Picture taken by Max Whittaker for the New York Times

Even in the absence of fame frontrunner, Donald Trump, Thursday’s GOP debate provided lively commentary on issues facing conservative America. But did the Republicans get things right when it came to counter terrorism policy? We think not.

The 7th GOP debate in Iowa really questioned the potential future of the United States’ leadership. We were particularly concerned with the debate surrounding how to counter violent extremism – namely, with the conflation of Islam and Islamism, and the lack of viable or sustainable proposals to counter extremist groups.

The threat of the Islamic State was a main theme broadcast at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines, Iowa on Thursday. To counter ISIS, Senator Cruz proposed such ideas as ‘hunting them down’ and ‘carpet bombing’ them. Candidates agreed that ISIS poses the greatest threat to American security, and we were struck with a sense of déjà vu and echoes of how American politicians previously described defeating al Qaeda in the War on Terror as a top priority for the nation. Senator Marco Rubio’s comments about ‘keeping ISIS out of America’ were eerily similar to a speech made in 2001 by the former Republican President George W. Bush, in which President Bush depicted terrorism as a threat to American’s way of life. None of this is particularly surprising. But to break from a cycle of bigoted attacks against America’s Muslim community, politicians must focus on the actual problem at hand; that is, extremist ideologies and violent Islamism in particular.

Sadly, the Republican leadership does not seem to understand this ideology. Rather, candidates repeatedly conflated Islam with Islamism. Attempts to add nuance to the debate saw a multitude of terms thrown around, including ‘radical Islam’, ‘radical Islamic terrorism’, ‘radical Islamic jihadists’ and ‘radical Muslims.’ The 7th GOP debate did little to denounce the overwhelmingly negative portrayal of Islam and the suggestion that the two are inherently one and the same, and proposed efforts to counter radicalization to violence remained contradictory.

Senator Rubio was particularly guilty on Thursday.

“The most powerful military in the world is going to destroy them; and if we capture any of them alive, they are getting a one-way ticket to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and we are going to find out everything they know.”


Picture taken by Max Whittaker for the New York Times

His suggestion that Guantanamo remain open for ‘radical jihadists’ leaves us somewhat confused then as to how he plans to institute this remarkable counter terrorism initiative. He has previously advocated closing down mosques and ‘places of radicalisation,’ which we understand must therefore include people’s living rooms as well as the prison system.

Conflating Islam with Islamism on international television breeds a toxic environment in the US which encourages bigotry. The senators taking the stage on Sunday failed to label the problem – Islamist ideology and its adoption by Salafi-Jihadists. If America’s politicians cannot differentiate between Islam and Islamism in public commentary, it becomes more difficult for civil society to counter extremist views and provide alternative narratives.

While the debate produced much dialogue on eradicating potential extremists, the remarks lacked comprehensive solutions to counter the multitude of Islamist groups posing violent threats.

Senator Kasich suggested that after the US wins a military war against ISIS, it should turn the Islamic State over to the regional powers to manage. He did not address how to defeat the extremist ideology or how to encourage Iraq’s reconstruction in a sustainable manner. Senator Rubio alternatively proposed that America should ‘rebuild our intelligence capabilities… and they’re going to tell us where the terrorists are.’ At the same time, Senator Cruz argued that ‘to defeat radical Islamic terrorism… [we must] devote the resources from the booming economy to rebuilding our Navy, rebuilding our Air Force, rebuilding our Army.’ Let’s not forget that American military might will not single-handedly defeat an ideology. We also know that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was particularly beneficial for Islamist organisations to garner new recruits, as it feeds into the narrative of a war against Islam. At the same time, Islamist movements have regularly utilised the ‘opportunity spaces’ that conflict provides to set up bases and provide desperately needed services to the public. To advocate so strongly for military spending as a solution is therefore clearly problematic.

The GOP debates provide ample entertainment. Good television. But the public needs to know how to hold presidential-hopefuls accountable for their rhetoric.  Consider us your Tina Brown.

Iowa’s top three finishers, plus any from New Hampshire or national polling’s top six will duke it out again on Saturday in Manchester, NH. Let’s hope they check their facts this time.

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