Latest update: April 29th, 2013
“The lights are going out in the enlightenment” Professor Barry Rubin told The Jewish Press in an interview this week. “Too many reporters have no interest in reporting accurately, too many professors have no interest in speaking accurately, and too many policy makers have no interest in promulgating responsible policy.”
Rubin was talking about the reluctance to name revolutionary Islamism – Rubin calls this the “mysterious motivation,” and he refuses to be cowed into playing that avoidance game.
Rubin wrote a very important article about this after he watched the mainstream media and Western politicos twist themselves into pretzels in an effort to avoid the obvious. Rubin explains that the West seems to believe that if we admit the ideology and movement of Islamism threatens Western society, that will have radical implications for our worldview.
As a result, Rubin points out, most current policy makers and opinion shapers prefer to avoid any policy that considering Islamism as the motive for terrorism would necessitate. The fear of short term pain is indulged at the expense of preventing the real danger that will follow. And we are being lied to – “albeit for virtuous reasons” – by the politicians and the mainstream press.
What is the fear which leads to the conclusion that “doing nothing has become better than doing anything”? The fear is that speaking the truth: that the Tsarnaev brothers acted in accordance with their (or at least the older brother’s) understanding, as well as that of many Muslims, of what Islam requires will lead to disaster. It will cause widespread hatred of Muslims to be unleashed, the specter of Islamophobia to spread, racism will again become rampant, and all the things that a hoped-for post-racist America tried to put behind it will again spread throughout the land.
But the failure to take Islam into consideration might be the very reason why, despite the warning the U.S. was given by Russia that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was “a radical Muslim and a strong believer” the U.S. nonetheless watched Tsarnaev leave the country for Russia and allowed the case file on him to expire during the time Tsarnaev was in a heavily radicalized Muslim territory of Russia, and why other terrorists have also been able to launch attacks.
In a telephone interview from his home in Tel Aviv, The Jewish Press spoke with Rubin, the director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. Rubin is the author of more than two dozen books on topics including terrorism, Syria, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, the PLO, Israel, the Middle East and Islam, which have been published by the most esteemed publishing houses including the Oxford, Yale, Harvard and Cambridge University presses.
First Rubin lists off and explains the many ways the Tsarnaev brothers’ “mysterious motive” to maim and murder Americans has been and continues to be aggressively obfuscated. The list includes fingers pointed at a troubled youth; the Chechen code of honor; immigrants’ malaise; and unemployment. Read his article, it is well worth seeing how he lays out this case.
Rubin then flips to the other side, and explores the justifications used to avoid saying Islamic extremism is a motivating factor in terrorism generally, and was so in the Boston Marathon Bombings specifically.
These reasons fall primarily into two groups; the first, that by linking the act of terrorism with Islam, even the movement of Islamism, it will unleash a wave of Islamophobic violence, and two, that such attacks are really our (that is, that of the U.S. and of the West) fault.
Rubin, an honest-to-goodness liberal (not “progressive”) finds these lists of false motivations and obviously flawed self-blame theories not just foolish, but dangerous.
A variant of the “you can’t link Islam to terrorism” problem is to insist that the only kind of Islamist strategic threat dangerous to the United States is the one that emanates from al Qaeda.
“If it isn’t al Qaeda, it supposedly isn’t our problem,” is how Rubin described to The Jewish Press this refusal to look directly at the problem. “In Syria, for example, up to three dozen radical Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, have received arms due to U.S. supported policies but only one – the direct affiliate to al Qaeda – is barred from this program,” Rubin said.
The connection between Islamism and terrorism has to be dealt with forthrightly – sometimes the motivation for a terrorist act will be Islamist terrorism, and sometimes it won’t be, but when it is and we avoid naming it, we are setting ourselves up for a continuation, a metastases of the problem.
AMERICAN MUSLIMS AREN’T COWED
But not everyone in America is so paralyzed by the syndrome of “naming Islam as a potential source of terrorism is greater than the terrorism itself” school of cowardice.
Rubin points to a 2011 Pew poll which shows that the American Muslim community sees there is a problem with Islamic-related terrorism, and they want it to be addressed!
According to Pew’s own analysis of the responses of Muslim Americans – and no one can suggest that Pew is a “right wing” political or religious bias – “there is extensive concern among Muslim Americans about Islamic extremism, both around the world and in the United States.”
The Pew results show that fully 60 percent of Muslim Americans are either very (31%) or somewhat (29%) concerned about the possible rise in Islamic extremism in the United States, and that percentage skyrockets to 73% for the responses of only American-born Muslims. Just as significant is the alarmingly high percentage (21%) of American Muslims who support extremism in their community.
And who is faulted for failing to address and counter Islamic extremism in the United States? The Pew poll shows that well more than half (59%) of American-born Muslims believe Muslim leaders have not done enough to speak out against Islamic extremism.
Imagine, those who would be most directly affected by the feared backlash want what the benevolent but clearly misguided leaders seek to avoid, and they are the ones who are in the best position to know that, in fact, it is a big problem. Not only that, but that same group – American Muslims – implore their own leadership to address the problem.
Why don’t the Muslim leaders act? Rubin says it is because “many of them are themselves Islamists who are actively indoctrinating young Muslims in the ideological arguments favoring radicalism and violence.”
Failing to do what the community most directly involved wants makes no sense. “That,” Rubin says, “is not only bad foreign policy it is also dangerous for domestic security.”
having followed this issue for many years, I have never heard of a single anti-radicalization program conducted by any mosque or “mainstream” Islamic group. Real [Muslim] moderates are isolated, vilified, denied media attention and even forced out of local mosques.
And in talking to The Jewish Press, Rubin explains that the current narrative embraced by this U.S. administration, but also widely supported among the policy and opinion-making elite, is that by refusing to discuss the threat of radical interpretations of Islam and especially political Islamism means we don’t accurately look at current events and learn how to avoid future such events. Instead, we try to explain away any unsavory possibilities so that America appears as a non-racist society.
Wow. That’s big. Let’s pretend there is no problem so we don’t look racist. Kind of sounds like a doctor pretending her patient doesn’t have cancer so the patient doesn’t think she’s a bad doctor. Except the patient wants to be healed, or at least more closely examined.
NEW THEORY: ISLAM MOTIVATED, BUT LONE WOLVES
And just in time to reinforce Rubin’s theory, news reports begin to circulate that seizes on a variant of one of Rubin’s theories. This is one that is slightly different from the original “Islam had nothing to do with it.”
Based on initial interviews with the severely wounded Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, he and his brother were indeed motivated by a form of radical Islam, but they acted completely alone. This works nicely with the Al Qaeda is the only evil I will recognize.
The media rushed to get out the story that the Tsarnaev brothers were lone wolves whose inspiration came solely from the Internet. Dzohkar told officials that they had no guidance, direction, support or connection to any terrorists or terrorist groups.
Now the narrative is that these two Muslim brothers were infuriated by U.S. aggression against Islam, specifically by the killing of Muslims in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is, of course, a non-religious reason, because although they acted as Muslims, their actions were not driven by any ideological Islam. These reports have been in the media outlets most likely to be repeated by all lesser outlets, the Washington Post and the New York Times.
This new narrative has the added advantage of including the “blame America” trope, because, surely, if not for the “unjust” wars, there would be no reason for there to be radicalized Muslims acting out in murderous ways against innocent Americans.
“These are persons operating inside the United States without a nexus” to an overseas group, the Washington Post quoted an unnamed U.S. intelligence official. That makes us feel safer, if it’s just two whacky Chechens acting on their own, rather than some connection between what happens in a scary far-off place and people amongst us who are acting according to a grand plan.
An ABC news report headline: “Simple Boston Bomb Plot Hatched Without Foreign Help, Authorities Believe,” is followed up with “authorities also told ABC News it is increasingly likely that the older of the brothers, Tamerlan, devised the plot and did most of the work in pulling it together.”
But how can the “acting alone” theory be offered with a straight face when we already know that the older Tsarnaev brother was under surveillance by Russia, and that the FBI questioned him at the behest of Russian authorities who were alarmed by Tamerlan’s growing radicalization?
The FBI is already on record as having said that a foreign government — later identified by legislators as Russia — had asked for information on Tsarnaev “based on information that he was a follower of radical Islam and a strong believer, and that he had changed drastically since 2010 as he prepared to leave the United States for travel to the country’s region to join unspecified underground groups.”
And Andrew McCarthy, the prosecutor of the Blind Sheik and his accomplices in the first World Trade Center bombing, told The Jewish Press that it was “ridiculous” for anyone to repeat the disconnected terrorist theory as a likely one, “this is way too early in the investigation to place any credence on a statement like that.”
And so Rubin’s analysis – and dire prognostications – gain reinforcement from the each new turn in the dominant narrative.
Rubin is used to watching America get it wrong repeatedly. He told The Jewish Press that in the early 1980’s he obtained a small grant and used it to begin studying the policy implications for terrorism. When he went to renew the grant, he was told by the funding source, the Ford Foundation, that his application was going to be denied because, “we don’t think terrorism is going to be a problem in the future.”
The irony, Rubin said, is that from the 1970s through the 1990s the United States was not a terrorism destination spot because “terrorists were used to dealing with non-democratic governments and they thought it would be difficult to operate within the United States, where they thought they would be kept under close scrutiny and find it hard to succeed.
“Terrorists did not realize the ease with which someone can, for example, look Middle Eastern or be a Muslim and yet sign up for flight school and only ask to learn about takeoff, but not care at all about landing,” as we later learned, with our jaws dropping at the naivete, was the case with the 9/11 terrorists.
“Ironically,” Rubin said, “it was only when the terrorists discovered that there was not much ‘Islamophobia’ in the United States that they realized it was easy to act effectively.
While it is the case that the post 9/11-America has wised up to many tricks of the terrorists’ trade, “in other ways America is still missing obvious clues,” according to Rubin.
AMERICA ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL?
The older Tsarnaev brother, who didn’t seem to have any source of employment, and into whom the FBI had been asked to look by Russian authorities just a few years earlier, traveled to Russia for six months, and yet no alarm bells went off anywhere. Actually, that’s not quite true. An alarm bell “pinged,” but it was turned off!
In testimony before a Senate panel on Tuesday, April 23, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano explained that while DHS was aware of Tamerlan’s trip to Russia – “there was a ‘ping'” – by the time he returned to the U.S. the original information about him had expired, so they closed the case and did not follow up. Really.
WHAT CAN BE DONE
So what can be done? Rubin, in a subsequent and also excellent article, points out that there are currently two kinds of people who are being heard in the discussion about Islam and politics. The first is the largest and contains the most powerful institutions, such as the government and the mainstream media. This group insists “Islam is the religion of peace.” There is no problem here, so there is nothing to be done, except, of course, to ensure that Islam or Islamism not be linked to terrorism.
The second largest group, says Rubin, is the one whose members insist “Islam is an inherently violent and extremist religion.” And for this group, the only option is to wage war against all the adherents of the religion, nothing else will do. “This second group,” Rubin says with disapproval, “is not interested in working with real moderate Muslims against radical groups and leaders because it claims such people don’t even exist.”
Rubin suggests another course, one that should already exist, and it would if those in the first group were right.
There needs to be organized Islamic education against Islamist extremism in Western countries. Rubin explains there have been at least three such programs that he knows about, one in Egypt, one in Saudi Arabia and one in Tunisia, all before the Arab Spring.
Mosques, which are becoming – to some – the object of mistrust or at least concern as terrorism incubators should hold classes, or sponsor radio programs directed at Muslims. These programs should stress the how and why their religion does not demand aggression against non-Muslims, or expansionist territoriality efforts.
Such anti extremist indoctrination programs would undermine the “radical Muslims” preaching, and doing, the opposite. Like some of those who attended the very mosque in Cambridge the Tsarnaevs attended.
“American Muslim leaders – many who support groups that commit terrorism in the Middle East – issue press releases from time to time decrying specific terrorist attacks but do nothing to dissuade congregants from believing the extremist viewpoint,” Rubin told The Jewish Press. “And they have been under no real pressure to do so.”
Another significant point: these programs should be directed at Muslims and in mosques, rather than being directed at outsiders to convince them – sometimes menacingly – that people better not say there is any connection between Islam and terrorism. That would be a good start.
There are currently groups such as the Commission on American Islamic Relations which create training programs, but their programs are focused on convincing non-Muslims that Islam is purely peaceful, and that anyone who says otherwise is a racist and worst.
The same is true of an op-ed in Wednesday’s Washington Post. There, Salam al-Marayati, the president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, pushes the “it’s them, not us” meme. No doubt it is true and painful for Muslim Americans that inquiring eyes have begun to turn towards them as the source of perpetrators of the never-to-be-erased-from-American-memory Boston Marathon bombings. And without doubt more than 99 percent of all American Muslims had nothing to do with that or any other act of terrorism.
But, as Rubin’s articles make clear, the mainstream media and the country’s politicians are already fearful of even considering the role Islamism plays in terrorism here and abroad. Where is MPAC’s program directed at Muslims which opposes radical indoctrination, rather than press pieces blasting any questioning of Muslims? There are wisps of ideas in his op-ed, but no suggestion that concrete action, the kind American Muslims say they want from their leaders, will happen.
Salam al-Marayati is given a prized platform for playing the victim card in a message Americans are desperate to hear. Yet he has failed to do the kind of work necessary to stop the radicalization within, something his own community wants.
And just to be clear, this is the same al-Marayati who suggested it was Israel that was responsible for the September 11, 2001 attacks on America, on national radio, the day of the attacks. Finger pointing is something he felt quite comfortable with then.
Not only has al-Marayati tried to blame the Jews for 9/11 and repeatedly suggest that the “Israel lobby” is dangerous, when it comes to terrorism, he has done more than fail to work against it from within.
Salam al-Marayati has also worked to remove groups from America’s terrorist watch list that few patriotic Americans want removed. According to Steve Emerson, America’s pre-eminent terrorism expert:
In a 2003 counterterrorism paper advocating removal of Hamas, Hebollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad from the U.S. terrorism list, MPAC said that Washington’s “preoccupation” with these groups “raises the question as to whether targeting Palestinian groups serves true national security interests or is based on political considerations.”
You know what he means by “political considerations” don’t you? There’s that “Israel Lobby” again.
THE PROBLEM THAT CAN’T BE NAMED, AND WHAT IS A “KNOCK-OFF JIHADI?”
The latest permutation of the “Don’t talk about Islam, well maybe Islam had something to do with it, well it’s Islamism-motivated but they were acting alone,” or, the “mysterious motivation” game was advanced by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden this week when he referred to the Tsarnaev Terrorists as “knock-off jihadis.”
At a memorial service held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for slain police officer Sean Collier on Wednesday, April 24, Biden gave a four and a half minute speech about what he called “21st century terrorism,” which people have been asking him about “since 9/11/.” He mentions “Al Qaeda central out of the Fatah” (not sure what that means), or “two, twisted, perverted, cowardly knock off jihadis.” Knock off jihadis?
Biden makes it clear that Rubin is correct – the biggest disaster this country thinks it needs to avoid is the one that would happen if Islam is named as a possible motivating source.
They do it to instill fear, they want us to jettison what we value most, our system of justice, our guarantees of freedom, our free flow of information, our transparency – that’s their target. The moment we change, the moment we look inward, the moment we go into a defensive crouch, that’s the moment they win.
Biden went on to talk about how proud he was of Boston, of Massachusetts, of the students, of the United States for not yielding to fear, for not compromising our values, or weakening our constitutional guarantees, or closing our borders.
The closest Biden comes to naming the “mysterious motive” is when he calls the Tsarnaev Terrorists “craven, misguided, perverted apostles of a decent and honorable faith.”
So the great fear is that if Islam is mentioned American values go straight to Hell in a handbasket. There is no middle ground: if we talk about Islamism as a source of terrorism, our values will be compromised and the greatest nation on Earth will crumble.
The choice made is to safeguard the name and the feelings of members of Islam from any reproach – so that we can…what? Be taken down in a halo of smug superiority by those who exploit this latest greatest American Achilles Heel?
“The proper response is to denounce the terrorists, the ideology of terrorism, and the right of focused self-defense, which means doing everything possible to retaliate against those responsible and not citizens of another country chosen at random.”
CORRECTION: The funding source that denied the renewal of Rubin’s mid-1980’s grant to study terrorism because “we don’t think terrorism would be a problem in the future” was the Ford Foundation, not the U.S. government. Also, Rubin’s preferred term for terrorism motivated by Islam is “Islamism,” which he considers to be an ideology, distinguishing it from “Islam” which is the religion. See his take on the AP Stylebook’s new limit on the word Islamism.Lori Lowenthal Marcus
About the Author: Lori Lowenthal Marcus is a contributor to the JewishPress.com. A graduate of Harvard Law School, she previously practiced First Amendment law and taught in Philadelphia-area graduate and law schools. You can reach her by email: Lori@JewishPressOnline.com
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