President Obama has come under fire from the right lately for his failure to use phrases like “Islamic radicalism” in characterizing the terrorist threats facing the West. Obama knows what he’s doing. To characterize the threats as “Islamic” would play into the terrorists’ narrative that the West is waging a holy war against their religion. Since there are close to a billion and a half Muslims in the world, the overwhelming majority of whom have no sympathy for ISIS or Al Qaeda, that wouldn’t be very smart.
Are Obama’s right-wing critics—the Huckabees, the Boehners, the Fox News commentators—really that dumb? To some extent, they are, at least about these things. American pseudo-conservatives in large numbers are cognitively impaired by religious fanaticism, xenophobic nationalism and simple prejudice, so it’s altogether natural for them to insist on proclaiming the Islamic identity of our enemies. (Recall the furor over the planned mosque a few blocks from ground zero. The implicit assumption was that of course we blame Muslims generally for 9/11: Muslims are Muslims.)
But it’s more than just dumbness. The attacks on Obama consciously or unconsciously aim to pander to the widespread perception among the Republican base that Obama is somehow not a real American, very possibly a covert Muslim, maybe even a terrorist sympathizer. (Early in his first term, a poll of Republican voters found that a slight majority either believed that Obama was “on the side of the terrorists” or were unsure.) That perception, of course, is not entirely unrelated to his race.
So, the pseudo-conservative attacks on Obama are more than just dumb—they’re genuinely sinister. Possibly the most explicitly ugly thrust came from Rudolf Giuliani–a man who is almost surely not dumb, just vile:
I do not believe – and I know this is a horrible thing to say – but I do not believe that the president loves America. He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who stood by while Giuliani fulminated, should disassociate himself from Giuliani’s remarks, but don’t hold your breath—he’s running for president, and he needs to pander.
A more benign, but I think still misguided, criticism of Obama came today from David Brooks in his NY Times op-ed. Brooks thinks Obama’s “conventional materialistic explanation” of terrorist motivations is too simple. Obama thinks young men turn to terror because they lack economic opportunity. Brooks thinks he knows better:
Extremism is a spiritual phenomenon, a desire for loftiness of spirit gone perverse. You can’t counter a heroic impulse with a mundane and bourgeois response. You can counter it only with a more compelling vision. There will always be alienated young men fueled by spiritual ardor. Terrorism will be defeated only when they find a different fulfillment, even more bold and self-transcending.
Brooks thinks nationalism can offer that more compelling vision. If young Arabs could devote themselves to a revived Egyptian, or Lebanese, or Syrian nationalism, they could turn away from terrorism. Brooks offers no suggestion as to how this nationalist revival might be promoted, so his nationalist solution seems to come out of nowhere with nowhere to go. But it’s a natural for Brooks. Conservatives tend to reject “materialistic” explanations of behavior. To talk in material terms gets you sooner or later to issues of inequality and injustice—issues that conservatives would prefer to ignore. Much better to talk about “values” and “spirituality.” Nationalism works very well as a rubric for such talk, and not coincidentally conservatives almost invariably are ardent nationalists. Brooks was one of those “National Greatness Conservatives” who avidly promoted the Cheney-Bush invasion of Iraq as a quasi-spiritual mission in fulfillment of America’s destiny as dominant global superpower.
But the search for spiritual fulfillment that Brooks sees as the prime mover of terrorism usually starts with an alienation rooted in material deprivation. The simple fact is that most jihadists looking for spiritual fulfillment in violence wouldn’t be there if they had good jobs and a promising future. Now, you sometimes hear the counter-argument that many terrorist leaders come from comfortable, affluent backgrounds—Osama Bin Laden being Exhibit A. How, then, can you cite material problems as an explanation for terrorism? But this overlooks the fact that leaders of political movements are most typically from the elite. Leaders’ motivations can’t explain the strength of political movements; it’s their followers–the shock troops–whose motivations you most need to understand. Obama’s simple explanation—give them economic opportunity, and they are less likely to turn to terrorism—doesn’t answer all the questions that need to be asked. But it’s a lot closer to the real world problem than is Brooks’.