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Are We Fighting A "Religious War" Against ISIS?


Are We Fighting A "Religious War" Against ISIS?

Thomas Whitley

Earlier this week in an interview with CNN, President Obama addressed complaints that he refuses to call the war against ISIS a "religious war." In response to Fareed Zakaria asking him if the US is in a "war with radical Islam," Obama offers the following answer:

There is an element growing out of muslim communities in certain parts of the world that have perverted the religion, have embraced nihilistic, violent, almost medieval interpretation of Islam. . . . It is absolutely true that I reject a notion that somehow that creates a religious war, because the overwhelming majority of muslims reject that interpretation of Islam. They don’t even recognize it as being Islam.

Obama has received some criticism for these comments from Republicans and Democrats. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said that when he hears the President of the United States "failing to admit that we're in a religious war, it really bothers [him]." Representative Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) thinks that is important to provide some sort of label, particularly one that includes "Islamic."

. . . when you look at those who are trying to incite religious bigotry and fomenting hatred, saying that this is a religious war, actually calling this for what it is, Islamic extremism, is important because it provides that division between the vast majority of pluralistic Muslims, who are not following radical ideology and those that are. So, by calling it, whether its radical Islamists or Islamic extremists, Islamic terrorists, whatever the terminology is, you have to identify what that is in order to provide the dividing line.

Obama's comments show that the US government has, at least tangentially, gotten involved in the insider question of who does and who does not represent "Islam." Note also his use of "medieval" as a way to say that they are not like us modern, enlightened, peaceful people. We have advanced beyond their tactics and their views. Society has passed them by. Gabbard's comments are a bit more interesting to me because in the large strokes she appears to agree with Obama, but she espouses a different solution. Like Obama, she thinks it is important to differentiate between "pluralistic Muslims" and these extremists/radicals/terrorists. Unlike Obama, she thinks their label should include some reference to "Islam."

I am not sure whether Gabbard has read much Bourdieu, but she rightly recognizes the power of naming as a means of dividing (we would call this classification). Gabbard seems to miss, though, that by labeling these actors in some way that includes Islam in the name ("radical Islamists or Islamic extremists, Islamic terrorists"), she is likely strengthening the connection to Islam in the minds of most of her audience. This is the key strategic move understood and made by groups for thousands of years. Naming one's opponent is important. Just as important, though, is not naming one's opponent, or, more specifically, choosing to not give them a particular label.

Thus, Romans talked about "barbarians," Christians spoke of "heretics," and today Muslims speak of "extremists" and "radicals." In each case, the deliberate choice was made to not give the opposing group the preferred or sought after name (even if the group in question gave themselves that name). My main object of study, for instance, Carpocrates, understood himself to be a Christian, but his opponents called him a "heretic," a "magician," a Platonist, but never a Christian. Recently, many have taken to Twitter to promote and spread the hashtag #ISIS_are_NOT_Muslims.

So, the question of whether the US is fighting a "religious war" against ISIS is actually an important one, for the answer that one gives reveals their particular strategy to delegitimate the group. It also reveals a host of other assumptions that people have about Islam in general (e.g., is it inherently peaceful or inherently violent?). The question also offers an opportunity to see the interests that one has in defining Islam and ISIS in a certain way. Obama tipped his hand to this in the interview when he says that "it is very important for us to align ourselves with the 99.9% of Muslims who are looking for the same thing we're looking for: order, peace, prosperity." It is true that it has long been in the foreign policy interest of the United States to find like-minded allies, but it is also true that Obama simply does not want to alienate such a large number of people around the world (according to 2011 numbers from Pew Forum, there are 1.57 billion Muslims worldwide). There is the added interest of some American politicians to combat anti-Muslim sentiment in this country. Thus, calling ISIS simply "terrorists" or "extremists"  - and not attaching the modifier "Islamic" - is seen as a way to achieve this.

So, while this question is not a bad one to ask, it would be better to ask "what is at stake in asking the question and what is at stake in the answers given?"