“The beginning of wisdom,” Confucius said, “is to call things by their proper name.” Donald Trump’s aphorisms are unlikely to make their way into fortune cookies, much less to go down in history, but on this point he and the great Chinese sage would seem to agree.
In the wake of Omar Mateen’s massacre of 49 people and wounding of 53 others at Orlando’s gay nightclub Pulse in early June, America’s best-known tweeting politician (at least since Hillary Clinton’s personal assistant Huma Abedin took husband Anthony Weiner’s virtual Kodachrome away) demanded that President Barack Obama call a spade a spade, and a terrorist act the work of “radical Islam.” Despite the fact that the Obama administration has simply continued the policy of the Bush administration on avoiding this term, Trump’s barbs clearly got under President Obama’s skin, and while he could not bring himself to call Donald Trump by his proper name, he did manage to utter “radical Islam” while dismissing these as “magic words” demanded by “politicians who tweet.” Policies, he said, were more important than incantations, before going on to defend his administration’s policies, which had done nothing to prevent the latest terrorist attack on American soil.
I rarely find myself in agreement with Barack Obama, much less with George W. Bush, but even a moral dimwit can be right on occasion—though, when he is, it’s often for the wrong reasons, as in this case. The truth—the plain, simple, undeniable truth—is that “radical Islam” is not to blame for the Pulse massacre, any more than it was to blame for the massacre in San Bernardino, or the bombing at the Boston Marathon, or the shootings at Fort Hood, or the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11—or any of the several hundred terrorist attacks that have taken place in this country in the last 15 years but have received little or no national attention. All were the work of Muslims who—their friends and families have assured us—were not “radicals.” Religious, yes, to varying degrees; but adherents of something we can properly call “radical Islam,” no.
We should take those friends and family at their word. And when we do, we may finally understand what not only Barack Obama and George W. Bush but Donald Trump refuses to see: The proper name for the demonic ideology that justifies terrorist acts in the name of Allah and his prophet is not radical Islam but Islam, full stop, and with no modifiers.
“We don’t even deal with radical Islam, because we do not know what it is.” The man who uttered those words in 2002 was not George W. Bush but Atteya Elnoory, in his first year as principal of the Iqra School here in Rockford, Illinois. A native of Egypt, Principal Elnoory knew exactly what Aaron Wolf was referring to when he used the words radical Islam. For another man, it would have been easy to demur, to claim that those Aaron had in mind were not true Muslims but men who were using Islam as cover for violent political action—which, of course, is what terrorism actually is. But Elnoory and the chairman of the board of directors of the school, Dr. Khalid Siddiqui (at that time assistant director of the neonatal intensive care unit at Swedish American Hospital), are honest men who weren’t about to mince their words, even though they were speaking on the record for a story in this magazine.
Dr. Siddiqui must have sensed our confusion at Principal Elnoory’s response, because he offered to explain. Islam, he said, is like a pendulum, which can “swing to the extremes and come back to the middle, but you are still within the boundaries.” Those within the boundaries of Islam have a different perspective from those of us who are outside: “You can believe someone is a terrorist, and I don’t.” As an example, he cited the case of Osama bin Laden—five months after September 11.
This is the uncomfortable secret at the heart of the policy shared by the Bush and Obama administrations, and the reason why President Obama became so frustrated at Trump’s insistence that he use the words radical Islam: Both administrations have attempted to create a division within Islam that does not actually exist, a division that makes no sense not only to the average Muslim in a mosque but to the highly educated, prosperous, and socially successful first- or second-generation Muslim immigrant such as Dr. Siddiqui. Both administrations have tried to present a vision of Islam as a “religion of peace” that rejects violence; contrary to popular belief, that vision has been aimed not so much at non-Muslim Americans as at both citizen and noncitizen Muslims here in this country. By doing so, the Bush and Obama administrations have hoped to marginalize within their own communities those Muslims who are willing to entertain the possibility of violent political action in the name of Islam. The latter, of course, are the people that those of us outside of Islam see as adherents of “radical Islam,” but if and when we use that term to refer to them, we are seen by many Muslims as attempting to do exactly what the Bush and Obama administrations have wanted to do: drive a wedge between fellow believers who may have prudential disagreements on the political implications of Islam and the use of violence to advance political aims, but who all agree that there is a fundamental difference between Islam and not-Islam, and thus between Muslims and non-Muslims.
Non-Muslim Americans of all stripes have a hard time recognizing, much less acknowledging, this fundamental difference, because for us Islam, like Christianity or Judaism, liberalism or conservatism, is simply a set a beliefs that one wears much like a hipster beard, and not a way of life that should affect everything the believer says and does. You say “Allah”; I say “God.” I say “Jesus”; you say “Muhammad.” You go to mosque on Fridays; I go to church on Sundays. To us, our differences with Muslims are superficial, because our faith is superficial; to Muslims, our differences are fundamental, because their faith is fundamental (which is something different from fundamentalist, another word that, in the context of Islam, distorts rather than explains reality).
To the extent that we ever stumble upon the truth as Muslims see it, we tend to dismiss Islam as a “medieval” religion, in the sense that medieval Christianity was as well a way of life, before the modern world came along and rescued us from the absurd idea that professing something as true should have consequences for how we act, and that our relationship with others who profess the same truth should be more than skin deep. In this sense, Muslims are truly conservative in a way that we are not, and traditionalists in the most strict sense of the word—concerned with the transmission of the truth (as they see it) from one generation to the next, and with the building up of institutions (families, mosques, schools, charitable societies) that aid in that transmission. While we think of the reduction of family size as an inevitable and salutary effect of increasing education, highly educated Muslim-Americans such as Dr. Siddiqui tend to have much larger families than the average non-Muslim American (and they tend to divorce at a much lower rate). Beyond the family, Muslims form close-knit communities that radiate out from their mosques. Even though the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study found that Muslims make up just 0.9 percent of all adults in the United States, and a 2011 study placed the entire Muslim population in the U.S. at only 2.75 million, that same 2011 survey found that 48 percent of Muslims in America say that all or most of their close friends are Muslims—up slightly from four years before.
Much of this social cohesion undoubtedly stems from the fact that Islam in America is still largely an immigrant culture; the 2011 Pew survey found that 63 percent of Muslims in the U.S. are immigrants. But since a 2013 Pew Research Center report on “The Religious Affiliation of U.S. Immigrants” found that “the Muslim share of immigrants granted permanent residency status (green cards) increased from about 5% in 1992 to roughly 10% in 2012,” the tendency toward insularity in Muslim communities is likely to increase rather than to decrease with time.
This is the real challenge we face as the United States moves into a new era in which “homegrown” Islamic terrorist attacks are likely to become much more common. The conservative nature of Islamic communities means that it is highly unlikely that such communities will “police themselves” in the sense of turning potential terrorists in to federal law enforcement before they have committed any crime. That’s simply not the way that traditional communities—Muslim or otherwise—work. In the words of Bruce Springsteen’s “Highway Patrolman” when faced with a brother gone bad, “Man turns his back on his family, he just ain’t no good.” Our natural instinct, at least until it has been bred out of us by centuries of liberalism, is to take care of our own, and to regard the outsider as a potentially greater threat than the danger within.
In that context, the Pew Research surveys of Muslims on the use of “suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilian targets” are routinely misinterpreted. The story is not (as it is usually reported) that, in 2011, 86 percent of Muslims in the United States said that such violence was “never” or “rarely” justified “in order to defend Islam from its enemies.” It’s that 13 percent believe that it is “often,” “sometimes,” or “rarely” justified, and another 6 percent “don’t know” or refuse to answer. The difference between “rarely” and “never” is infinite, and it is safe to assume that anyone who refuses to answer the question or claims not to know what he thinks is unlikely, should the time ever come when he must make a stand, to fall into the “never” camp.
In other words, as many as one in five Muslims in America believes that “violence against civilian targets” in the name of Islam can be justified; they simply disagree on how often it may be. That’s one member of an average-sized Muslim family in the United States, or as many as 180 worshipers when the Rockford mosque is full.
Seen in this light, Donald Trump’s call for a moratorium on Islamic immigration “until we know what’s going on” is both humane and woefully inadequate to the challenge we face. Humane, because it is far better to deny people entrance to our country than to invite them here, only to treat them with suspicion and restrict their civil liberties, as politicians on both the left and the right have suggested we should do. And woefully inadequate, because the threat we face isn’t just coming across our borders right now; it’s already here, as surely as it is in the Muslim communities of London and Paris and Brussels.