Denying Islam's Role in Terror: Explaining the Denial
by Daniel Pipes
Translations of this item:
Notes to the reader: (1) This is the first article in a three-part survey of "Denying Islam's Role in Terror." The other two parts, by Teri Blumenfeld and David Rusin, look at the specific phenomenon of denial in the FBI and the U.S. military, respectively. (2) Updates follow the footnotes.
Over three years after Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan's massacre at Ft. Hood, Texas, in November 2009, the classification of his crime remains in dispute. In its wisdom, the Department of Defense, supported by law enforcement, politicians, journalists, and academics, deems the killing of thirteen and wounding of forty-three to be "workplace violence." For example, the 86-page study on preventing a repeat episode, Protecting the Force: Lessons from Fort Hood, mentions "workplace violence" sixteen times.
In contrast, members of congress ridiculed the "workplace violence" characterization and a coalition of 160 victims and family members recently released a video, "The Truth About Fort Hood," criticizing the administration. On the third anniversary of the massacre, 148 victims and family members sued the U.S. government for avoiding legal and financial responsibility by not acknowledging the incident as terrorism.
The military leadership willfully ignores what stares them in the face, namely Hasan's clear and evident Islamist inspiration; Protecting the Force mentions "Muslim" and "jihad" not a single time, and "Islam" only once, in a footnote. The massacre officially still remains unconnected to terrorism or Islam.
This example fits in a larger pattern: The establishment denies that Islamism—a form of Islam that seeks to make Muslims dominant through an extreme, totalistic, and rigid application of Islamic law, the Shari'a—represents the leading global cause of terrorism when it so clearly does. Islamism reverts to medieval norms in its aspiration to create a caliphate that rules humanity. "Islam is the solution" summarizes its doctrine. Islam's public law can be summarized as elevating Muslim over non-Muslim, male over female, and endorsing the use of force to spread Muslim rule. In recent decades, Islamists (the adherents of this vision of Islam) have established an unparalleled record of terrorism. To cite one tabulation: TheReligionOfPeace.com counts 20,000 assaults in the name of Islam since 9/11, or about five a day. In the West, terrorist acts inspired by motives other than Islam hardly register.
It is important to document and explain this denial and explore its implications. The examples come predominantly from the United States, though they could come from virtually any Western country—except Israel.
This pattern of denial is all the more striking because it concerns distinctly Islamic forms of violence such as suicide operations, beheadings, honor killings and the disfiguring of women's faces. For example, when it comes to honor killings, Phyllis Chesler has established that this phenomenon differs from domestic violence and, in Western countries, is almost always perpetrated by Muslims. Such proofs, however, do not convince the establishment, which tends to filter Islam out of the equation.
The generalized threat inspires more denial. Politicians and others avoid mention of Islam, Islamism, Muslims, Islamists, mujahideen, or jihadists. Instead, they blame evildoers, militants, radical extremists, terrorists, and al-Qaeda. Just one day after 9/11, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell set the tone by asserting that the just-committed atrocities "should not be seen as something done by Arabs or Islamics; it is something that was done by terrorists."
Another tactic is to obscure Islamist realities under the fog of verbiage. George W. Bush referred once to "the great struggle against extremism that is now playing out across the broader Middle East" and another time to "the struggle against ideological extremists who do not believe in free societies and who happen to use terror as a weapon to try to shake the conscience of the free world." He went so far as to dismiss any Islamic element by asserting that "Islam is a great religion that preaches peace."
And on and on Holder persisted, until Smith eventually gave up. And this was not exceptional: An almost identical denial took place in December 2011 by a senior official from the Department of Defense.
Or one can simply ignore the Islamist element; a study issued by the Department of Homeland Security, Evolution of the Terrorist Threat to the United States, mentions Islam just one time. In September 2010, Obama spoke at the United Nations and, using a passive construction, avoided all mention of Islam in reference to 9/11: "Nine years ago, the destruction of the World Trade Center signaled a threat that respected no boundary of dignity or decency." About the same time, Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security, stated that the profiles of Americans engaged in terrorism indicate that "there is no 'typical' profile of a homegrown terrorist."
Exceptions to Denial
Exceptions to this pattern do exist; establishment figures on occasion drop their guard and acknowledge the Islamist threat to the civilized world. Gingrich himself delivered a uniquely well-informed speech on Shari'a (Islamic law) in 2010, noting that "This is not a war on terrorism. Terrorism is an activity. This is a struggle with radical Islamists in both their militant and their stealth form."
British prime minister Tony Blair offered a stirring and eloquent analysis in 2006:
The current British prime minister, David Cameron, gave a fine analysis in 2005, long before he reached his current office:
In 2011, as prime minister, Cameron returned to this theme: "we need to be absolutely clear on where the origins of where these terrorist attacks lie. That is the existence of an ideology, Islamist extremism."
George W. Bush spoke in the period after October 2005 about "Islamo-fascism" and "Islamic fascists." Joseph Lieberman, the U.S. senator from Connecticut, criticized those who refuse "to identify our enemy in this war as what it is: violent Islamist extremism" and sponsored an excellent Senate study on Maj. Hasan. Rick Santorum, then a U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, gave a notable analysis:
Antonin Scalia, an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, observed in an opinion that "America is at war with radical Islamists." A New York Police Department study, Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat, discusses "Islamic-based terrorism" in its first line and never lets up. It contains explicit references to Islamism such as "Ultimately, the jihadist envisions a world in which jihadi-Salafi Islam is dominant and is the basis of government."
So, reality does on occasion poke through the fog of denial and verbiage.
The Mystery of Denial
These exceptions aside, what accounts for the persistent denial of Islamic motives? Why the pretense that no elephant fills the room? An unwillingness to face the truth invariably smacks of euphemism, cowardice, political correctness, and appeasement. In this spirit, Gingrich argues that "the Obama Administration is willfully blind to the nature of our enemies and the forces which threaten America. … it's not ignorance; it's determined effort to avoid [reality]."
These problems definitely contribute to denial, but something more basic and more legitimate goes further to explain this reluctance. One hint comes from a 2007 Ph.D. dissertation in politics submitted by Gaetano Ilardi to Monash University in Melbourne. Titled "From the IRA to Al Qa'eda: Intelligence as a Measure of Rational Action in Terrorist Operations," it refers frequently to Islam and related topics; Ilardi has also been quoted in the press on the topic of radicalization. Yet in 2009, as acting senior sergeant of the Victoria police, he was the most vociferous of his twenty law enforcement colleagues insisting to me that the police not publicly mention Islam in any fashion when discussing terrorism. In other words, wanting not to refer to Islam can come from someone who knows full well the role of Islam.
Ilardi and Benjamin know their stuff; they avoid discussing Islam in connection with terrorism for reasons deeper than political correctness, ignorance, or appeasement. What are those reasons? Two factors have key importance: wanting not to alienate Muslims or to re-order society.
Not wanting to offend Muslims, a sincere and reasonable goal, is the reason most often publicly cited. Muslims protest that focusing on Islam, Islamism, or jihad increases Muslim fears that the West is engaged in a "war against Islam." Joseph Lieberman, for example, notes that the Obama administration prefers not to use the term "violent Islamist extremists" when referring to the enemy because using such explicit words "bolsters our enemy's propaganda claim that the West is at war with Islam."
Questioned in an interview about his having only once used the term "war on terror," Barack Obama confirmed this point: "words matter in this situation because one of the ways we're going to win this struggle is through the battle of hearts and minds." Asked, "So that's not a term you're going to be using much in the future?" he replied:
Daniel Benjamin makes the same point more lucidly:
This concern actually has two sub-parts for two types of Muslims: Those who would otherwise help fight terrorism feel insulted ("a true Muslim can never be a terrorist") and so do not step forward while those who would be uninvolved become radicalized, some even becoming terrorists.
The second reason to inhibit one's talk about Islam concerns the apprehension that this implies a large and undesirable shift away from how secular Western societies are ordered. Blaming terrorist attacks on drugs gone awry, road rage, an arranged marriage, mental cases going berserk, or freak industrial accidents permits Westerners not to confront issues concerning Islam. If the jihad explanation is vastly more persuasive, it is also far more troubling.
When one notes that Islamist terrorism is almost exclusively the work of Muslims acting out of Islamic convictions, the implication follows that Muslims must be singled out for special scrutiny, perhaps along the following lines this author suggested in 2003:
Implementing such a policy means focusing law enforcement attention on a community that is defined by its religion. This flies in the face of liberal, multicultural, and politically correct values; it also will be portrayed as illegal and perhaps unconstitutional. It means distinguishing on the basis of a person's group characteristics. It involves profiling. These changes have unsettling implications which will be condemned as "racist" and "Islamophobic," accusations that can ruin careers in today's public environment.
Islam-related explanations may offer a more persuasive accounting than turning perpetrators into victims, but the imperative not to tamper with existing social mores trumps counterterrorism. This accounts for police, prosecutors, politicians, and professors avoiding the actual factors behind Islamist attacks and instead finding miscellaneous mundane motives. Those soothing and inaccurate bromides have the advantage of implying no changes other than vigilance against weapons. Dealing with unpleasant realities can be deferred.
Finally, denial appears to work. Just because law enforcement, the military, and intelligence agencies tip-toe around the twin topics of Islamic motivation and the disproportionate Islamist terrorism when addressing the public does not stop these same institutions in practice from focusing quietly on Islam and Muslims. Indeed, there is plenty of evidence that they do just this, and it has led to an effective counterterrorism effort since 9/11 with close scrutiny on everything from mosques to hawalas, informal Muslim financial exchanges. As a result, with rare exceptions (such as the Ft. Hood shooter), Islamist terrorist networks tend to be stymied and successful assaults tend to come out of nowhere from perpetrators characterized by sudden jihad syndrome.
Arguing against Denial
While respecting the urge not to aggravate Muslim sensibilities and acknowledging that the frank discussion of Islam can have major consequences for ordering society, this author insists on the need to mention Islam. First, it is not clear how much harm talking about Islam actually does. Genuine anti-Islamist Muslims insist on Islam being discussed; Islamists posing as moderates tend to be those who feign upset about a "war on Islam" and the like.
Second, little evidence points to Muslims being radicalized by mere discussion of Islamism. Quite the contrary, it is usually something specific that turns a Muslim in that direction, from the way American women dress to drone attacks in Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan.
Third, while conceding that discussion of Islam has costs, ignoring it costs more. The need to define the enemy, not just within the counsels of war but for the public, trumps all other considerations. As the ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu observed, "Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles." Karl von Clausewitz's entire theory of war assumes an accurate assessment of the enemy. Just as a medical doctor must identify and name a disease before treating it, so must politicians and generals identify and name the enemy to defeat it.
To censor oneself limits one's ability to wage war. Avoiding mention of the enemy's identity sows confusion, harms morale, and squanders strengths. In brief, it offers a recipe for defeat. Indeed, the annals of history record no war won when the enemy's very name and identity may not be uttered; this is all the more so in modern times when defining the enemy must precede and undergird military victory. If you cannot name the enemy, you cannot defeat him.
Fourth, even though law enforcement et al. find that saying one thing in public while doing another in private works, this dishonesty comes at the high price of creating a disconnect between the high-flying words of politicians and the sometimes sordid realities of counterterrorism:
Thus does the unwillingness to acknowledge the Islamist motives behind most terrorism obstruct effective counterterrorism and render further atrocities more likely.
When Denial Will End
Denial is likely to continue until the price gets too steep. The 3,000 victims of 9/11, it turns out, did not suffice to shake Western complacency. 30,000 dead, in all likelihood, will also not suffice. Perhaps 300,000 will. For sure, three million will. At that point, worries about Muslim sensibilities and fear of being called an "Islamophobe" will fade into irrelevance, replaced by a single-minded determination to protect lives. Should the existing order someday be in evident danger, today's relaxed approach will instantly go out the window. The popular support for such measures exists; as early as 2004, a Cornell University poll showed that 44 percent of Americans "believe that some curtailment of civil liberties is necessary for Muslim Americans."
Israel offers a control case. Because it faces so many threats, the body politic lacks patience with liberal pieties when it comes to security. While aspiring to treat everyone fairly, the government clearly targets the most violent-prone elements of society. Should other Western countries face a comparable danger, circumstances will likely compel them to adopt this same approach.
Conversely, should such mass dangers not arise, this shift will probably never take place. Until and unless disaster on a large scale strikes, denial will continue. Western tactics, in other words, depend entirely on the brutality and competence of the Islamist enemy. Ironically, the West permits terrorists to drive its approach to counterterrorism. No less ironically, it will take a huge terrorist atrocity to enable effective counterterrorism.
In the meantime, those who wish to strengthen counterterrorism by acknowledging the role of Islam have three tasks.
First, intellectually to prepare themselves and their arguments so when calamity occurs they possess a fully elaborated, careful, and just program that focuses on Muslims without doing injustice to them.
Second, continue to convince those averse to mentioning Islam that discussing it is worth the price; this means addressing their concerns, not bludgeoning them with insults. It means accepting the legitimacy of their hesitance, using sweet reason and letting the barrage of Islamist attacks have their effect.
Third, prove that talking about Islamism does not lead to perdition by establishing the costs of not naming the enemy and of not identifying Islamism as a factor; noting that Muslim governments, including the Saudi one, acknowledge that Islamism leads to terrorism; stressing that moderate Muslims who oppose Islamism want Islamism openly discussed; addressing the fear that frank talk about Islam alienates Muslims and spurs violence; and demonstrating that profiling can be done in a constitutionally approved way.
In brief, even without an expectation of effecting a change in policy, there is much work to be done.
 Protecting the Force: Lessons from Fort Hood, Department of Defense, Washington, D.C., Jan. 2010.
Aug. 31, 2014 update: The unfolding Rotherham child sex scandal points to two factors I did not give enough emphasis to in the above analysis in explaining denial: (1) the fear of being called racist or "Islamophobe" and the political pressure from Muslim voters not to speak out.
Feb. 12, 2015 update: Paul Berman points to another element in denial in "Does Talking About 'Islamism' Make Us 'Islamophobic'? How a 'high-level' panel discussion at the United Nations danced around definitions—and why it matters": fear of stoking anti-Islamic or anti-Muslim sentiments.
Reader comments (48) on this item
Comment on this item
Support Daniel Pipes' work with a tax-deductible donation to the Middle East Forum. Daniel J. Pipes