Obama’s Overlooked Challenge to Muslims

The president has a more realistic and tragic understanding of the dysfunctions afflicting Islam than his critics acknowledge.

Indian Muslims protest against ISIS after the Paris attacks. (Manish Swarup / AP)

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.”

“That means cutting off the funding that fuels this hate,” he continued. “It’s time to end the hypocrisy of those who accumulate wealth through the global economy and then siphon funds to those who teach children to tear it down.”

It is not entirely clear to me why Obama’s recurring demand that Muslims do more to combat extremism doesn’t gain much attention, though it’s fair to say that conservatives and liberals both have obvious reasons to ignore this call. Partisan conservatives are invested in a view of Obama as a moral relativist unable to pass judgment on any sort of Muslim behavior. They believe he is uniquely critical of Christians in America and Jews in Israel. Liberals are made uncomfortable by the notion that Islamist terrorism has anything to do with Islam. But Obama’s call should be more widely broadcast, because his middle approach to this polarizing issue is free of the sort of prejudice that one hears on the right, and the cant that one hears on the left.

Many on the right in the United States, Europe, and Israel have for some time pushed the line that large numbers of non-extremist Muslims are either extremist in secret or, at the very least, sympathetic to their extremist brethren in ways that preclude them from battling the ideologies that animate groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS. Polls show, and common sense suggests, that the overwhelming majority of Muslims are repulsed by ISIS and al-Qaeda, in part, but only in part, because the majority of victims of these groups have been Muslims. Many Muslims feel humiliated and angered by the crimes terrorists have committed in the name of their great, and beloved, religion. Attacks on Islam, and demagogic critiques of innocent Syrian refugees, only serve to demonstrate to non-radicalized Muslims that many in the West don’t understand, or choose not to understand, the complexity of the crisis they are facing.

And while it is true that Muslim leaders and organizations, in the U.S. and elsewhere, do, in fact, condemn extremism, many do not condemn all forms of extremism and violence, and many remain far too tolerant of Saudi-funded and trained imams in their communities. I’ve argued for 15 years that, in addition to being morally reprehensible in its own right, organized Muslim extremist violence against Israelis, and against other geographically specific enemies of extremist Muslims, is a kind of gateway drug to the broader use of tactics such as suicide bombing. It was 15 years ago, in Cairo, that I had an argument with Amr Moussa, who was then Egypt’s foreign minister, about widespread Muslim support for mass terrorism, particularly suicide bombings, directed at innocent Israelis. I made the argument to Moussa that tactics used against Israelis would one day be used by Muslims against other Muslims. It seemed obvious to me, but not to him. Sometimes I’m wrong, but I wasn’t wrong then.

Obama is asking Muslims to do a difficult thing—to risk embarrassment, and danger, by pressing harder against the clerics, scholars, and leaders who spread destructive interpretations of their faith. But they really do have no choice; the fate of their religion is at stake.