When the United States is at war, we generally know who the opponent is. But at the moment, politicians can’t seem to agree on who we are fighting in Iraq and Syria. Democratic candidates like Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have made it a point, like President Obama, to avoid using the term “radical Islam.” This choice has resulted in a cascade of criticism from Republican presidential candidates. Democrats argue that Muslim countries serve as crucial allies in the fight against terrorism, and so the rhetoric of the United States cannot afford to alienate Muslim populations or add religious legitimacy to groups like Daesh (otherwise known as ISIS or ISIL). GOP candidates, from the oft-inflammatory Donald Trump to the supposed-moderates Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, have used the Democrats’ refusal to use the term “radical Islam” as evidence of their weakness in leadership. To confront and defeat the threat, Republicans contend, strong leaders must speak the truth about who and what we are facing. The US shouldn’t concern itself with being politically correct about those who could destroy the nation.
But to play this game of should we or shouldn’t with “radical Islam” ignores a larger, and more surprising, truth: the United States is not, nor has it ever been, at war with Islamic radicalism. The U.S has shown a remarkable ability to tolerate and even tacitly support policies and regimes that can only be described as radically Islamic. The actual war America is fighting is with Daesh and others organizations who wish to attack Western targets and challenge American interests in the Islamic world.
In drawing this distinction, I don’t mean to suggest that organizations like Daesh and their followers aren’t radical or devout followers of their interpretation of Islam — they are. Graeme Wood, in his groundbreaking reporting in The Atlantic titled “What ISIS Really Wants,” established that Daesh believes in an extreme version of Salafism, writing, “the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam. Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to… ‘the prophetic methodology,’ which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail.” Daesh is “no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse.”
To be sure, the idea that Daesh or other organizations are at heart Islamic is NOT to say that many or even a substantial minority of Muslims would support their heinous actions. The illiberal ideology and atrocities of Daesh are well known: slaughtering ethnic and religious minorities, crucifying children, beheading destroying ancient landmarks, and even burning a Jordanian pilot alive. But if we claim that Daesh’s atrocities in the name of their version of radical Islam are why we are at war, we conveniently moralize our position. The United States is fighting Daesh for geopolitical reasons: to weaken their capability to carry out attacks against America and its allies, and to prevent the disorder that would be caused by Daesh taking control of more of the region. Daesh has become a strategic problem America can no longer tolerate.
There is and has been plenty of illiberal, radical Islam across the globe that America has been willing to tolerate. Saudi Arabia, for example, has been perhaps our closest Arab ally for decades. We buy their oil, train their military, and sell them billions of dollars worth of weapons. The security and resources that come with this relationship have made the United States willing to overlook Saudi Arabia’s role as a home to and exporter of radical Islam. Saudi Arabia’s domestic laws, which are based on a strict, literalist interpretation of Islam, are notoriously inhumane. The punishment for treason, blasphemy or homosexuality is death; for adultery, stoning; and for banditry, amputation of a hand and a foot.
These punishments are no less extreme than the ones Daesh administers within its own de facto borders. Yet our tough rhetoric about fighting Daesh’s form of extremist Islam doesn’t extend to Saudi Arabia. What’s worse is that exporting Wahhabism, an extreme, medievalist version of Sunni Islam, across the world is a cornerstone of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy. The kingdom has spent an estimated 100 billion dollars promoting radical Islam across the Muslim world through building mosques, funding media campaigns, and founding religious schools. Much of the Sunni extremism across the globe can be directly attributed to the actions of the Saudis, but the United States has deemed this behavior tolerable because, while they are illiberal, the Saudis are not trying to attack American targets or disrupt American interests in the Middle East. We’ve supported and financed Islamic radicalism that advances our geopolitical interests.
This realist judgment about Saudi Arabia is not abnormal in United States foreign policy. History shows that we have no problem with radical Islam so long as it stays “over there” and doesn’t harm any of our regional concerns. We are not the moral crusaders we profess to be. The GOP candidates cannot credibly say that the United States is at war with radical Islam if their version of that war is limited to groups like al-Qaeda and Daesh.
For those who still need convincing, the examples of radical Islam ignored by the United States extend past Saudi Arabia. In the Gulf, Bahrain’s government, another core supporter of the United States, has imprisoned thousands of their Shia Muslim opposition, while our ally Qatar has directly financed Islamist radicals from Libya to the Gaza Strip to Syria. Mauritania has sentenced people to death for apostasy. Sudan sentenced a young woman to death by stoning for adultery. The sultanate of Brunei has implemented a legal code wherein homosexuality, adultery, and blasphemy are punishable by death, and theft is punishable by amputation of the hands. Surely a so-called “war against radical Islam” would include action against some of these countries?
Rather than say we are motivated by extremism to engage militarily, we must admit that only radicalism that threatens American interests can spur the U.S to action. Consider the case of the Taliban. When the group took over the country in the late ’90s, they behaved and ruled in a manner somewhat similar to Daesh today. They performed public executions, destroyed ancient relics, implemented a strict form of Sharia law, and massacred religious and ethnic minorities by the thousands. However, we didn’t move to fight them until after 9/11, when it became clear that the Taliban had provided sanctuary and support to al-Qaeda as they plotted the deadliest terror attack in American history. American deaths and a traumatic breach of our national security, not radical Islam as such, led us to war.
Furthermore, it became clear during our war in Afghanistan that the Taliban had significant strongholds within Pakistan and were receiving aid from Pakistani intelligence. However, not only did the U.S refuse to conduct operations across the Afghan/Pakistani border, it continued to funnel military and financial aid to Pakistan. We made a realist judgment that our relationship with Pakistan, a nuclear power and an ally (at least nominally), outweighed our fight against the radical Islamists of the Taliban.
A similar assessment can be made about the rise of Daesh. When the group first established a major foothold in the north of Syria in early 2013, they were as radical as they are now, torturing innocents and cutting off hands of thieves. But there were no calls to go to war with Daesh or their brand of radical Islam at that time. Concerns only arose later, in the summer of 2014, when Daesh would expand its territory, capturing town after town on a march to take Baghdad and Damascus. It then became clear that the group posed a serious threat to the governments of the Middle East and Western interests in the region. That’s when the United States launched its bombing campaign. Daesh’s ideology hadn’t changed, only its capacity to threaten Americans and American interests did.
It is politically expedient to characterize the United States as the “good guys” fighting a group of “bad guys,” as it reframes our military actions as a moral mission, rather than as a calculating judgement. But there should not be anything politically romantic about selectively choosing which “bad guys” we fight to protect American lives and interests. As Vox’s David Roberts put it, “there’s no clean, emotionally satisfying resolution to the problem of stateless terrorism. You can contain it, minimize the damage…but there will never be a grand victory.” In the context of this new type of fight, our politicians have a duty to square their grandiose rhetoric of a “war on radical Islam” with our country’s realist objectives abroad. When it’s painfully obvious that we aren’t being truthful about who and what we’re against, it’s time for a new approach. If we want our politicians to be honest, we need to get comfortable as a country with using the language of realism, rather than morality, to justify our actions. If we were more truthful with our goals, then perhaps we would be more successful in achieving them.
Jake Dow, a freshman studying political science, is a staff writer at Stanford Political Journal.