Earlier this week, Barack Obama, eager to pivot to Asia (and who wouldn’t be?), held a press conference in Turkey that was notable for the repetitive and sometimes-posturing nature of the questions asked of him, and also for the frustrations he occasionally vented. His condemnation of certain Republicans for their retrograde and analytically deficient understanding of the Syrian refugee crisis received a good deal of attention (and criticism), but the president’s comments about the responsibilities of Muslims in the current struggle—comments a) that cut against the grain of what we’ve been conditioned to expect from him, and b) that he went out of his way to make—received comparatively little attention.
These comments, posted at length below, suggest that Obama has a more realistic, and tragic, sense of the dysfunctions afflicting Muslim civilization than his detractors acknowledge, and they represent a challenge to those who cry “Islamophobia” whenever the suggestion is made that the umma, the worldwide community of Muslims, has a collective responsibility to suppress extremism.
Here are the relevant passages from Obama’s press conference (my emphasis added):
[T]o the degree that anyone would equate the terrible actions that took place in Paris with the views of Islam, those kinds of stereotypes are counterproductive. They’re wrong. They will lead, I think, to greater recruitment into terrorist organizations over time if this becomes somehow defined as a Muslim problem as opposed to a terrorist problem.
Now, what is also true is, is that the most vicious terrorist organizations at the moment are ones that claim to be speaking on behalf of true Muslims. And I do think that Muslims around the world—religious leaders, political leaders, ordinary people—have to ask very serious questions about how did these extremist ideologies take root, even if it’s only affecting a very small fraction of the population. It is real and it is dangerous. And it has built up over time, and with social media it has now accelerated.
And so I think, on the one hand, non-Muslims cannot stereotype, but I also think the Muslim community has to think about how we make sure that children are not being infected with this twisted notion that somehow they can kill innocent people and that that is justified by religion. And to some degree, that is something that has to come from within the Muslim community itself. And I think there have been times where there has not been enough pushback against extremism. There’s been pushback—there are some who say, well, we don’t believe in violence, but are not as willing to challenge some of the extremist thoughts or rationales for why Muslims feel oppressed. And I think those ideas have to be challenged.
This isn’t the first time Obama has asked Muslims to engage in a bit of collective introspection. At the United Nations last year, Obama encouraged Muslims to cease tolerating intolerant clerics and those who would narrowly interpret scripture, and wove into his speech an indirect, but biting, critique of Arab states that use oil revenue to export fundamentalist versions of Islam: “It is time for the world—especially Muslim communities—to explicitly, forcefully, and consistently reject the ideology of organizations like al-Qaeda and ISIL,” Obama said. “It is one of the tasks of all great religions to accommodate devout faith with a modern, multicultural world. No children are born hating, and no children—anywhere—should be educated to hate other people. There should be no more tolerance of so-called clerics who call upon people to harm innocents because they’re Jewish, or because they’re Christian, or because they’re Muslim. It is time for a new compact among the civilized peoples of this world to eradicate war at its most fundamental source, and that is the corruption of young minds by violent ideology.”