It was the key national-security debate of the 2016 election.
Donald Trump won the election, in no small part, because he appeared to be on the right side of it.
Appeared is used advisedly: Trump was at least in the general vicinity of the bull’s-eye; his opponent wouldn’t even acknowledge the target existed — except in the most grudging of ways, and only because Trump had forced the issue.
The question boiled down to this: Are you willing to name the enemy?
After a quarter-century of willful blindness, it was at least a start. We should note, moreover, that it’s a start we owe to the president-elect.
Washington, meaning both parties, had erected such barriers to a rational public discussion of our enemies that breaking through took Trump’s outsized persona, in all its abrasive turns and its excesses.
Comparative anonymities (looking down at my shoes, now) could try terrorism cases and fill shelves with books and pamphlets and columns on the ideology behind the jihad from now until the end of time. But no matter how many terrorist attacks Americans endured, the public examination of the enemy was not going to happen unless a credible candidate for the world’s most important job dramatically shifted the parameters of acceptable discourse.
Trump forced the issue into the light of day. And once he did — voilà! — what was yesterday’s “Islamophobia” became today’s conventional wisdom. In reality, it was never either of these things.
The former is an enemy-crafted smear (a wildly successful one) to scare off examination of the enemy; the latter is frequently wrong.
What we Cassandras have really been trying to highlight is a simple fact, as patent as it was unremarkable from the time of Sun Tsu until the 1993 World Trade Center bombing:
To defeat the enemy, you must know the enemy — who he is, what motivates him, what he is trying to achieve. Being willing to name the enemy is a start.
But it is just a start — the beginning, not the end, of understanding.
In his major campaign speech on the subject, Trump asserted that the enemy is “radical Islamic terrorism.” Terrorism, surely, is the business end of the spear, but “radical Islamic terrorism” is an incomplete portrait. Dangerously incomplete?
That depends on whether the term
(a) is Trump’s shorthand for a threat he realizes is significantly broader than terrorism, or
(b) reflects his actual — and thus insufficient — grasp of the challenge.
The speech provided reasons for hope.
For one thing, Trump compared “radical Islamic terrorism” to the 20th-century challenges of fascism, Nazism, and Communism.
These were ideological enemies. The capacity to project force was by no means the totality of the threat each represented — which is why it is so foolish to be dismissive of today’s enemy just because jihadist networks cannot compare militarily to Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union.
Furthermore, toward the end of his speech, Trump used “radical Islamic terrorism” interchangeably with “radical Islam.”
Ending the spread of radical Islam, he said, must be our objective. He even referred to it as an “ideology” — though he called it an “ideology of death,” which misses the point; it is an ideology of conquest.
Trump intimated some understanding of this, too. He vowed to “speak out against the oppression of women, gays, and people of different faith [i.e., non-Muslims].” He promised, in addition, to work with “all moderate Muslim reformers in the Middle East.”
The objects of radical Islamic oppression are targeted because of ideological tenets that call for dominion by sharia, Islam’s ancient totalitarian law.
It is those tenets that reformers are trying to reform.
In sum, Trump showed signs of awareness that there are more than bombs, hijacked planes, weaponized trucks, and jihadist gunmen to confront. Still, his focus was terrorists — specifically ISIS, which he claimed was created by Obama-Clinton policy.
While he clearly knows there is more to the threat than ISIS, he explicitly added only al-Qaeda and “Iran-backed Hamas and Hezbollah.” To the contrary, ISIS is a breakaway faction of al-Qaeda that existed before Barack Obama came to power.
Hamas, though certainly supported by Shiite Iran, is a Sunni terrorist organization spawned by the Muslim Brotherhood.
All of the groups Trump listed, and the regimes that sponsor them, were created by the ideology.
While I’ll go with “radical Islam,” the ideology is more accurately described as “sharia supremacism” — alas, in the parts of the world Trump was talking about, “radical Islam” is not so radical. It is the ideology that creates jihadist groups and regimes, not American policy, no matter how clueless and counterproductive our policy has been at times.
If ISIS and al-Qaeda disappeared tomorrow, other jihadist networks would take their places. It will be that way until sharia supremacism is discredited and marginalized.
That is a tall order, not to be underestimated.
The audience in which the ideology must be discredited is not Western; it does not share our value system — our sense of what is credible and meritorious. Plus, the sharia that our enemies strive to implement (i.e., “jihad in Allah’s way”) is undeniably rooted in Islamic scripture. It will not be easy — it may not be possible — to discredit a literalist construction of Islam that has been backed by revered scholars for 14 centuries.
Part Two drew on Obama’s bottomless supply of straw men: “Using the phrase ‘radical Islam,’” he lectured, will not make the terrorist threat “go away” — as if anyone had claimed it would.
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