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The president's security advisor misreads Islamic extremism

On May 26, 2010, John Brennan, deputy national security advisor for homeland security, delivered a speech[1] at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.

The speech reads as something of a paean to Barack Obama from whom all inspiration for current security policies is deemed to flow (and, as such, echoes a speech Brennan delivered to the same center on August 6, 2009[2]). It draws on themes that Obama enunciated in Cairo in June 2009[3] when he tried to mollify Arab and Muslim opinion. He distinguished between "violent extremists" and "true Muslims"; he vaunted "centuries of coexistence" without mention of jihad or crusades, and he blamed recent tensions solely on "colonialism." He spoke of Islamic tolerance without any hint of rampant and extreme religious intolerance in Muslim countries. Islam, Obama argued, "is not part of the problem in combating violent extremism—it is an important part of promoting peace."

Brennan's speeches extend these themes and thereby vividly demonstrate the distance the U.S. government has traveled in its counterterrorism policies. Excerpts from Brennan's May 26, 2010 speech follow with commentary by the editors.

Jihad Is Not a Problem

John Brennan: The President's strategy is absolutely clear about the threat we face. Our enemy is not "terrorism" because terrorism is but a tactic. Our enemy is not "terror" because terror is a state of mind, and as Americans we refuse to live in fear. Nor do we describe our enemy as "jihadists" or "Islamists" because jihad is a holy struggle, a legitimate tenet of Islam, meaning to purify oneself or one's community, and there is nothing holy or legitimate or Islamic about murdering innocent men, women, and children.

Middle East Quarterly: To speak of jihad exclusively as a means of purifying oneself or one's community reveals either ignorance or deliberate obfuscation on Brennan's part. Jihad through war against unbelievers is rooted in the Qur'an and the Hadith (reports on the sayings and acts of Muhammad). Historian Michael Bonner in his authoritative study of jihad, Jihad in Islamic History, as well as other writers, has shown that throughout history there has been an inordinate emphasis on armed jihad, in the context of invasions and conquests and, in our day, terrorism.[4] Bernard Lewis, viewed by many as the current dean of academic research into Islam, contends that "the overwhelming majority of classical theologians, jurists, and traditionalists … understood the obligation of jihad in a military sense."[5]

This is not to say that the nonviolent interpretation of jihad is false. Jihad unquestionably means "effort" and the Sufi understanding of the word as an inner struggle against base inclinations is historically substantiated. But this reading has its origin in a non-authoritative collection of hadith and, while influential, has certainly not been the mainstream Muslim understanding of the term through the centuries.

Brennan skirts these points with rhetoric. "Our enemy is not 'terror' because terror is a state of mind." Actually terror in the context of the enemies America faces is a tactic. Victims of jihadists are not murdered by a "state of mind"; this wording both dishonors the dead and minimizes a great danger.

Who the Enemy Is

Brennan: Indeed, characterizing our adversaries this way would actually be counterproductive. It would play into the false perception that they are religious leaders defending a holy cause, when in fact they are nothing more than murderers, including the murder of thousands upon thousands of Muslims. This is why Muslim leaders around the world have spoken out—forcefully, and often at great risk to their own lives—to reject al-Qaeda and violent extremism. And frankly, their condemnations often do not get the recognition they deserve, including from the media.

Moreover, describing our enemy in religious terms would lend credence to the lie—propagated by al-Qaeda and its affiliates to justify terrorism—that the United States is somehow at war against Islam. The reality, of course, is that we never have been and will never be at war with Islam. After all, Islam, like so many faiths, is part of America.

Instead, the President's strategy is clear and precise. Our enemy is al-Qaeda and its terrorist affiliates. For it was al-Qaeda who attacked us so viciously on 9/11 and whose desire to attack the United States, our allies, and our partners remains undiminished. And it is its affiliates who have taken up al-Qaeda's call to arms against the United States in other parts of the world.

MEQ: Brennan, the non-Muslim, dismisses the clearly articulated religious claims of the jihadists and their leaders and presumes to know the true nature of Islam, exemplified by Muslim condemners of Al-Qaeda. His remarks are breathtaking in their condescension.

By severing the link to Islam and terming America's foes "al-Qaeda and its terrorist affiliates," Brennan hampers the U.S. government from confronting the sources of the problem. He disregards the wide backing for Islamist violence by vast Islamist organizations whose followers praise armed jihad, whose imams and sheikhs defend its perpetrators, and whose acolytes create charities that channel funds to the international jihadist apparatus. What are we to make of the Muslim Brotherhood and its ancillaries in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Europe; the Pakistani Tablighi Jamaat, with members in over 150 countries; the Deobandi movement which gave rise to the Afghan Taliban? Are they all somehow terribly misinformed as to the wellsprings of their beliefs? Why no mention of the Salafi movement and Wahhabism, the official creed of wealthy Saudi Arabia, which exerts an influence out of proportion to its size by its funding of extremist mosques and madrassas (Islamic schools) steeped in hatred of the West?

Finally what is one to make of bromides such as "Islam, like so many faiths, is part of America"? Certainly Muslims, like other faith communities in the United States are welcome to worship as they see fit. Allowing one's enemy to define the terms of engagement in this way is a recipe for disaster. Rather than pointing out that America has come to the defense of Muslims in many countries (Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan) during recent years, or that Muslim Americans are freer here than anywhere in the Middle East, the deputy national security advisor reassures us that the government he represents is not "at war with Islam."

A Lasting Defeat of Al-Qaeda

Brennan: We have a clear mission. We will not simply degrade al-Qaeda's capabilities or simply prevent terrorist attacks against our country or citizens. We will not merely respond after the fact—after an attack has been attempted. Instead, the United States will disrupt, dismantle, and ensure a lasting defeat of al-Qaeda and violent extremist affiliates.

And the president's strategy outlines how we will achieve this mission and keep Americans safe. We will deny al-Qaeda and its affiliates safe haven. We will secure the world's most dangerous weapons—especially the nuclear materials that al-Qaeda seeks and would surely use against us. We will build positive partnerships with Muslim communities around the world. And most importantly, we will protect our homeland. …

As a strong and resilient nation, we will strengthen our ability to withstand any disruption, whatever the cause. For even as we put unrelenting pressure on the enemy, even as we strive to thwart 100 percent of the plots against us, we know that terrorists are striving to succeed only once. And we must be honest with ourselves. No nation, no matter how powerful, can prevent every threat from coming to fruition. …

We have long recognized that al-Qaeda, its affiliates, and those who subscribe to its murderous ideology are a resilient, resourceful, and determined enemy. We have made it harder for them to recruit and train, so they are increasingly relying on recruits with little training. We have strengthened our defenses against massive, sophisticated attacks on our homeland, so they are attempting attacks with little sophistication, but with very lethal intent. ...

This is a new phase to the terrorist threat, no longer limited to coordinated, sophisticated, 9/11-style attacks but expanding to single individuals attempting to carry out relatively unsophisticated attacks. As our enemy adapts and evolves their tactics, so must we constantly adapt and evolve ours, not in a mad rush driven by fear, but in a thoughtful and reasoned way that enhances our security and further delegitimizes the actions of our enemy. …

MEQ: The contradictions inherent to Brennan's thinking are laid bare here. He outlines the president's approach as one that will "disrupt, dismantle, and ensure a lasting defeat of al-Qaeda and violent extremist affiliates." Practically in the same breath, he boasts of building "positive partnerships with Muslim communities around the world." But if we are not at war with an ideology based on Islam, why expend any effort on this kind of outreach? Don't Muslims already know that Al-Qaeda and its "violent extremist affiliates" are not true representatives of Islam?

Brennan correctly tells his audience that the enemy is constantly adapting and that "No nation, no matter how powerful, can prevent every threat from coming to fruition." Despite that, he avers, that the administration will "strive to thwart 100 percent of the plots against us."

Brennan betrays a fixation on appearances when he outlines a tactical approach that "delegitimizes the actions of our enemy." Are not nearly three thousand dead in New York, Washington, and the fields of Pennsylvania enough of a delegitimization of the enemy?

Muslim Sensibilities

Brennan: Several months ago, I had the opportunity to speak at NYU [New York University] where I was hosted by the university's Islamic center and the Islamic Law Students Association. … After I was finished speaking, person after person stood up to share their perspective and to ask their questions. Mothers and fathers, religious leaders and students, recent immigrants and American citizens by birth. One after another, they spoke of how they love this country and of all the opportunities it has afforded them and their families. But they also spoke of their concerns, that their fellow Americans, and at times, their own government, may see them as a threat to American security, rather than a part of the American family. One man, a father, explained that his 21-year-old son, an American born and raised, who was subjected to extra security every time he boards a plane, now feels disenfranchised in his own country.

MEQ: Brennan lets his concern for the rights of individual Muslims trump the broader rights of all American citizens. In the U.K. during the conflict in Northern Ireland, residents of Northern Ireland were subjected to daily checks, several times on any given day. Very few complained because the checks were meant to prevent bombs from going off. A law-abiding young Muslim may well feel put out by frequent checks but "disenfranchised"? He was neither hauled off the plane nor incarcerated without due process. He certainly would have been disenfranchised had a bomb made it through the type of security arrangements that has kept many a Northern Irish citizen alive today.

The U.S. Legal System and American Values

John Brennan: This leads to the final way we can remain a strong and resilient nation, by staying true to who we are as a people, including the values that remain one of the greatest sources of our strength at home and abroad. The president's national security strategy speaks to this directly. More than any other action we have taken, the power of America's example has spread freedom and democracy worldwide. That is why we must always seek to uphold these values, not just when it is easy but also when it is hard. …

Finally, remaining faithful to our values requires something else—that we never surrender the diversity and tolerance and openness to different cultures and faiths that define us as Americans. …

This is the challenge we face. Even more than the attacks al-Qaeda and its violent affiliates unleash or the blood they spill, they seek to strike at the very essence of who we are as Americans by replacing our hard-won confidence with fear and replacing our tolerance with suspicion; by turning our great diversity from a source of strength into a source of division; by causing us to undermine the laws and values that have been a source of our strength and our influence throughout the world; by turning a nation whose global leadership has meant greater security and prosperity for people in every corner of the globe into a nation that retreats from the world stage and abandons allies and partners. …

We will defeat al-Qaeda and its affiliates; we will build a strong and resilient nation; and we will remain faithful to our values that make us Americans.

MEQ: Even if one were to restrict the threat America faces to Al-Qaeda, it is abundantly clear from the speeches and writings of Al-Qaeda's leaders that they seek to destroy America because in their eyes it props up godless, pseudo-Muslims such as the Saudi ruling family. They are not looking to turn "our great diversity from a source of strength into a source of division" but to reestablish the caliphate and impose Shari'a when they do. To base a security policy on these misconstrued notions of Islamist aspirations is to lay the United States open to real danger. Does John Brennan really believe that this is the threat we face? One can only hope that more serious minds are at work on the problem in other areas of the government.

[1] "Remarks by Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan at CSIS," The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, May 26, 2010.
[2] John Brennan, "A New Approach to Safeguarding Americans," CSIS, The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, Aug. 6, 2009.
[3] The New York Times, June 4, 2009.
[4] Michael Bonner, Jihad in Islamic History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), pp. 42-3; Raymond Ibrahim, "Are Judaism and Christianity as Violent as Islam?" Middle East Quarterly, Summer 2009, pp. 3-12; Andrew G. Bostom, ed., The Legacy of Jihad: Islamic Holy War and the Fate of Non-Muslims (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus, 2005).
[5] Bernard Lewis, The Political Language of Islam (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), p. 72.