It may have been pure coincidence, but on a day when President Obama offered up a State of the Union speech that was, when all is said and done, a bluff, former Obama supporter Thomas Friedman wrote a great column denouncing the president and his administration for failing to call Islamic terrorism by its proper name.
We have, on occasion taken exception to Friedman’s columnar efforts, but fairness requires us to say that his column yesterday was exceptionally good.
Obama has always been an in-your-face kind of president. His SOTU speech was more of the same. Evidently, he believes that he stands above history and above electoral realities. He acted as though he had won last November’s elections, as though he was a winner.
One suspects that the word “humility” does not exist in his lexicon. Radically incapable of dealing with failure he keeps pretending that he has won, that he is in charge, that he is setting the agenda.
Thus, Sen. Joni Ernst responded correctly to the Obama bluff. She ignored his pretend legislative priorities.
For the president all is well in the best of all possible worlds. The war on terror is going swimmingly, he explained, at a time when ISIS, under American bombardment has gained more territory in Syria. And, by the way, did he notice that the government of Yemen fell to Shiite terrorists yesterday. Last year, in his SOTU address Obama had touted Yemen as a great success in his war on terror.
When it comes to foreign policy, Thomas Friedman did not have to wait to hear the SOTU. In his column yesterday Friedman denounced the administration for its absurd efforts to deny that Islamist terrorism has something to do with Islam.
For those who care about such things you will notice that, in this column Friedman has found his voice. He sounds more vigorous, more forthright and more concise. Gone is the cloying post-adolescent posturing.
He opens with a reflection on the president’s response to the terrorist attacks, in Paris and elsewhere. The president didn’t show up at the march against Islamist terrorism in Paris, but he believes that he can make up for it by convening a conference on generic “extremism.” There he will launch a conversation on the matter with a group of social workers and imams.
One suspects that they will conclude that incipient terrorists need counseling and that much of the problem has been provoked by Israeli settlements.
I’ve never been a fan of global conferences to solve problems, but when I read that the Obama administration is organizing a Summit on Countering Violent Extremism for Feb. 18, in response to the Paris killings, I had a visceral reaction: Is there a box on my tax returns that I can check so my tax dollars won’t go to pay for this?
The Times is a family newspaper, so Friedman couldn’t say that the concept produced a bout of nausea, but you get the picture.
Rather than belabor the administration’s flaccid response to the Paris attacks, Friedman gets to the point in his second paragraph:
When you don’t call things by their real name, you always get in trouble. And this administration, so fearful of being accused of Islamophobia, is refusing to make any link to radical Islam from the recent explosions of violence against civilians (most of them Muslims) by Boko Haram in Nigeria, by the Taliban in Pakistan, by Al Qaeda in Paris and by jihadists in Yemen and Iraq. We’ve entered the theater of the absurd.
How bad has it gotten?
It’s gotten so bad that Friedman quotes the editor of National Review, Rich Lowry. He says that he is quoting Lowry because he himself could not have said it any better. That is very high praise, indeed. When a liberal Timesman praises a conservative columnist unstintingly, it is worth underscoring. It is even more notable that Friedman gives Lowry so much space:
Last week the conservative columnist Rich Lowry wrote an essay in Politico Magazine that contained quotes from White House spokesman Josh Earnest that I could not believe. I was sure they were made up. But I checked the transcript: 100 percent correct. I can’t say it better than Lowry did:
“The administration has lapsed into unselfconscious ridiculousness. Asked why the administration won’t say [after the Paris attacks] we are at war with radical Islam, Earnest on Tuesday explained the administration’s first concern ‘is accuracy. We want to describe exactly what happened. These are individuals who carried out an act of terrorism, and they later tried to justify that act of terrorism by invoking the religion of Islam and their own deviant view of it.’
This makes it sound as if the Charlie Hebdo terrorists set out to commit a random act of violent extremism and only subsequently, when they realized that they needed some justification, did they reach for Islam.
The day before, Earnest had conceded that there are lists of recent ‘examples of individuals who have cited Islam as they’ve carried out acts of violence.’ Cited Islam? According to the Earnest theory ... purposeless violent extremists rummage through the scriptures of great faiths, looking for some verses to cite to support their mayhem and often happen to settle on the holy texts of Islam.”
Friedman accepts that we should not hold all Muslims accountable for the actions of the terrorists. And he adds that if we have been doing something to foster these reactions then we should change our approach.
Granting the opposition some credence is a good rhetorical tactic. It shows that you have considered their arguments before dismissing them.
And yet, the crux of the matter, Friedman continues, lies in the fact that these terrorist acts have a source and a rationale… in Islam.
In his words:
Something else is also at work, and it needs to be discussed. It is the struggle within Arab and Pakistani Sunni Islam over whether and how to embrace modernity, pluralism and women’s rights. That struggle drives, and is driven by, the dysfunctionality of so many Arab states and Pakistan. It has left these societies with too many young men who have never held a job or a girl’s hand, who then seek to overcome their humiliation at being left behind, and to find identity, by “purifying” their worlds of other Muslims who are not sufficiently pious and of Westerners whom they perceive to be putting Muslims down.
Friedman understands that change must come from within the Muslim community. But that requires a space where open discussion and debate is possible. As of today, no such space exists. But that does not excuse the Obama administration for pretending that the problem requires a few social workers and a bout of therapy.
In Friedman’s words:
Only Sunni Arabs and Pakistanis can get inside their narrative and remediate it. But reformers can only do that if they have a free, secure political space. If we’re not going to help create space for that internal dialogue, let’s just be quiet. Don’t say stupid stuff. And don’t hold airy fairy conferences that dodge the real issues, which many mainstream Muslims know and are actually starved to discuss, especially women.
It’s not just that the administration is failing to conduct foreign policy. It is saying stupid stuff, looking ridiculous and detracting from the seriousness of the problem.
Freidman closes his column by denouncing those politicians and governments who have allowed themselves to be intimidated and bullied into soft-pedalling the problem, into exculpating Islam, thus showing the terrorists that their strategy is working. Friedman all but calls the administration a band of cowards, but his rhetorical flourish here works better than name-calling:
And a remarkable piece in The Washington Post Sunday by Asra Q. Nomani, an American Muslim born in India, called out the “honor corps” — a loose, well-funded coalition of governments and private individuals “that tries to silence debate on extremist ideology in order to protect the image of Islam.” It “throws the label of ‘Islamophobe’ on pundits, journalists and others who dare to talk about extremist ideology in the religion. ... The official and unofficial channels work in tandem, harassing, threatening and battling introspective Muslims and non-Muslims everywhere. ... The bullying often works to silence critics of Islamic extremism. ... They cause governments, writers and experts to walk on eggshells.”
I know one in particular.