New National Security advisor rejects connection between Islam and terrorism

On February 13, Michael Flynn resigned as Trump’s National Security Advisor, and he’s now been replaced by H. R. (Herbert Raymond) McMaster. Nobody can argue that McMaster is not qualified, what with his extensive experience in the military and as a security specialist in the Middle East. Even Slate approves of him, calling him “the Army’s smartest officer,” though noting that McMaster has little experience in Washington and, as a renegade of sorts (i.e., he doesn’t favor torture), he may not have free reign to diverge from Trump’s plans.

As yesterday’s New York Times reports, McMaster also differs from Trump on the issue of “Islamic terrorism,” taking the apologists’ view that groups like ISIS, or those who practice terrorism in the name of faith, are “perverting Islam”:

President Trump’s newly appointed national security adviser has told his staff that Muslims who commit terrorist acts are perverting their religion, rejecting a key ideological view of other senior Trump advisers and signaling a potentially more moderate approach to the Islamic world.

The adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, told the staff of the National Security Council on Thursday, in his first “all hands” staff meeting, that the label “radical Islamic terrorism” was not helpful because terrorists are “un-Islamic,” according to people who were in the meeting.

That is a repudiation of the language regularly used by both the president and General McMaster’s predecessor, Michael T. Flynn, who resigned last week after admitting that he had misled Vice President Mike Pence and other officials about a phone call with a Russian diplomat.

It is also a sign that General McMaster, a veteran of the Iraq war known for his sense of history and independent streak, might move the council away from the ideologically charged views of Mr. Flynn, who was also a three-star Army general before retiring.

Well, we know why previous administrations have rejected the connection between Islam and terrorism, despite groups like ISIS explicitly drawing that connection—groups that certainly wouldn’t consider themselves as un-Islamic. One reason is simply to privilege religion in general and Islam in particular: it’s a rule of American government that religion of any sort must not be criticized. Further, some Islamic states give us oil or let us use their land for military bases, and presumably would be angered if Islam were dissed in any way. The Times gives a third reason, one connected to the second:

In his language, General McMaster is closer to the positions of former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush. Both took pains to separate acts of terrorism from Islamic teaching, in part because they argued that the United States needed the help of Muslim allies to hunt down terrorists.

“This is very much a repudiation of his new boss’s lexicon and worldview,” said William McCants, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of “The ISIS Apocalypse.”

I have to say that on this one issue, I think that Trump is closer to the truth than is McMaster, at least acknowledging a connection between Islam and terrorism, even though people like McMaster and Obama were, as we all knew, playing a semantic game. (I’m not, by the way, endorsing the totality of Trump’s views on Muslims or Islam!) But it still puzzles me that even Shia Islamic states like Iraq, who are constantly under religiously-based attack by Sunni Muslims, must also play the game, pretending that religion has nothing to do with these internecine battles. (The possibility that they’d be angered by invoking Islam is what, the Times says, has kept the issue euphemistic.)

In the end, the failure to acknowledge the religious roots of hatred and terrorism will impede a solution. Why, for example, should we turn to moderate or ex-Muslims like Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Maajid Nawaz as a strategy for to de-fanging extremist Islamism if the problems have nothing to do with Islam? A whole group of strategies becomes off-limits if you rule out a priori that religion plays some rule in terrorism.


(From the NYT): President Trump appointed Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, left, as national security adviser on Monday. Credit Al Drago/The New York Times

h/t: Eli


  1. Posted February 25, 2017 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    We have sanity in the mist of the insanity of Trump

  2. Cindy
    Posted February 25, 2017 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    Further, some Islamic states give us oil or let us use their land for military bases, and presumably would be angered if Islam were dissed in any way.

    Yep. I know this sounds trite, but follow the money. Always follow the money.

    When looking at the action, or inaction, even, of Western powers (specifically the USA) in MENA countries, always look at who stands to benefit economically. Decisions to intervene in certain situations yet not in others has F all to do with humanitarian concerns. Humanitarian concerns are just trotted out as propaganda to garner public support for war and other shady endeavours.

    Canada, btw, has profited from selling arms to Saudi Arabia. Arms that are then used to kill Yemenis…

    • somer
      Posted February 25, 2017 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

      Ditto Britain has Big arms sales to the Saudis. But i still think the major reason is military and strategic. Ultimately if really have to – can get oil elsewhere and should be cutting down oil use anyway (as Obama started doing.) The west, particularly US can’t afford to completely alienate the whole sunni world of which bloody Saudi is the apex thanks to the sacred sites and the stupid Conference of the Islamic Organisation that it founded of nearly all Sunni states as a kind of rival to the UN. Shia Iran and its allies/surrogates have always been the allies of Russia

  3. Randy schenck
    Posted February 25, 2017 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    Maybe H.R. McMaster is not as smart as Trump thinks, but then how would he know. Bannon is considered Trump’s brain, so possibly he has none.

  4. docbill1351
    Posted February 25, 2017 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    I think it is a mistake to assume Trump knows anything about anything. He has no knowledge of the world outside of himself. Everything is personal to Trump. Trump has no understanding of the world at all.

    He is truly Mortimer Snerd.

    Bannon, on the other hand, articulated a carefully thought out strategy at CPAC, scary, but articulated. He is the true Wizard of Oz.

  5. FloM
    Posted February 25, 2017 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    Off-topic, but isn’t it funny how hard it seems for photographers to get a shot of trump with his mouth closed. Unless they’re doing it on purpose of course…

    • Randy schenck
      Posted February 25, 2017 at 10:59 am | Permalink

      He can’t close it. It’s where he thinks.

      • Posted February 26, 2017 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

        Human – lamprey chimera?

        • Diane G.
          Posted February 28, 2017 at 12:06 am | Permalink

          What have lampreys ever done to deserve such calumny?!

          • Posted February 28, 2017 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

            Instead of jaws, they have a circular cartilage supporting the mouth, so they can never close it. Look for their photos, the picture is impressive.

            • Diane G.
              Posted March 1, 2017 at 1:57 am | Permalink

              Yes, I’m familiar with lampreys. 🙂 Where I live now, among the Great Lakes, they’re an introduced threat to the fisheries:


              But where I grew up, in the Pacific NW, they’re native to the Columbia River system, and I used to love to go see them attached to the windows (or the passing fish) at Bonneville Dam.

              See shots of them on the glass viewing windows here:


              …and notice the different mouth morphology of this species (Entosphenus tridentatus) compared to the Great Lakes invader (Petromyzon marinus in the first link).

              In the Pac NW they are a traditional food of some local Native American tribes, and we also used to go to Willamette Falls during the right season to watch the harvest:


              But I did like your joke. 😀

              • rickflick
                Posted March 1, 2017 at 6:52 am | Permalink

                In Michigan years ago we used to see young lamprey in the local streams. They were considered invasive, damaging to sport fisheries and they were always under control measures. A friend of mine at school became a lamprey control warden using electric shock to force them out of the stream beds for destruction. Today there seems to be a shift to using pheromones and other chemicals to concentrate them for more efficient elimination.

    • Peter N
      Posted February 25, 2017 at 11:04 am | Permalink

      Also off-topic, but à propos that photo — that floral display must have cost enough to feed a small family for month! And the price tag for that room décor would run a homeless shelter for a year. But at least the room can be used more than once.

      • Mike
        Posted February 26, 2017 at 5:51 am | Permalink

        Who is Trump ?one look at his decor will tell you all you need to know.

  6. Ken Kukec
    Posted February 25, 2017 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    McMaster is orders of magnitude better than the paranoid right-wing crank who preceded him, Michael Flynn (although I have my doubts how long he and the two squared-away generals in Trump’s cabinet — Mattis and Kelly — will last under Trump’s “leadership”).

    I’m generally all in favor of calling a spade a spade, including when it comes to Islamicist terrorism. But I’m inclined to cut McMaster some slack here if he feels avoiding that terminology will advance our national security. This seems to be a nod toward diplomacy by guy famous for his blunt talk. (As a young officer, McMaster wrote a PhD dissertation — later published as the book Dereliction of Duty — that took a yard of skin off the ass of the Joint Chiefs of Staff over Vietnam.)

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted February 25, 2017 at 11:28 am | Permalink

      I agree.

      There’s no way we’re ever going to get a handle on Islamist terrorism without the cooperation of states in the Middle East, so a bit of political semantics doesn’t worry me too much. We should make the distinction between Islamist and Islamic anyway imo.

      We have to remember that there are other types of terrorism too. Trump is already trying to rewrite the definition so that the only type of terrorism called terrorism is that carried out by Islamists. That, like so much of what Trump does, is stupid and dangerous. We’ve already seen him ignoring terrorism carried out by white supremacists.

      • Randy schenck
        Posted February 25, 2017 at 11:53 am | Permalink

        Thing is, as I was reminded while watching the news the other day. When the officials say one thing and the President says something else, what the world hears and listens to is the President. Or should I say, the President and Bannon.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted February 25, 2017 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

          I’ve been concerned about the role of the Pentagon in civilian government — and a bit paranoid about the possibility of a military coup — ever since seeing Burt & Kirk in Seven Days in Mayat an impressionable age. 🙂

          But I think the troika of generals now surrounding Trump may yet prove to be the last best hope of American democracy.

          • Randy schenck
            Posted February 25, 2017 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

            Trump has confirmed he is much smarter than the generals. Good movie, I remember reading the book.

        • Heather Hastie
          Posted February 25, 2017 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

          Good point. I was even going to write a post on that very topic. It doesn’t matter, for example, how many times Tillerson, Mattis, and Pence say the US is committed to Europe and NATO, all they hear is Trump. There have been many examples. The recent trip to Mexico was another where Trump cut across the work Tillerson was doing. I bet they just want to tell him to shut up rather a lot. (Well not Pence – he’s too weak and is prepared to rationalize and/or excuse anything Trump says or does.)

          • somer
            Posted February 25, 2017 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

            And at every new administration its not just cabinet thats appointed – its all the management positions – staff technically resign after a grace period and are not replaced/continued unless with the authorisation of the president

            I gather Mattis and Tillerson have patched their differences to cooperate together to reassure allies, but Bannon is not only on the security advisory council – he and Trumps son in law have formed a shadow security advisory council and “the adults” (Mattis, Tillerson etc) are worried that Trump will not allow the appointment of enough qualified people further down and policy will be dominated by West wing composed of sycophants, amateurs and crackpots

      • somer
        Posted February 26, 2017 at 5:23 am | Permalink

        I agree. Flynn was a lunatic and with Bannon spoiling for a fight some Muslim country. Have to work with some sort of allies to deal with Isis and others keen to actually attack the west have to build good will although at Presidential level, Obama’s refusal to call a spade a spade was disappointing.
        Trump has gone out of his way to demonise muslims as a whole.

    • Diane G.
      Posted February 25, 2017 at 11:51 pm | Permalink

      Great article, thanks Ken!

    • Posted February 26, 2017 at 9:35 am | Permalink

      “General McMaster is closer to the positions of former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush. […] they argued that the United States needed the help of Muslim allies to hunt down terrorists.”

      Totally correct would be an understatement. And that goes for Ken’s comment too. Since you brought it up, McMaster’s revisionist history of Vietnam sounds like a crock of crap, but that’s not especially relevant to the subject of terrorism.

  7. Bernardo
    Posted February 25, 2017 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    The saddest thing was seing people in the Ny Times comment section applauding his myopic denialism. That newspaper is becoming more and more like The Guardian. They have even been defending the Muslim brotherhood

  8. Historian
    Posted February 25, 2017 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    In diplomacy words are spoken for the purpose of promoting the national interest. The words can be true or false as the situation requires. Apparently, McMaster accepts the viewpoint, articulated by George W. Bush and Obama, that the risks of associating Islamic terrorism with the religion, outweigh the rewards. That is, both the United States (unless Trump changes things) and its Islamic allies consider it in their mutual interest to maintain the fiction that the terrorists are not motivated, at least in part, by Islam (and not necessarily a “perversion” of true Islam, whatever that may mean). My only concern is whether in fact the fiction does serve the American national interest. If it does, it doesn’t bother me.

    • Somite
      Posted February 25, 2017 at 11:19 am | Permalink

      I might be that strategically, it reduces the body count and allows for better countermeasures. Obama may have not denounced Islamic extremism but he had no problem droning extremists to bits.

    • johnw
      Posted February 25, 2017 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

      I agree and I think it is in our national interest. Stopping the cash flow to groups like ISIS and getting good intelligence on what their up to only happens with the assistance of more moderate muslims. And I’ll add that for those that take the Constitution seriously, the first amendment prohibits vilifying specific religions just as much as it prohibits endorsing any.

  9. Somite
    Posted February 25, 2017 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    Religious people understand that looking under the hood of any religion brings up questions about their own religion.

    I don’t think the west can deal with Islam until they sort out their own religion problem and gains the high ground to call all religion, including their extremists, as non-sense.

  10. rickflick
    Posted February 25, 2017 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    I can understand the general’s view. Refusing to publicly, explicitly condemn Islam (even though it deserves it) can’t hurt and might help. As long as the private analysis takes religion into account, which I have to believe is done by everyone from Obama to Bush, it seems to me just a political strategy ( lie, if you prefer ), to avoid serious blow-back from millions of Muslims. If a drone strike effectively eliminates a few ISIS leaders, it doesn’t really matter if the headline mentions their religious fanaticism or not. They be dead. The biggest key to the war is to persuade ISIS recruits and followers, that the world would be a better place without jihad. If that takes a nod and wink at the truth, so be it. I don’t see how Trump’s approach of explicit condemnation is helpful at all, and it might very well be damaging.

  11. Posted February 25, 2017 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    Don’t forget this meme:

    Some radical Christians support Israel because they view the establishment of Israel is a sign the End Days are near, and the war to eradicate the Jews heralds the Second Coming of Christ.

    Maybe some of these radicals support Islam for the same reason.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted February 25, 2017 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

      Oh, there are definitely some parallels in Islamic and Christian eschatology, especially as to their long-awaited final battles between good and evil — the first in Dabiq, the second in Armageddon.

  12. Ken Kukec
    Posted February 25, 2017 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    I was impressed by the way Gen. McMaster handled himself on the couch during the announcement of his appointment.

    When Trump turned to him after spilling his usual skein of flattery and superlatives, McMaster simply thanked him for “the privilege to continue to serve our nation” — no reciprocal flattery, no bulllshit, nothing about serving the Trump administration (let alone fealty to the tangerine troll personally).

  13. Jerry Zhompson
    Posted February 25, 2017 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    McMaster said the greatest threat to America “is the military-industrial complex.” I like him.

    • Randy schenck
      Posted February 25, 2017 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

      He must have read Ike’s last speech.

    • Kross
      Posted March 3, 2017 at 8:17 am | Permalink

      That was his speech in Florida McMasters also said “United States needs to do a better job of learning lessons and adapting because of its “narcissistic approach to war.”
      I like him to.
      I hope Trump will follow his advice.

    • Kross
      Posted March 3, 2017 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

      McMasters has also said – “United States needs to do a better job of learning lessons and adapting because of its narcissistic approach to war.”
      He’s also very hawkish on Russia.

  14. Posted February 25, 2017 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    Radical Islamic terrorists are strictly ideologically motivated. That is an undeniable fact. No matter what the circumstances are, they will always hate America and always hate Israel because we are the antithesis (Judeo Christian values) to their way of life. Unfortunately, to them, we can’t coexist even though we disagree.

    • Posted February 25, 2017 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

      There have been numerous instances in history of muslims and jews or christian coexisting. It was possible. It still should be possible. Maybe if we stop demonizing each other and try to find some common ground.

      • Posted February 25, 2017 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

        I’d like nothing better. I’m not denying instances of course but I’m saying from a general perspective, it has been impossible and probably will remain that way. We extend the olive branches in many many cases and the Islamic world rejects it.

  15. Filippo
    Posted February 25, 2017 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    I wonder whether any reporter has ever asked an official, “Do you hold that it is impossible that any religion could ever somehow inspire or instigate terrorist attacks?” And I wonder if any reporter would be fired for asking the question.

  16. Michael Waterhouse
    Posted February 25, 2017 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    Ask the apostates and atheists being jailed beaten and threatened with death, by their ‘State’ how much separation between terrorism and Islam their is.
    Ask some women who dress wrong, or stand near a male (although the male gets a beating too)or drive or flirt.

    Sure there is no connection, despite that and that fact that they tell us.

  17. David Castor
    Posted February 25, 2017 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

    He said it wasn’t helpful. You’re extrapolating to create a viewpoint you can disagree with. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt.

  18. Posted February 25, 2017 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

    I think one can say it is unhelpful to call them “Islamic terrorists” without denying the role played by religion. Islam is neither necessary nor sufficient for terrorism. Some Islamist terrorists are clearly motivated by their flavour of Islam but I don’t think using a term that implies complicity of the entire religion is helpful. They are not representing Islam in these acts, any more than white supremacists committing acts of terror are representing America and should be called “American patriot terrorists”, even if that is how they see themselves.

  19. Aldo Matteucci
    Posted February 26, 2017 at 1:59 am | Permalink

    “In the end, the failure to acknowledge the religious roots of hatred and terrorism will impede a solution.”

    Cats are sweet things. Feral cats can be highly destructive. Should we blame ferality on felinity?

    It may just be that the overall causal chain (if one can construct one) goes the other way, namely that it is the loss of religion’s cultural context that leeds to extremism.

    There is much to be said for this hypothesis, which is supported by instances in history.

    More pragmatically: so what? What is gained by blaming wholesale a “truth by common consent” – i.e. a widespread belief? Blaming “root causes” is mostly inefficient as building dingo fences across a continent or declaring war on emus (only to lose them.

    The emotional roots of belief are beyond reason. Passions cannot be changed, only domesticated, a long and drawn out process.

  20. Posted February 26, 2017 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    To condemn the Klan is not an attack on all white Americans. To condemn the gulag is not an attack on all Russians. It would help the entire world if decent and peaceful Moslems (and I assume that their number is over a billion!) would agree to fight, in word and even in deed, the Islamists who — IN THE NAME OF ISLAM — are murdering and destroying.

    Why Obama and so many others think that the many wonderful Moslem people in the world can’t understand that distinction is beyond me. It’s patronizing. Politically correct. And stupid.

    • Cindy
      Posted February 26, 2017 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

      Aw, but Islam is special. We can’t make such distinctions:

    • Kross
      Posted March 3, 2017 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

      Obama’s refusal to say “radical Islam” isn’t about political correctness. it’s about political strategy, to effectively fight terrorism, Obama needed to win the hearts and minds of Muslims in the world. Obama also understood that our key allies in the fight against Isis are all Muslim countries so insulting them is not a good strategy”
      framing the conflict in religious terms without making the distinction between nonviolent Muslims and radical Moslems would hurt that effort.

  21. Kross
    Posted March 3, 2017 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    It’s not that Obama and McMasters are trying to be politically correct, they know who the enemy is. they understand the religious component and the political component of Isis ideology, but they also understand that our key allies in the fight against Isis are all Muslim countries so insulting them is not a good strategy.
    remember there are Muslims fighting Isis in Iraq and Syria.

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