by Daniel Pipes
Middle East Quarterly
Note to the reader: This is the first article in a three-part survey of “Denying Islam’s Role in Terror.” The other two parts, by Teri Blumenfeld and David Rusin, look at the specific phenomenon of denial in the FBI and the U.S. military, respectively.
Cover of “Protecting the Force: Lessons from Fort Hood”.
Over three years after Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan’s massacre at Ft. Hood, Texas, in November 2009, the classification of his crime remains in dispute. In its wisdom, the Department of Defense, supported by law enforcement, politicians, journalists, and academics, deems the killing of thirteen and wounding of forty-three to be “workplace violence.” For example, the 86-page study on preventing a repeat episode, Protecting the Force: Lessons from Fort Hood, mentions “workplace violence” sixteen times.
In contrast, members of congress ridiculed the “workplace violence” characterization and a coalition of 160 victims and family members recently released a video, “The Truth About Fort Hood,” criticizing the administration. On the third anniversary of the massacre, 148 victims and family members sued the U.S. government for avoiding legal and financial responsibility by not acknowledging the incident as terrorism. Indeed, were the subject not morbid, one could be amused by the disagreement over what exactly caused the major to erupt. Speculations included “racism” against him, “harassment he had received as a Muslim,” his “sense of not belonging,” “mental problems,” “emotional problems,” “an inordinate amount of stress,” the “worst nightmare” of his being deployed to Afghanistan, or something fancifully called “pre-traumatic stress disorder.” One newspaper headline, “Mindset of Rogue Major a Mystery,” sums up this bogus state of confusion.
The military leadership willfully ignores what stares them in the face, namely Hasan’s clear and evident Islamist inspiration; Protecting the Force mentions “Muslim” and “jihad” not a single time, and “Islam” only once, in a footnote. The massacre officially still remains unconnected to terrorism or Islam.
This example fits in a larger pattern: The establishment denies that Islamism—a form of Islam that seeks to make Muslims dominant through an extreme, totalistic, and rigid application of Islamic law, the Shari’a—represents the leading global cause of terrorism when it so clearly does. Islamism reverts to medieval norms in its aspiration to create a caliphate that rules humanity. “Islam is the solution” summarizes its doctrine. Islam’s public law can be summarized as elevating Muslim over non-Muslim, male over female, and endorsing the use of force to spread Muslim rule. In recent decades, Islamists (the adherents of this vision of Islam) have established an unparalleled record of terrorism. To cite one tabulation: TheReligionOfPeace.com counts 20,000 assaults in the name of Islam since 9/11, or about five a day. In the West, terrorist acts inspired by motives other than Islam hardly register.
It is important to document and explain this denial and explore its implications. The examples come predominantly from the United States, though they could come from virtually any Western country—except Israel.
The government, press, and academy routinely deny that Islamist motives play a role in two ways, specific and general. Specific acts of violence perpetrated by Muslims lead the authorities publicly, willfully, and defiantly to close their eyes to Islamist motivations and goals. Instead, they point to a range of trivial, one-time, and individualistic motives, often casting the perpetrator as victim. Examples from the years before and after 9/11 include:
This pattern of denial is all the more striking because it concerns distinctly Islamic forms of violence such as suicide operations, beheadings, honor killings and the disfiguring of women’s faces. For example, when it comes to honor killings, Phyllis Chesler has established that this phenomenon differs from domestic violence and, in Western countries, is almost always perpetrated by Muslims. Such proofs, however, do not convince the establishment, which tends to filter Islam out of the equation.
The generalized threat inspires more denial. Politicians and others avoid mention of Islam, Islamism, Muslims, Islamists, mujahideen, or jihadists. Instead, they blame evildoers, militants, radical extremists, terrorists, and al-Qaeda. Just one day after 9/11, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell set the tone by asserting that the just-committed atrocities “should not be seen as something done by Arabs or Islamics; it is something that was done by terrorists.”
Another tactic is to obscure Islamist realities under the fog of verbiage. George W. Bush referred once to “the great struggle against extremism that is now playing out across the broader Middle East” and another time to “the struggle against ideological extremists who do not believe in free societies and who happen to use terror as a weapon to try to shake the conscience of the free world.” He went so far as to dismiss any Islamic element by asserting that “Islam is a great religion that preaches peace.”
In like spirit, Barack Obamaobserved that “it is very important for us to recognize that we have a battle or a war against some terrorist organizations, but that those organizations aren’t representative of a broader Arab community, Muslim community.” Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder, engaged in the following exchange with Lamar Smith (Rep., Texas) during congressional testimony in May 2010, repeatedly resisting a connection between Islamist motives and a spate of terrorist attacks:
Smith: In the case of all three [terrorist] attempts in the last year, … one of which was successful, those individuals have had ties to radical Islam. Do you feel that these individuals might have been incited to take the actions that they did because of radical Islam?
Holder: Because of?
Smith: Radical Islam.
Holder: There are a variety of reasons why I think people have taken these actions. It’s one, I think you have to look at each individual case. I mean, we are in the process now of talking to Mr. [Feisal] Shahzad to try to understand what it is that drove him to take the action.
Smith: Yes, but radical Islam could have been one of the reasons?
Holder: There are a variety of reasons why people…
Smith: But was radical Islam one of them?
Holder: There are a variety of reasons why people do things. Some of them are potentially religious…
And on and on Holder persisted, until Smith eventually gave up. And this was not exceptional: An almost identical denial took place in December 2011 by a senior official from the Department of Defense.
Or one can simply ignore the Islamist element; a study issued by the Department of Homeland Security,Evolution of the Terrorist Threat to the United States, mentions Islam just one time. In September 2010, Obama spoke at the United Nations and, using a passive construction, avoided all mention of Islam in reference to 9/11: “Nine years ago, the destruction of the World Trade Center signaled a threat that respected no boundary of dignity or decency.” About the same time, Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security, stated that the profiles of Americans engaged in terrorism indicate that “there is no ‘typical’ profile of a homegrown terrorist.”
Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, rightly condemns this mentality as “two plus two must equal something other than four.”
Mr. Pipes (www.DanielPipes.org), president of the Middle East Forum, initially delivered this paper at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya, Israel.