Reflecting on How to Confront Islamic Extremism

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In the past week, America has been consumed with the names of two alleged Muslim extremists: Nidal Hasan, who killed 13 in a rampage at Fort Hood military base in Texas, and al-Qaeda operative Khaleid Shaikh Mohammed, the self-declared mastermind behind the September 11, 2001, attacks. How to deal with these men has raised serious question about how America can work to prevent Islamic extremist violence. Here's how pundits are grappling with the question:

  • Confusion, Anger vs Understanding  The U.K. Independent's Johann Hari speaks with reformed Islamic fanatics in Britain to understand their personal journey.

To my surprise, the ex-jihadis said their rage about Western foreign policy – which was real, and burning – emerged only after their identity crises, and as a result of it. They identified with the story of oppressed Muslims abroad because it seemed to mirror the oppressive disorientation they felt in their own minds...

But once they had made that leap to identify with the Umma – the global Muslim community – they got angrier the more abusive our foreign policy came. Every one of them said the Bush administration's response to 9/11 – from Guantanamo to Iraq – made jihadism seem more like an accurate description of the world. Hadiya Masieh, a tiny female former HT organiser, tells me: "You'd see Bush on the television building torture camps and bombing Muslims and you think – anything is justified to stop this. What are we meant to do, just stand still and let him cut our throats?" [...]

Just as their journeys into the jihad were strikingly similar, so were their journeys out. All of them said doubt began to seep in because they couldn't shake certain basic realities from their minds. The first and plainest was that ordinary Westerners were not the evil, Muslim-hating cardboard kaffir presented by the Wahabis. [...] Many of the ex-Islamists discovered they couldn't ignore the fact that whenever Islamists won a military victory, they didn't build a paradise, but hell.
  • War On Terror 'Exacerbating' Extremism  Glenn Greenwald warns our good intentions are paving a dangerous road:
The very policies the U.S. has been pursuing in the name of combating Terrorism -- invading, occupying, and bombing Muslim countries; locking them up without trials; torturing them; violating the values we've been preaching to the world -- have been the most potent instruments for fueling Islamic radicalism and terrorism.  By contrast, those who have been continuously accused of being "soft on Terrorism" and even being allied with the Terrorists -- those who opposes our various wars, who demanded and provided basic human rights protections and equal liberties to Muslims, who objected to their own governments' oppressive and belligerent policies -- have done more to diffuse and impede Muslim radicalism than virtually anyone else in the world. [...]

It's true that Obama has sand-papered some of the roughest rhetorical and policy edges of the Bush/Cheney approach -- explicitly barring torture and CIA black sites, trying to close Guantanamo, sounding a far different tone in how he speaks about and to the Muslim world -- but, at least so far, many of the fundamentals remain largely in place, and it's thus unsurprising that Obama's intense international popularity has not yet translated to much of the Muslim world.
  • Treat Terrorists as Criminals  Matthew Yglesias argues that painting people like Khaleid Shaikh Mohammed as larger-than-life warriors rather than as simple criminals does their cause a service. "In political terms, the right likes the war idea because it involves taking terrorism more 'seriously.' But in doing so, you partake of way too much of the terrorists’ narrative about themselves. It’s their conceit, after all, that blowing up a bomb in a train station and killing a few hundred random commuters is an act of war," he writes."After all, do we really want to send the message to the world that a self-starting spree killer like Nidal Malik Hasan is actually engaged in some kind of act of holy war? It seems to me that we don’t. A lot of people in the world are interested in glory, and willing to take serious risks with their lives for its sake. Insofar as possible, we want to drain anti-American violence of the aura of glory."
  • End Political Correctness  In the L.A. Times, Judith Miller and David Samuels call for getting tough on political extremists. "Our enemies are members of a violent cult that uses the language of religion to achieve political aims. Believers in such heresies have more in common with other violent political extremists -- anarchists, Stalinists, Nazis, Klansmen, Weathermen bombers and terrorists such as Timothy McVeigh -- than they do with mainstream Muslims," they write. "Our response should be zero tolerance for political cultists who try to achieve their goals through violence, be they Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Tamil Tigers, animal-rights activists or self-professed followers of Thoreau. No one should hesitate to call such people what they are -- terrorists."
  • Hearts and Minds  The New York Times's Frank Rich praises General Stanley McChrystal's olive-branch strategy in Afghanistan. "[T]he whole thrust of his counterinsurgency pitch is to befriend and win the support of the Afghan population — i.e., Muslims. The 'key to success,' the general wrote in his brief to the president, will be 'strong personal relationships forged between security forces and local populations.' McChrystal thinks we might even jolly up those Muslims who historically and openly hate America. 'I don’t think much of the Taliban are ideologically driven,' he told Dexter Filkins of The Times. 'In my view their past is not important. Some people say, ‘Well, they have blood on their hands.’ I’d say, ‘So do a lot of people.’ I think we focus on future behavior.'"
  • Separate Islam From Islamic Extremism  Newsweek's Jacob Weisberg worries that President Obama might not be hard enough on Islam. "When it comes to any issue that involves Islam, President Obama starts with an advantage and a disadvantage. The advantage is that he's seen as sympathetic to Muslims. The disadvantage is that he's seen as sympathetic to Muslims," he writes. "Obama's olive-branch strategy may make America safer over the long term. In the short term, there's no empirical evidence that it has done so."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.