But ISIS isn’t a civilization. In parts of Iraq and Syria, it’s a self-declared, though unrecognized, state. Elsewhere, it’s a network of terrorist groups linked by a common ideology. “Civilizations” are cultural groupings. In calling the Paris attack a “clash of civilizations,” Rubio evoked Samuel Huntington’s famed 1993 Foreign Affairs essay of the same name. In that essay, Huntington defined “civilization” as “the broadest level of cultural identity people have.” And he suggested that the world contains “seven or eight” major ones: “Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American and possibly African.”
The most straightforward way to interpret Rubio’s statement, therefore, is that the civilizational “they” that attacked Paris is Islam. Among the grassroots conservatives Rubio is wooing in his campaign for president, that’s a popular view. After all, recent polling in states like Iowa and North Carolina suggests that upwards of one-third of Republicans would like to make Islam illegal in the United States.
Ben Carson and Donald Trump have indulged that sentiment crudely. Rubio, typically, is doing so more subtly. But it’s worth noting how fundamentally his analysis diverges from that of both of America’s post-9/11 presidents. George W. Bush said America was at war with an ideology that had “hijacked Islam” in the same way Nazism had hijacked Germany or communism had hijacked Russia. Barack Obama has argued that even this assessment gives violent jihadists a stature they don’t deserve. Rubio, by contrast, is going far beyond Bush. And he’s doing exactly what the Islamic State wants: He’s equating ISIS with Islam itself.
Then there’s the end of Rubio’s statement: “[T]hey do not hate us because we have military assets in the Middle East. They hate us because of our values. They hate us because young girls here go to school. They hate us because women drive. They hate us because we have freedom of speech, because we have diversity in our religious beliefs. They hate us because we’re a tolerant society.”
This is simply false. The Islamic State may hate tolerance, liberty, and women’s rights. But that’s not why its cadres attacked Paris.
A review of the organization’s history makes this point clear. The Islamic State began in 2004 as al-Qaeda’s Iraq affiliate, not because its then-leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, discovered that female motorists populate America’s highways, but because America had just invaded Iraq. When the United States began withdrawing troops from the country, al-Qaeda in Iraq did not follow them home. It instead went to war against Iraq’s Shiite-led government. Then, after the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began in 2011, it began fighting his Alawite regime as well, changed its name to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and declared a caliphate in the territory it controlled. “For more than a decade,” notes the Georgetown University and Brookings Institution terrorism expert Daniel Byman, the Islamic State “focused first and foremost on its immediate theater of operations.”