Controversial presidential adviser Sebastian Gorka was on NPR yesterday discussing President Trump’s address to Congress. He said that the president’s claim that he would protect our nation from “radical Islamic terrorism,” were the “clearest three words of his speech,” insisting that the administration is not wavering on characterizing the terrorist threat facing the United States as Islamic, despite a different line from newly appointed National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.
It has been widely reported that McMaster views the phrase as unhelpful and counterproductive in the fight against ISIS and similar terrorist groups. Gorka insisted that McMaster had never said this, which is worrisome to say the least.
Why does this distinction matter? Characterizing the terrorist threat as Islamic, with the implication that terrorism is somehow an intrinsic part of the faith, does nothing to reduce the threat—in fact it plays into extremists’ narrative that the West is at war with Islam. Meanwhile billions of everyday religious people—millions of Americans—are defamed and treated as second-class citizens.
There is no reliable data to substantiate a claim that the United States is disproportionately threatened by foreign terrorists, as the president claimed—so why spread false, defamatory rumors about a threatened minority community using the megaphone of the president’s annual address to Congress? Trump’s claim appears to be primarily rooted in xenophobia, not strategy.
In the NPR interview, Gorka appeared to contradict his initial insistence that terrorism is properly described as Islamic, and not a heretical misinterpretation of Islam, as McMaster and many others maintain. Gorka said that the struggle against terrorism is “a war within Islam,” a “war for the heart of Islam,” and “not a war with Islam,” all statements that have been repeatedly endorsed by U.S. government officials from both parties since the 9/11 attacks. This would would be considered mainstream by most recognized counterterrorism experts, including former senior policy makers from the Bush and Obama Administrations.
But Gorka is insistent that the administration’s goal is to reverse “the last eight years of disastrous counterterrorism policy” and not to listen to the advice of so-called experts associated with this policy.
It is far from obvious what Gorka means by this. Domestically at least, U.S. counterterrorism policy since September 12, 2001 has been remarkably successful. There have been mercifully few terrorist attacks carried out in the United States by assailants motivated by their interpretation of Islam.
The attacks that have occurred, like the Boston bombing, the San Bernardino attack, or the Fort Hood shooting, have been carried out by individuals motivated, as far as one can judge, by a diverse range of grievances, which illustrate the challenge of completely eradicating the threat of terrorism as Gorka and the president claim to want to do. None of these attacks would have been prevented by the types of measures the administration has put forward in its policy proposals to date.
Terrorism has been a constant in western societies, including the United States, for centuries. It is simply not realistic to talk about completely eradicating it. The Bush and Obama Administrations did a competent job of keeping the terrorist threat within reasonable limits after 9/11 and it is difficult to believe that the Trump Administration will be able to do better. Sadly, there will be more terrorist attacks in the coming months and years despite the best efforts of the U.S. government.
In his NPR interview Gorka declined to answer the question, “Is Islam a religion?” He became indignant when the presenter pressed him for an answer, and it was reasonable to press, since senior White House officials like former national security adviser Flynn are on the record suggesting that Islam is “not a religion,” but a hostile ideological movement.
At best, Gorka gratuitously offended millions of Muslim Americans and hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world. These are the same Muslims whose support Gorka claims the administration is seeking in its strategy to defeat terrorism.
A darker interpretation of Gorka’s refusal to describe Islam as a religion is that he does not think it is one. And perhaps the president shares his view, which has serious implications for the constitutionally protected right to freedom of religion and for the basic freedoms of Muslims living in the United States.
There are ample grounds for concern. The first few weeks of the Trump Administration been marked by a disturbing increase in antisemitic threats and acts of vandalism, which the administration has been slow to condemn. There has also been a spate of arson attacks on mosques around the country, which the administration has pointedly ignored.
The president is quick to point out violent incidents involving Muslim perpetrators in other countries, and inventing them when it suits his purposes, but strangely silent when Muslims at prayer are killed by a white nationalist extremist in Canada.
This insistence on connecting terrorism exclusively with Islam can only lead one to believe that derogatory and discriminatory attitudes against Islam and Muslims are motivating their approach.
The Trump Administration should put an end to its defamatory and counterproductive association of Muslims with terrorism. Rather than spreading lies and half-truths about Muslims, producing fear among ordinary Americans who may have no familiarity with the religion or Muslim Americans, it should be taking effective measures to condemn and stamp out incidents of religious bigotry and hate crimes directed against Muslims.
Failure to do so has a cost. Hateful, bigoted words lead to hate-fueled acts of violence, like the shootings of two Indians in a bar in Kansas by a white man, who claimed to be targeting Iranians.