Conservatives don’t have a lot of constructive ideas for countering the threat of small groups of non-state actors wreaking havoc with low-tech weapons, as ISIS did in the coordinated terrorist attacks on Paris that killed at least 129 people last week. So they’ve seized on a semantic argument, attacking Democrats for refusing to say that we’re “at war with radical Islam” during last week’s debate.
Writing at the Daily Beast, Ben Domenech argues that failing to use those magic words betrays the left’s “ignorance or inability to grapple with the true nature of today’s foe.” But it’s the conservative analysis that’s dangerously divorced from reality. We’re at war with groups that plot to commit acts of violence against the United States and its allies, not with any particular strain of religious belief. Around the world, millions of Muslims who don’t embrace violence hold beliefs that liberals and moderates would consider to be quite radical. They may well represent a serious social problem, but they pose no threat to our national security.
Israeli defense officials say they have a serious problem with violent settlers in the Occupied Territories, but you won’t hear them claim that “radical Judaism” is the issue. Here at home, security experts warn of the threat posed by violent anti-government extremists. Non-violent anti-government extremists, on the other hand, can be found roaming the halls of Congress. Those who value ballots over bullets are a political problem, not a security threat.
The line between radical and mainstream religious beliefs is a fuzzy one. It ultimately comes down to theological questions that our intelligence agencies and military are uninterested in, and perhaps incapable of answering.
Graham Fuller, former vice-chairman of the CIA’s National Intelligence Council and the author of The Future of Political Islam, writes that, “for fundamentalists, the law is the most essential component of Islam, leading to an overwhelming emphasis on jurisprudence, usually narrowly conceived.” And while social conservatism is central to the fundamentalist worldview, “like other Islamists, [radicals] are also selective in those features of Islam that they seek to emphasize as part of their political agenda where they have one.” Some want to create a caliphate and foment a violent backlash against the West; others do not. We are only at war with the former.