Among the biggest differences between the Republican and the Democratic presidential candidates is their judgments of what began on September 11, 2001, and why. In last Saturday’s ABC News debates, according to Investor’s Business Daily, the Republican candidates “referred to terrorists and terrorism as ‘Islamic,’ while also citing radical ‘Islam’ as the problem, no less than 22 times.”
The Republican candidates seem more terrified of labeling the source of terrorism correctly than they are of what terrorists could do. All were anxious to avoid the giving the impression that they thought that jihad terrorism represented a problem within Islam. Mike Huckabee even spoke of “the radical Islamic faith” and said that the enemy was “not all Islam, and that’s what’s very important. This isn’t an Islamic problem. This is a jihadist problem. This is an Islamo-fascism problem.”
Huckabee didn’t explain how a problem involving jihad, a central principle within Islam, could not be at least in some way an Islamic problem, but his intention – to divorce peaceful Muslim individuals and entities from so-called “radicals” – was all too clear. Similarly, Giuliani described the “Islamic terrorism threat against us” as having to do with “the way they’ve perverted their religion into a hatred of us.” He offered no explanation for why the adherents of this “perverted” Islam are so many, and why peaceful Muslims have mounted no large-scale opposition to their challenge.
Nonetheless, the candidates’ awareness of the nature of the threat was refreshing. Countering Ron Paul’s contention that if the U.S. military had no presence in Muslim countries, the jihad would disappear, Huckabee also explained that the jihadists “believe that they must establish a worldwide caliphate that has nothing to do with us other than we live and breathe and their intention is to destroy us.” Mitt Romney likewise chided Paul: “Well, unfortunately, Ron, you need a thorough understanding of what radical jihad is, what the movement is, what its intent is, where it flows from. And the fact is that it’s trying to bring down not just us, but it’s trying to bring down all moderate Islamic governments, Western governments around the world, as we just saw in Pakistan.” He also spoke of “a battle that is going on within the world of Islam, of radical, violent jihadists trying to bring down all moderate Islamic people and nations and replace them with a religious caliphate.”
Fred Thompson also raised the specter of “a global war with radical Islam,” and John McCain, for his part, declared: “I think the transcendent challenge of the 21st century is radical Islamic extremists.”
Did the Democrats say anything like this? Nope. Not once. At one point in the Democrats’ debate, moderator Charles Gibson asked “what you’d do if the Islamic radicals actually took control of the Pakistani government and, therefore, were in control of nuclear weapons.” The responses rambled and focused on particulars of the situation in Pakistan, but one common feature of them was that “jihad” did not figure in. Bill Richardson spoke of the war in Iraq as an agent of Muslim radicalization. John Edwards spoke vaguely about the possibility of an undefined “terrorist group” getting hold of a nuclear weapon. Barack Obama, equally vaguely, warned of the need to deal with “long-term threats,” and Hillary Clinton about the need to counter “stateless terrorists.”
Why does this matter? It matters because the United States cannot possibly defeat an enemy that we are afraid to name. And we are presently at war with people who identify themselves not as terrorists, stateless or otherwise, and not even as “radical, violent jihadists,” but as jihadists pure and simple: warriors of Islam, intent to establish the rule of Islam over the world, erasing all traces of secularism and cultural accommodation from the Islamic world, and subjugating women and non-Muslims as inferiors.
As the Saudi Sheikh Wajdi Hamza Al-Ghazawi put it in a sermon in Mecca shortly after 9/11, “The meaning of the term ‘terror’ used by the media…is Jihad for the sake of Allah.” It really ultimately matters little whether or not these men are espousing a correct understanding of Islam or not, for their views are influential: jihadist groups are gaining adherents among peaceful Muslims all over the world by presenting themselves as the exponents of pure and true Islam. And protests in the Islamic world have been far larger against cartoons of Muhammad and some remarks of the Pope about Islam than they have ever been against Osama bin Laden.
The longer that presidential candidates, to say nothing of government and law enforcement officials, continue to ignore or downplay the breadth and the nature of the jihadist threat, the longer is postponed the formulation of a comprehensive defensive strategy to counter it. The jihad is not a matter of a few isolated crazies, or a military threat in a few countries. It is a global movement, touching on many cultural as well as national security issues, and ultimately involving nothing less than two opposing visions of the most basic values for individuals and society.
The Republicans showed some signs of understanding this. The Democrats didn’t.