Anti-terror policy and the Muslim black box

obama oval office

Last month, at a seminar in Washington DC, I gained access to a large body of raw data pertaining to global terrorism.  Although the chatter around me was mostly the professional jargon of the terror industry, the charts, I thought, told a sort of geopolitical horror story that looked certain to engulf the American public at large.  This is what I wrote on November 24:

Right now the data is saying that a quarter of the world is exploding in violence, while a quarter is blessed with relative peace – and the violent portion profoundly hates and wishes to destroy the peaceful one.  I’m not in the prophecy racket, but unless the trends lines drastically improve, the probability seems very high that there will be more terror attacks and more innocents killed, not just in France or Turkey or Lebanon, but here in the US.

Scarcely a week later, two heavily armed Islamist attackers, husband and wife, murdered 14 innocent persons and wounded 21 in the San Bernardino Inland Regional Center, before being shot to death themselves by the local police.

It was the deadliest terror atrocity in the US since 9/11, but it should not have come as a surprise.  The data had screamed the possibility out loud.  It wasn’t subtle.  The experts at the seminar acknowledged that nothing our government had done in this conflict had worked very well.  We were relying on an anti-terror bureaucracy – CIA, FBI, TSA, the various watchlists – and hoping for luck.  Bureaucracy, as always, caught some and missed some.  On December 2, in San Bernardino, we ran out of luck.

The reaction featured remarkable bits of media and political theater.  The New York Times produced a front-page editorial that positively shrieked with rage – aimed, curiously enough, not at the perpetrators but at “the elected leaders whose job is to keep us safe but who place a higher premium on the money and political power of an industry dedicated to profiting from the unfettered spread of ever more powerful firearms.”  In purple prose and apocalyptic tones, the NYT demanded an end to America’s “gun epidemic.”  This was a comfortable political hobby-horse, but marginal, if not irrelevant, to the bloody incident that had inspired the editorial.

Five days after the massacre in San Bernardino, President Obama addressed the nation from the Oval Office – only the third time in his tenure that he has done so.  He had no fresh measures to announce, little new to say.  The speech was in the nature of a defensive operation, a rambling justification of the administration’s “strong and smart” approach to the Islamic State and terrorism.  The president, like the NYT, called for gun control measures at home, but pledged to avoid “a long and costly war in Iraq or Syria.”  He also worried that we might “turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam.”

President Obama’s preferred political posture is that of the outsider condemning the corruption of the system:  on the question of terrorism, he sounded uncertain how much of the problem lay with the terrorists, and how much with us.


A bizarre claim made by the NYT editorial was that, in the commission of terror acts, “motives do not matter.”  The president clearly disagreed.  He spoke from the Oval Office as a man who was working to eliminate the motives that turn Muslims into terrorists.  The latter, as he described them, were inherently weak and marginal even in their own cultural context:  “a perverted interpretation of Islam,” “part of a cult of death” that “account for a tiny fraction of more than a billion Muslims around the world.”  Their strength and numbers depended on our mistakes, the president implied, and our chief mistakes were warmongering and insensitivity.

President Obama also allowed himself a moment of reflection, rare for him, on the links between terrorist savagery and religious belief.

If we’re to succeed in defeating terrorism, we must enlist Muslim communities as some of our strongest allies, rather than push them away through suspicion and hate.

That does not mean denying the fact than an extremist ideology has spread within some Muslim communities.  This is a real problem that Muslims must confront, without excuse.  Muslim leaders here and around the globe have to continue working with us to decisively and unequivocally reject the hateful ideology that groups like ISIL and Al Qaeda promote; to speak out not just against acts of violence, but also those interpretations of Islam that are incompatible with the values of religious tolerance, mutual respect, and human dignity.

Here, at last, is an approximation of reality.  What is for us a fight against Muslim murderers must be seen, in a global context, to be a struggle without mercy for the soul of an ancient faith, Islam.  The data leaves little room for doubt.  Eighty percent of terror fatalities in 2014 took place in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria.  Muslims are slaughtering one another at an even higher rate than they are non-Muslims.  This should offer little in the way of consolation.  The motives in both cases are the same:  a rise in bigotry and propensity to violence.

But in the great conflagration of Islam there are those who espouse recognizably Western values – not just religious tolerance and human dignity, as the president noted, but also, and more importantly, democracy and rule of law.  This is not about finding Muslim religious “moderates” to intercede for us, but about standing with people in Muslim lands who, in their politics, look to the US as a model and a friend.  Contrary to received opinion, such people exist.  Many of them are prominent and influential.  It should be the policy of the United States to promote our own interests by arming these people in their running battle against the bigots, bombers, and beheaders.

So I find myself partly in agreement with President Obama’s story regarding “the broader threat of terrorism, and how we can keep our country safe.”  The question to pursue is why so few of the policies and actions of his administration appear to be grounded in that story.


If the president were to listen to his experts, he would downplay the religious and ideological nature of the conflict, and frame it in terms of the personal pathology of those who are seduced by the Islamist message.  CIA Director John Brennan, for example, called ISIS followers “murderous and psychopathic,” and refused to utter the word “Islamic” in this context.  In a similar vein, Secretary of State Kerry affirmed that the Islamic State “has nothing to do with Islam; it has everything to do with criminality, with terror, with abuse, with psychopathism…”  This theory, if taken seriously, would lead to therapy and social adjustment instead of war.

In fact, the theory seems to be popular in part because it can’t be acted upon.  It’s a sterile academic fantasy to suppose we can conduct psychotherapy on an entire civilization.

Barack Obama, in any case, trusts his political instincts rather than his experts.  He does not exactly dissent from the clinical explanation of terrorism, but he reckons he can see deeper into the matter.  The reason lies in his background and history.  As he looks to a world wounded by sectarian violence, he discerns a pattern, familiar to an old community organizer, of oppression, rebellion, and progress.

In that world, non-Western geopolitical actors are motivated mainly by legitimate grievances.  Grievance, however, pertains to membership in a victimized group:  the pathologies involved are social, not personal.  And the group is impenetrable to analysis.  Each is a black box of victimhood, within which individuals from a shared consciousness of injustice rise angrily against their oppressors, in a struggle they are destined to win – because history, that righteous judge, is on their side.

Given the circumstances, the smart policy will assert, with great sincerity, that we are no longer among the oppressors, as we once were, and that we are eager to engage with the group, on its own terms, to mutual advantage.  President Obama believes his personal history qualifies him uniquely to bring about this reorientation.  The one remaining challenge is to identify who speaks for that impenetrable black box, the group.  Since the defining feature is victimization, the answer must be that those who are most enraged, irreconcilable, and extreme represent the group’s authentic voice.  They must be flattered and mollified.  Pro-American types, on the other hand, are something like cultural traitors.  To demonstrate our sincerity, we will keep them at arm’s length.

Under the weight of this conceptual machinery, it becomes virtually impossible to identify friend from foe.


Back on June 4, 2008, in a highly publicized outreach effort, President Obama spoke to Muslims from Al Azhar University in Cairo.  The Middle East has changed radically since that moment, but not the president’s thinking.  The arguments he made in Cairo he still repeats today.

In Cairo, the president treated a billion Muslims as a single entity:  a black box.  The problem concerned US relations with “Muslims around the world.”  The solution was a “new beginning” based on the principle that “American and Islam are not incompatible.”  Grievances were acknowledged:  a “colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims,” a Cold War in which the “aspirations” of “Muslim-majority countries” were “disregarded,” the “daily humiliations” suffered by Palestinians.  Such grievances provided grist for “violent extremists,” who were bad but non-denominational.  They must be “confronted.” However, “Islam is not part of the problem in combating violent extremists – it is an important part of promoting peace.”

The president has faithfully pursued the policy implications of his worldview.  In Egypt, for example, his administration quietly stood by while US ally Hosni Mubarak circled the drain, and has remained cool toward the authoritarian government of Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi – a man who has called for a “religious revolution” within Islam.  In between, however, the administration embraced with some ardor the election to power of Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The street protesters who, in July 2013, engineered Morsi’s overthrow, turned vocally against Barack Obama as well.  To this day, secular political activists in Egypt take it for granted that the Muslim Brothers are the chosen instruments of American policy in their country.

obama morsi protest

Egypt: Anti-Morsi protest (2013)

That may seem strange enough.  Stranger still:  they could be right.  The Brotherhood, modern in style and militant in religion, fits the president’s preconceptions of an authentic Muslim intermediary.  Evidence suggests that the administration placed a strong bet on engagement with it during the chaotic days following the “Arab Spring” – not only in Egypt but in Libya and elsewhere in the Arab Middle East.

If true, this would follow a familiar pattern.  In Turkey, our government has consistently favored the ruling Islamist party, the AKP, over secular forces in the country.  In Iran, we refused to support by word or deed the pro-democracy Green Revolution, but flattered and have sought to deal with the Islamic Republic of the ayatollahs.  President Obama personally has treated the Saudi royals with the kind of elaborate courtesy he has denied to leaders of our strongest ally in the region, Israel.

We should be clear about the consequences of such choices.  The Muslim Brotherhood is the prime ideological incubator of Islamist terror.  Iran under the ayatollahs is the most promiscuous sponsor of terrorist organizations of any nation-state.  The brand of Islam practiced by the Saudis formed the model for that of the Islamic State.  There is no tolerance to be found here, no respect for human dignity, no love for democracy or rule of law.  In the world-historical conflict that is now rending apart an ancient religion – and, by a sort of osmosis, spilling over our borders and killing innocent Americans – these forces represent the enemy.

So I circle back to the data showing an astounding increase in terror fatalities worldwide.  Speaking from the Oval Office, with this grim reality foremost on his mind, President Obama made the case for a strategy of alliance with liberal Muslims against Islamist “thugs and killers.”  But that has not been the policy of his administration.  He has instead presided over an effort to embrace those who glorify and subsidize the killers.

It sounds perverse, but is an effect of conceptual blindness.  Barack Obama perceives the world in terms of such opaque human categories, activated by such juvenile emotions, that he ends up trampling over those who would be his friends while rushing into the arms of those who wish him harm, all the while imagining that he has done just the opposite.  His conceptual delusions form the background to the chaos now swallowing the Middle East.  That chaos begat and enabled the current catastrophic rise in deadly terrorism.

If Islamist zealots triumph in the struggle to define their religion, today’s terror incidents will be remembered as the earliest trickle in a global Niagara of bloodshed.  That must not happen.  The United States, strongest power in the world, can’t escape a major part in not allowing it to happen.  But the conflict will not turn in our favor unless the president or his successor break open the Muslim black box, and, under the harsh light of grown-up analysis, discover our true allies.

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2 Responses to Anti-terror policy and the Muslim black box

  1. Larry Levis says:

    Martin, I think you nailed it. We need to recognize what real friends and allies look and feel like. Not some counter-intuitive crap.
    We need to first admit that we’re in thrall to our gods of democracy, rule of law, individual rights, capitalism, etc.
    That our gods aren’t necessarily on higher moral ground, but that in any case, they’re our gods, it’s our ground, we’ve invested enormously in it, and finally now, after 500 years of this path yielding as much harm as good, this Pantheon is about to bear tremendous fruit. The Western Way (neither inevitable nor inherently correct) must not be stopped on the cusp of real greatness.
    Obama and his ilk are fixated on the grievances of those people and systems harmed during the Rise of the West. Classic survivor’s guilt.
    You’re so perceptive about his victim-worshipper proclivities.
    Let’s get back to schoolyard simplicity. Our side v theirs. And we’re 98 to their 2. Why aren’t we obliterating those 2 bums?
    Two irreconcilable beliefs:
    – Truth is on our side
    – we’re guilty
    Our 2 adversaries only believe Truth is on their side.
    So the first order of business is to remove moral righteousness from our self-assessment. Once we can do that our guilt will fade away – not our desire to win, improve, and do less harm – and we’ll easily differentiate friend from foe.

    Easier said than done. We Sapiens are a self-justifying animal.

  2. insomeworld says:

    Seems correct, assuming 1. we won’t give up influence+power over mideast [seems O was willing to] and 2. we care more about deaths from terror attacks on our civilians than our soldiers’ deaths on the battlefield [drones!]

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