President Obama's Speech: How Can We Fight Terrorism If We're Confused About Its Causes?

President Barack Obama pauses while making a statement on Wednesday's mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., Thursday, Dec.
President Barack Obama pauses while making a statement on Wednesday's mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., Thursday, Dec. 3, 2015, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

I watched President Obama's speech with a mixture of hope and gratitude and frustration. I was grateful that he reminded us that American Muslims are our friends, neighbors, sports stars, and men and women serving in our military. And I, like other American Muslims, feeling horror and anger and revulsion at the Paris and San Bernardino terrorist attacks, was glad to hear him talk of defeating ISIS.

Moreover, President Obama was absolutely right to distinguish between Muslims and Muslim terrorists. Virtually all of the world's Muslims (about 1.6 billion people) have condemned terrorism and ISIS (about 30,000 people). You can see some statements here but just google "Muslims condemn" if you want tens of thousands more.

The Paris terrorists and the San Bernardino terrorists might have been Muslim, but they were unquestionably violating long-established tenets of Islam, which clearly prohibits terrorism and prohibits killing civilians, even in legitimate warfare. (See my previous blog explaining jihad.) As such, these terrorists were typical of ISIS: violent thugs who use religion to justify their criminal behavior, but who violate myriad rules of Islam. Virtually all Muslims hate ISIS; they kill in our name. So we stand with President Obama in condemning the terrorists.

It was the president's words on terrorism and ideology that I found confusing and frustrating. He rightly said that Muslim leaders must combat extremist ideology; but Muslim leaders, clerics and non-clerics have already been doing so for years, in mosques and in many other organizations. (Of course it doesn't help when, for example, in France authorities are getting ready to close more than a hundred mosques -- it just makes it harder for Muslim leaders to reach Muslims to combat extremist ideology.) The problem with the president's statement is that it assumes that it's this extremist ideology that causes terrorism.

It has been repeatedly shown by Robert Pape, Marc Sageman, Lydia Wilson, and many others that the vast majority of terrorists are not acting from extremist ideology or even religious motivation, but from personal or political grievances. Therefore, to continue to attribute terrorism to religion or ideology is not only a mistake, it's counterproductive because it scapegoats Islam and Muslims; it prevents us from addressing and eliminating the real causes of terrorism; it legitimizes terrorism (by calling it Islamic); and it breeds new terrorists (by inviting Muslims to buy into the media rhetoric that terrorism is related to their religion).

ISIS, for example, grew as a result of the U.S.-backed Iraqi government's severe repression of Sunnis; most of its members don't even seem to know much about religion. The only reason ISIS has been more politically successful than, say, the Ku Klux Klan (which cites the Bible as its primary authority and which has actually come to political power in the past), is because ISIS operates in failed states and the KKK operates in the U.S., which has a strong government. Groups like ISIS and the KKK attract disenfranchised people who want to empower themselves by being part of a powerful in-group.

We don't know much about the San Bernardino shooters , but the president was right to call the San Bernardino shootings a "terror attack." However, he also called Major Nidal Hassan's shooting at Fort Hood a terror attack, as well as the Chattanooga shooting. And one of the commentators called San Bernardino the deadliest terror attack since 9/11. And that's when it got murky.

Why was Hassan's shooting at Fort Hood an act of terror when an earlier shooting that same year by Sgt. John Russell, who shot five soldiers dead at Camp Liberty, not an act of terror? Why was the Chattanooga shooter, who was mentally ill and doing drugs, a terrorist, when Robert Bales, an American who shot 16 Afghan civilians (9 of them children) in their homes while they were sleeping, was not a terrorist?

So calling San Bernardino the deadliest terror attack since 9/11 clearly indicates that only shootings by Muslims are deemed acts of terror. Because the shootings at Sandy Hook, Oregon's Umpqua Community College, Planned Parenthood, and Aurora, among others, all look like acts of terror to me. If religion is the key to whether someone is "radicalized" and commits an act of terror, then why didn't we ask what the Sandy Hook shooter's religion was? The murder of abortion doctor George Tiller was clearly religiously motivated, but it wasn't called terrorism. And, far from asking what Robert Dear's religion was when he opened fire at Planned Parenthood, the New York Times amazingly described him as "gentle loner."

Juan Cole sums up the top ten differences between white terrorists and other terrorists in his blog. Glenn Greenwald comments that "what terrorism really means in American discourse -- its operational meaning -- is: violence by Muslims against Americans and their allies."

Therefore, although I'm grateful to our president for his words about American Muslims, I'm frustrated that his comments funneled into the same flawed narrative connecting violence and Muslims. Other people commit violence, too, but Muslims make national headlines when they do, and always as another confirmation of the "Muslims commit violence because of their religion and others commit violence because they're mentally ill" narrative.

What the media and American talking heads don't seem to realize is that this narrative doesn't benefit any Americans. In the long run, it hurts and divides us. It's time to stop reflexively regurgitating the same narratives and thus giving the terrorist what they want -- legitimacy.