Islamic State militants pass a checkpoint bearing the group’s trademark black flag in the village of Maryam Begg in Kirkuk, 290 kilometers (180 miles) north of Baghdad, Iraq / AP
Constitutional religious clause prevents Obama administration from countering Islamic State ideology
By Bill Gertz:
The Obama administration is failing to wage ideological war against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) terrorists over fears that attacking its religious philosophy will violate the constitutional divide between church and state, according to an in-depth inquiry by the Washington Free Beacon.
Instead, the task of countering what President Obama called the “warped ideology” of ISIL is being farmed out to foreign states and Muslim communities that often share some of the same goals as the groups the administration calls violent extremists. This approach allows the administration to avoid identifying links between terrorism and Islam.
“While the government has tried to counter terrorist propaganda, it cannot directly address the warped religious interpretations of groups like ISIL because of the constitutional separation of church and state,” said Quintan Wiktorowicz, a former White House counterterrorism strategist for the Obama administration.
“U.S. officials are prohibited from engaging in debates about Islam, and as a result will need to rely on partners in the Muslim world for this part of the ideological struggle,” he said in an email interview.
Is ISIL Islamic?
Obama announced last month for the first time that his new counterterrorism strategy includes programs aimed at countering ISIL’s ideology. But a review of administration efforts shows very little—if anything—is being done to defeat or destroy the terrorist group’s religious ideology in a war of ideas.
At the United Nations on Sept. 24, the president asked the world body to come up with a plan over the next year designed to counter ISIL and al Qaeda’s ideology. He said ending religious wars through an ideological campaign in the Middle East will be “generational” and led by those who live in the region. No external power, the president insisted, can change “hearts and minds,” and as a result the United States would support others in the unspecified program of “counter extremist ideology.”
The administration’s so-called soft power approach to countering Islamist terrorism also appeared to have difficulty with clearly defining the religious doctrine behind the ideology of the resurgent al Qaeda offshoot now rampaging its way across Iraq and Syria.
Obama stated in a speech on Sept. 10 that ISIL is “not Islamic” despite the group’s use of a fundamental Islamic precept of jihad, or holy war, in expanding its reach and imposing anti-democratic, hardline Islamic sharia law in areas it now controls.
Analysts and statements by the president and other administration spokesmen also indicate the administration may not clearly understand ISIL ideology, a required first step in developing a counter to it.
Sebastian Gorka, a counterterrorism specialist, said the major problem for the administration in countering ISIL ideology is that most senior officials hold “post-modern” and “secular” views.
“As a result, they have almost no ability to understand the drivers of violent terrorists which are religious,” said Gorka, the Horner chairman of military theory at the Marine Corps University.
“When you don’t take religion seriously, it’s almost impossible for you to comprehend the philosophy of a suicide bomber, or someone who cuts off the heads of people in the name of jihad,” Gorka said.
Senior State Department officials have expressed the view that ideology plays no role in Islamist terror and is spawned instead by “local grievances” such as poverty or other economic and social privation, Gorka said. “That is utterly fallacious. If that were true, half of India would be terrorists,” he said.
The latest issue of the ISIL English-language magazine Dabiq reveals some of the group’s ideology, using references to Islamic practices of jihad and sharia law. “The Islamic State has long maintained an initiative that sees it waging jihad alongside a dawah [proselytizing campaign] that actively tends to the needs of its people,” the magazine said, adding that the group “fights to defend the Muslims, liberate their lands, and bring an end to tawaghit [the evil corrupt system].”
The magazine also sought to legitimize its mass executions, beheadings, and other atrocities as religiously justified responses to all opponents who refuse to submit to its ideology.
The president stated in his Sept. 10 speech announcing the anti-ISIL strategy that the group is “not Islamic” because it kills Muslims and innocents, something he asserted no religion condones, and a claim disputed by many experts on Islam.
“I’ve studied Islam and I did not find a very peaceful religion,” said a current senior U.S. counterterrorism specialist who disagrees with the administration’s approach of not directly addressing the Islamic nature of terrorism in counter-ideology efforts.
Wictorowicz, the former counterterrorism strategist, defended the State Department approach. “Having spoken to them at length about this, their position is that Islam, as a religion, is not the issue,” he said. “It is particular interpretations of Islam that are, in part, driving support for violence.”
Not fighting a war of ideas
The Obama administration, under pressure from domestic Muslim advocacy organizations, has adopted a politically correct approach toward Islam and terrorism that has resulted in removing mentions of Islam from its current policies and programs. Instead, counterterrorism programs and policies are carried out under the less-specific rubric of “countering violent extremism” (CVE).
Discussing Islam also has been placed off limits in many government and intelligence community counterterrorism programs as a result of pressure groups and Muslim advisers who insist such topics would violate constitutional separation of church and state issues.
That pressure has inhibited the U.S. government from addressing Islamist ideology in a significant way, critics say. Instead, the government has been forced to indirectly counter claims by terrorists, such as the false notion that the United States and the West are at war with Islam. It used public diplomacy programs and global “messaging” campaigns whose effectiveness has been questionable, to try and counter such claims.
James Glassman, former undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, said “absolutely,” that the administration is hampered by concerns over First Amendment constitutional religious issues from conducting aggressive counter-ideology efforts against groups such as al Qaeda and ISIL.
“There is reticence, especially at State, to criticize a noxious political ideology based on a religion,” said Glassman, now with the American Enterprise Institute.
Glassman said from the start, Obama has played down the war of ideas in the struggle against terrorism.
During the transition from the Bush to Obama administration, “I was told by the Obama operatives assigned to State that the term ‘war of ideas’ was not to be used,” Glassman said.
“The war of ideas had been my focus at State, but the administration had no interest in continuing the work we were doing,” he said. “Ideology provides the environment and the justification for the activities of al Qaeda and ISIL. It must be dealt with—just as we dealt with communism from 1945 to 1990. It’s a long battle.”
“The way around the problem is leadership,” Glassman said. “The president needs to make clear—as President Bush did immediately after 9/11—that the terrorists have constructed a phony ideology and that they are trying to take over an entire religion.”
Obama appears to be in the early stages of doing that “but it is very late in the game and he needs to devote resources, not just words, to the war of ideas,” Glassman said.
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