Does the Zeitgeist have a mournful sense of irony? Barack Obama could be forgiven for thinking so. In January 2014, he made the now-infamous remark that he regarded ISIS as merely a “jay-vee” threat. The months that followed saw that group slaughter hundreds, maybe thousands, in the most public and grotesque manner. Allied groups in Africa raided schools and villages, shooting, hacking, and raping their way through the populace. On the morning of November 13 (the anniversary, incidentally, of end of the Ottoman Caliphate), President Obama told George Stephanopoulos on Good Morning America that his administration had “contained” ISIS. That very evening, less than a year after the massacre by ISIS affiliates at the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, a series of carefully coordinated, cold-blooded attacks by ISIS erupted across Paris, leaving some 130 dead and more than 250 wounded. One of the attacks, at the Stade de France, came within yards of François Hollande, the French president, who was there for a football match. Some containment.
The world is still reeling from the bloody attacks in Paris. President Hollande has declared a state of emergency, closed the country’s borders, and imposed the first general curfew on Paris since 1944. French jets have undertaken a few bombing missions against the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, Syria, actions that critics dismiss as pinpricks. The war against terrorism, Hollande said, will be “pitiless.” Perhaps. We’ll see what sort of campaign the French people will countenance. A widely reproduced picture of the man who had dragged his piano, decorated with a peace symbol, to the Bataclan theater, the primary site of the massacre, and then sang John Lennon’s single most emetic composition,“Imagine,”is not reassuring. As the commentator Mark Steyn acidly put it, “What kind of parochial solipsist would think that an appropriate response a day after mass murder?”
In the course of his remarks deploring the attacks and registering his solidarity with the French, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu uttered the phrase “militant Islamic terrorism” at least three times. Barack Obama, in his first remarks about the slaughter, did not mention Islam at all. The attack was, he said, not just an attack on Paris or the people of France but “an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share.”
The trouble is, it is patent that the “values” to which Barack Obama gestures are anything but “universal.” On the contrary, they are Western, liberal values that are conspicuously not shared by much of the world. They are most flagrantly not shared by Islamic culture. Religious freedom, including the freedom of apostasy, freedom of speech, equality before the law and between the sexes: these are a few bedrock Western values that are neither preached nor practiced by the dominant currents of Islamic thought.
As Andrew C. McCarthy observed recently in “Islam and Free Speech,” whenever Muslim populations surge in Western countries, “so does support for jihadism and the sharia supremacist ideology that catalyzes it. The reason,” McCarthy continues, “is plain to see, even if Western elites remain willfully blind to it: for a not insignificant percentage of the growing Muslim millions in Europe, infiltration—by both mass immigration and the establishment of swelling Islamic enclaves—is a purposeful strategy of conquest, sometimes referred to as ‘voluntary apartheid.’” This, too, is inextricably at odds with those putatively “universal values” that Barack Obama invoked.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Netanyahu described the attacks as part of “a war to reverse the triumph of the West.” He was right. But this is something that no amount of slaughter seems to bring home to a certain species of blinkered leftist. Around the time that Netanyahu offered his lapidary observation, a prominent Hezbollah leader explained that “we are not fighting so that you will offer us something. We are fighting to eliminate you.” Subsequent events have demonstrated with unexceptionable clarity what he meant.
The Somali-born writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali outlined the correct response to the Paris attacks. The West, she wrote, must do “whatever it takes militarily to destroy ISIS and its so-called caliphate in Syria and Iraq. Not ‘contain,’ not ‘degrade’—destroy, period.” Hirsi Ali is also right that ISIS is only the tip of the spear. The larger problem is “Islamic extremism,” a phrase that has been excised from the vocabulary of U.S. diplomacy but which names a reality that must be acknowledged if Western values are to prevail.
George Orwell famously observed that an indispensable adjunct to freedom is a willingness to call things by their real names. Islamic extremism is not, as a British home secretary once fatuously declared, “anti-Islamic activity,” nor is the slaughter of a baker’s dozen U.S. soldiers in Texas by a radicalized Muslim officer an instance of “workplace violence.” Euphemism is the enemy of true security.
What is the relation between Islamic extremism and “mainstream” Islamic thought? That is not, I would suggest with sadness, an easy question to answer. Winston Churchill, writing about Islam back in 1899 in The River War, observed that “no stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund”:
Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step; and were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science—the science against which it had vainly struggled—the civilization of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilization of ancient Rome.
These days, it is worth noting, Islamic entities are scrambling to achieve mastery of “the strong arms of science,” as Iran’s rapidly accelerating nuclear program should remind us. “Death to America!” is a chant one often hears echoing from the mullah-besotted crowds in Iran. Ayaan Hirsi Ali outlined one possible course of action. Barack Obama, who seems to believe that the greatest threat to national security is Republicans, not ISIS, pointed to another when, a couple of days after the massacre in Paris, he noted impatiently that “what I’m not interested in doing is posing or pursuing some notion of American leadership or America winning or whatever other slogans they come up with. . . . I’m too busy for that.” It’s not pretty, but at least we know where we stand.