On February 13, Michael Flynn resigned as Trump’s National Security Advisor, and he’s now been replaced by H. R. (Herbert Raymond) McMaster.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.