What Sebastian Gorka Got Right About 'Radical Islam'

The White House counterterrorism adviser is so misguided in so many ways that some are reluctant to acknowledge when he has a point.

Deputy assistant to President Trump Sebastian Gorka and ACU Board Member Zuhdi Jasser participate in a discussion during the Conservative Political Action Conference.
Deputy assistant to President Trump Sebastian Gorka and ACU Board Member Zuhdi Jasser participate in a discussion during the Conservative Political Action Conference. (Alex Wong / Getty)

Since the inauguration of Donald Trump, the counterterrorism community has united in a cathartic, hundred-day communal hatefest against his chief counterterrorism adviser, Sebastian L. Gorka, Ph.D. It felt good. Gorka, a former Breitbart national security editor, is a remarkably friendless man among experts on terrorism and jihadism. I know no one in the field who considers him an authority on anything whatsoever, and until his appointment in January, most paid him the ultimate insult by not even bothering to ridicule his appearances on Fox News.

On Sunday the Washington Examiner reported that Gorka would soon leave the White House, where in the absence of a security clearance “Gorka’s only known duties,” as described by a source, “included speaking on television about counterterrorism, as well as ‘giving White House tours and peeling out in his Mustang.’”

One does not relinquish such a job lightly. (The New York Times has since reported that Gorka’s departure is “likely” in the coming weeks, citing two senior administration officials, though as of this writing there has been no public confirmation.) But Gorka’s past has not weathered the scrutiny of executive office well. He had a lingering criminal charge, since dismissed, for bringing a 9mm pistol to a TSA checkpoint at Washington Reagan National Airport. Another terrorism analyst, Michael S. Smith II, taped him making strange legal threats after Smith tweeted about him. His credentials tended to look less, not more impressive under examination. He speaks no Arabic. He stresses his military service, which lasted just a few years as a reservist, in an army intelligence unit in the United Kingdom with little or no connection to terrorism. He claims to have occupied the “Major General Matthew C. Horner Distinguished Chair of Military Theory at Marine Corps University,” when in fact he worked for the Marine Corps University Foundation, a private entity that sends lecturers to the Marine Corps University nearby. Scholars sniffed that his Ph.D., granted by Corvinus University in his ancestral nation of Hungary, didn’t meet basic standards of rigor.

Then came the small issue of the peculiar medal he liked to wear at formal occasions. Journalists traced it to a Nazi-linked Order of Vitéz, an oath-swearing fraternity of Hungarian nationalists. Gorka has spent the last two months fending off charges of associating with Nazis. It did not help that his mother, Susan Gorka, had once worked for the Holocaust denier David Irving. The younger Gorka denied membership in the Order and said he wore the medal to honor his father Paul, who suffered under the communists. This explanation did not satisfy those of us who would, upon learning that we were wearing a Nazi-looking decoration at a party, be mortified, and excuse ourselves immediately to dig a hole and throw the thing into it.

Such problems are unusual even for a Trump appointee, and they provided so much schadenfreude for Gorka’s haters that we have heard almost nothing about the merits of the man’s actual writings and beliefs. The New York Times story about his likely departure from the White House was typically glib: Gorka, it said, “has said violence is a fundamental part of Islam and emanates from the language of the Quran. He rejects scholars’ assessment that Islamic militancy is an outgrowth of poverty, poor governance and war.” This tone of certainty is a pity, because these issues are not settled, and when Gorka is gone (perhaps shifted to some other federal agency, as the Examiner says), the worst of his ideas may linger. When advanced by someone without a fetish for unearned titles and fascist memorabilia, they will be harder to combat.

Gorka’s 2016 book Defeating Jihad: The Winnable War served as a template for Trump’s confrontation with “radical Islam” (a phrase whose use Gorka encouraged). It is a strange book. The first 40 pages barely mention Islam or jihad at all, and instead focus on Gorka’s father’s persecution in Hungary. A very large appendix reproduces in mimeograph the “Long Telegram” by George Kennan, whose grand strategic thinking Gorka wishes to emulate.

Defeating Jihad feels shorter than its 256 pages—not because of its crisp or thrilling writing, but because many sections feel like rewrites of Wikipedia entries, with only the most basic facts about Islamic history and jihadist groups of yore. These sections are the prose equivalent of a Happy Meal, familiar and predictable and minimally nourishing. They are easy to read because they make few claims, other than to reproduce a potted history of a random selection of Islamist groups.

The toy inside this box of processed history—the reason Gorka wrote it in the first place—is a simple pair of claims. The first is that Islam—a single, unified political ideology—is behind jihadism, and that “poverty and lack of education” are not causes of terrorism. The second is that confronting it requires a grand unified front, fortified and resolute, akin to the full-court press that defeated global communism in the 20th century, with his own father playing a small but noble part.

I dare to say that Gorka, even with a bogus Ph.D. and a quasi-Nazi medal, is not entirely wrong—and because of his Trump associations, his bombast, and his overwhelming preponderance of misguided thinking, some are reluctant to acknowledge when he has a point.

Consider his emphasis on religion. To associate jihadist terrorism with Islam, say his detractors, is to aid and comfort bigots, and to make the case for Trump’s travel ban targeting mainly Muslims, which Gorka has indeed defended. Gorka goes further than merely associating Islam with terrorism; he suggests that terrorism flows inevitably from faithful practice of it. (It is not crazy to suggest that Koranic verses urging violence are indeed urging violence; it does not follow, though, that violence is the only reading of those verses.) But his more limited claim—that religion matters for ISIS and other jihadist groups—is right, as any serious student of the subject will affirm.

Last year, the sociologists Lorne L. Dawson and Amarnath Amarasingam concluded a study of foreign fighters in Syria by saying their interviews of fighters

were so heavily mediated by religious discourse it seems implausible to suggest that religiosity (i.e., a sincere religious commitment, no matter how ill-informed or unorthodox) is not a primary motivator for their actions. Religion provides the dominant frame these foreign fighters use to interpret almost every aspect of their lives, and this reality should be given due interpretive weight.

The authors differ from Gorka in almost every way. They are methodical, critical of their sources, and sophisticated in their approach to the religious claims. But they are part of the same heresy against liberal dogma, in their suggestion that religion cannot be ignored.

Or consider the following debate between Gorka and the anthropologist Scott Atran. Atran says that jihadism has become a counterculture, and that “sacred values” had been “very important in motivating people and bringing them together from all walks of life” to wage jihad. Gorka calls Atran’s argument “utterly fallacious and absurd,” failing to notice that Atran’s position is compatible with his own. Gorka claims that religion is important, and Atran describes how the “meaning” so crucial in jihadism comes from sacred values. Disagreement arrives only when the host, Mehdi Hasan, ventures the opinion that political and socioeconomic factors might be the most important, and each guest rejects that theory, in his own way. (No serious terrorism analyst believes that poverty and jihadism necessarily go together—if they did, why are there so many poor peaceful people, and so many rich violent ones? —so Gorka gets no points for saying so.)

Why then am I confident that despite this improbable harmony, Gorka and Atran did not leave the Al Jazeera studio as chums, retiring to the nearest tavern to chuckle at their former enmity? To put it simply: The problem with Gorka isn’t what he says, but a suspicion that he operates in bad faith. “It’s not really the content,” says one scholar of jihadism who disagrees with Gorka. “It’s the tone, the bluster, the myopia. When I see him and he opens his mouth, I expect to hear the worst”—including blatant bigotry against Muslims. Just as apologists see nothing bad about Islam, Gorka cannot see anything good about it. Both refuse to imagine that it is like other religions, with potential for good and evil (even if every religion also has aspects specific to itself).

Gorka may want to emulate Kennan, but the analogy with communism doesn’t hold. Grand strategy rarely takes the form of a find-and-replace operation: Swapping all instances of “communism” for “jihad” will not get us far. There is no jihadist Soviet Union, for one thing; for another, there are so many different jihadist or Islamist movements across the Muslim world that it is ludicrous to treat them as a single front—let alone one that includes (as the policies Gorka supports would suggest) so many Muslims that they should be presumed dangerous for their faith alone. Perhaps a stronger analogy might be to leftism, a spectrum of politics that ranges from the positive and patriotic to the genocidal.

One of the oddities of the Trump administration is that a team so focused on “radical Islam” appears to have no interest in the details and distinctions within the category of “radical Islam.” They prefer to treat it as one big simple thing, and that leads to absurd conclusions, such as treating anyone with headscarf as if she were a potential terrorist. In the war against communism—a genuine evil—an American Cold Warrior wouldn’t have been much use if he couldn’t distinguish Lenin from Norman Thomas, or Pol Pot from Hubert Humphrey. Perhaps in a new job, wherever that may be, Gorka will have time to contemplate such distinctions.