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9/11. It’s the connection that my country (America) has had for nearly fourteen years, and always will have with violent Islamist extremism. The Ground Zero site has been rebuilt of course and now includes the 9/11 Memorial Museum. But, the image we see every year of those two beams of light shining upward into the New York City night sky, instantly re-injects the memories and feelings of that day into the hearts and minds of every American and many around the world.
We will always have this connection with what violent Islamist extremism can do. Thirteen and a half years later, however, the United States still is not doing what we should to engage with what is at the root of the violence and terrorism. Both in political discourse and as a civil society, we have to start engaging Islamism (the desire to impose any interpretation of Islam over society by law) in a battle of ideas and ideology. Doing this would not only help our country’s standing in the world, not only help our society uphold one of the secular, democratic values we say we hold most dear, it would also help Americans who are Muslim be that and just that, Americans who are Muslim.
In our current political discourse, neither the left nor the right are doing their jobs properly when it comes to this. President Obama, although very well-intentioned, held a summit on “violent extremism” and followed that up by enigmatically urging a fight against a “threatening ideology”. This has been compounded by others on the left doing everything they can to completely uncouple Islamist extremist/jihadist actions from religious motivation. It must be politics, it must be economics, it can’t have a religious link, as if the men (and women) of ISIL are meeting up in Syria and Iraq as part of a terrorism adventure camp.
Outside of those on the right who still believe in the military first, military last option for the Middle East, “Islamism” is too often interchanged with “Islamic”. Yes, the religious motivation link is acknowledged, but it’s rarely done with the purpose of either separating Islamism from Islam the faith or of using “Islamism” as a term to isolate the extremists. In civil society discourse, the language gets more diverse but more unhelpful. We speak of “radical Islam” or “militant Islam”. There is recognition that what we are speaking of is most likely not the Islam of ones’ immediate neighbors but the grey area between the two is far too large. Additionally, those who go to join ISIL are seen as isolated cases and people who must have been disturbed or psychopathic. Too little thought has been given to ISIL’s unfortunately slick and successful promotion and marketing.
Right now, we are simply not where we should be as a country. Perversely, maybe if we had the numbers of our citizens going to join ISIL that Europe has seen, rather than “only” 180 or so, we might be in a better spot. With the alarming numbers of home-grown Europeans going off to fight in the desert, much of especially western Europe has been forced to deal with the issue of ISIL’s appeal. That is not to say that more comprehensive strategies for combating Islamist extremism are not needed. Maybe this is where the United States can pick up some of the slack and get to where we should be as a country.
Naming and engaging with Islamism as an ideology would first have an international benefit to our country. It would allow an immediate dent to be put into the “Crusader/US is at war with all Islam” narrative. It would help to reverse some of the hangover of mistrust from our recent military incursions into the Middle East, and would allow us to be better able to keep the moral high ground when involvement in the region, military or not, was warranted.
A second benefit of our full engagement with Islamism would be an improved ability within our civil society to uphold and reaffirm one of our most important foundational values. By re-emphasizing the freedom of religion granted by our foundational document to all, it would enable us to take a weapon away from the Islamist recruiters. What resonance would a message of Muslims trying to practice their faith being under persecution and siege (with Islamism being the answer) have in an environment in which freedom of religion for all was being brazenly upheld and touted as a strength not as a weakness? Finally, our full engagement with Islamism would allow American Muslims to reclaim “Muslim” as a term of identity back from the Islamists who say only their kind of Islam is strong enough to resist its (and your) enemies, and from those on the American Right who right now, when they hear “American Muslim” think, at best, “American terrorist-sympathizer”.
We will always have the connection we have with Islamist extremism through 9/11. But, we can lead the countries that defeat it by proudly claiming our secular, democratic, liberal values and the true tolerance that comes from them.
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