In his inaugural address, President Trump promised to eradicate “radical Islamic terrorism,” thereby laying an important new cornerstone for American policy in this war against terrorism.
Any plan to eradicate radical Islamic terrorism and destroy the Islamic State and other such groups requires not just a military strategy, but a plan to destroy the ideology — Islamism — that is the foundation of ISIL and other Islamist terrorist groups. We will never be able to do that unless we clearly name and define that ideology, as the president has done.The war against Islamist terrorism is as much a war of clashing ideologies and values as were last century’s wars against fascism and communism.
In this war, as in those, we need to go on the ideological offensive with American values like freedom, justice, and equality of opportunity.
Why has the U.S. not previously pursued a policy of confronting and destroying the ideology of Islamism?
One of the primary reasons was the fear of appearing to target a religion, which is antithetical to American values and political sensitivities.
Another argument for not using words like “radical Islamist terrorism” was that an essential element of the recruiting narrative of terrorist groups is that the West — led by the U.S. — is at war with Islam. By associating the religion of Islam with our enemy, the argument goes, the U.S. would confirm that false narrative, which in turn would lead to more terrorists and more terrorism.
Concerns about de-linking terrorism and Islam led the Obama and Bush administrations to use anodyne terms like “violent extremism” and “the global war on terror” to describe who we are fighting and what we are fighting. But those words were clearly not accurate and they clearly did not weaken our enemy. In fact, they have undercut our counterterrorism efforts, instead of making us friends in the Muslim world.
The most honest and therefore best way to make clear that the religion of Islam is not our enemy is to describe our enemy as what it is, a political movement called radical Islamist terrorism.
To win this war, we must confront and target the ideology driving that movement head-on among Muslims in a campaign that should be led by Muslims. The Trump administration took the first critical step to such a policy when the president used those words: “radical Islamic terrorism.”
Now he should bring one more word — “freedom” — into the war against the enemy.
President Trump can argue that this is not a war between Islam and the West, as ISIL and other al-Qaeda progeny want it to be, but a war between America’s values — specifically the free exercise of religion — and Islamist extremism, which rejects such freedom. Where there is religious freedom, where a community values and protects the rights of individuals to practice the religion of their choosing without fear of persecution or harm, Islamism cannot thrive and will not survive.
Taking this approach can achieve two goals in this war.
First, it will create a more effective front line in the battle for the hearts and minds of those in the Muslim world who might otherwise be susceptible to the radical Islamist terrorist narrative. Religious freedom means that Muslims have as much right as any other faith community to try to convince others to join their faith, but at its core, freedom of religion also means that no one may impose their religion on anyone else.
Second, defining the ideological war as one between religious freedom and Islamist tyranny will make it easier to enlist the help of Muslim-Americans, Instead of feeling alienated and isolated, they can become integral and empowered to employ both their patriotism and their religion for the protection of our country.
In his famous Long Telegram from Moscow during the late 1940s, George Kennan laid out a strategy for defeating the Soviet Union. He wrote that Communism “can handle only individuals who have been brought into complete dependence on a higher power.” The U.S. won the Cold War by championing and spreading the American value of individual freedom that was incompatible with that “higher” Communist power.
The same approach can be critical now in the war we are in with radical Islamist terrorism. In this case, of course, the higher power is not the Central Committee. It is Islamism and its radical terrorist leaders. A clear description of our enemy and the deployment of the force of freedom will be a great help to those who are taking the fight to the enemy every day — our military, our intelligence community, our diplomats and, most importantly, our friends and allies in the Muslim world. And if we do, we will achieve the same victory over Islamism that we won over Communism in the Cold War, and with the same values.