several spectacular attacks like San Berdino and Orlando, but overall Muslims living in the United States are fairly well assimilated. In terms of terrorism, Muslims have been responsible for approximately 6 percent of all terrorist attacks carried out in the United States from 1980 to 2005.
See the data provided in Omar Alnatour’s Huffington Post article here, which states “According to the FBI, 94% of terrorist attacks carried out in the United States from 1980 to 2005 have been by non-Muslims.” This is misleading considering in 2015 there are only 3.3 million Muslims of all ages living in the United States and represents 1 percent of the overall population. This is the largest it has ever been so it seems that Muslims do cause a disproportionate amount of terrorism compared to other groups. But there is comforting data of American Muslim views towards terrorism. Less than 8 percent of American Muslims consider suicide bombings sometimes or often justified for defending the religion. That number is larger than we would like but it is not benchmarked and I don’t expect it to be significantly different from a similar style question posed to American Christians.
The other perspective I keep in mind is a long view of history. Islam hasn’t always been linked with terrorism or has been illiberal. Although not perfect, Islam has been relatively tolerant towards other faiths, most notably Judaism. Radical Islam didn’t really emerge until the work of Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), an Egyptian cleric who made his name by discrediting Arab leadership advocated a holy war against the post colonial regimes. But we didn’t see any serious amounts of Islamic terrorism until the 1970’s, with the Al Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and this was a response to the failed state building process of postcolonial Arabia and the success of Israel.
My point is that Islam is a little over 1,600 years old but Islamic terrorism in any serious form is only 40 years old. If the problem was “Islam” why don’t we have 1,600 years of terrorism? It seems to me that the religion didn’t change but the culture in which it is interpreted and practiced has. Like all major religious texts, the Koran has a large amount of ambiguous and culturally backwards passages that lend themselves to explanation. Just as you can find a passage advocating (2:244) you can also find a passage for tolerance (2:256).
How do we persuade Muslims to focus on the latter and not the former? Probably do the opposite of what Trump and his new cabinet members want to do. What motivates Islamic terrorism is an underlying sense of alienation in a context of economic, cultural, and political stagnation. Islamic terrorism is an attempt of asserting one’s identity as a response to the failure of Islam to offer any viable alternative to the modernity (i.e. the west). I’ll write more on this in a later essay, but for now read Bernard’s Lewis’s piece here.
So the issue is not only do we have someone who claimed Islam is cancer as a future National Security advisor, he is part of an administration which ran on a platform of 1) extreme vetting (or a ban, not sure what he wants at this point), 2) bring back waterboarding, 3) retaliating against terrorist by bombing their families, 4) frame the issue of terrorism as Islamic terrorism. If you agree that the root of Islamic terrorism is estrangement from the modernity, you will also agree that these policies and appointments only exacerbate the issue. The shape that Trumps administration is taking shape suggest that his administration will further dehumanize the wider Muslim community and to reframe the debate as one between the West versus Muslim instead of civilized versus uncivilized.