K.T. McFarland could learn a lot in Singapore – or not

So, it appears that Singapore is being considered as the next stop for K.T. McFarland. She could take over the job of ambassador here. McFarland is currently a deputy national security adviser within the Trump administration, but her continuing in that role has been in doubt since Michael Flynn was fired as national security adviser.

From what I know of her public statements, she could face some challenges here. Or alternatively, she might have an enlightening time. Let me explain.

One of her public themes appears to be that “radical Islamic terrorism” represents an existential threat to Western civilization. I assume this played a prominent role in her getting a job in Trump administration security circles because of Pres. Trump’s frequent criticism that Pres. Obama failed to recognize such a threat and do enough about it.

For my part, I don’t have a problem with labeling radical Islamic terrorism as *a* threat. Obviously, it is. And it could be quite horrible in its most extreme scenarios, like a dirty bomb. But I think it’s ridiculous to label it as an *existential* threat to the West. I really don’t see Islamic armies conquering and taking over the U.S. or any European countries any time soon. (No, that’s what we do in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.) And despite fear-mongering on the right, I really don’t see a wholesale conversion to Shariah law, either.

However, countries with significant or majority Muslim populations do face challenges of this sort. In addition to terrorist attacks, if radical ideologies gain wide support, they can fundamentally change the character of the nation and threaten the existing less religious – or even secular – governments.

That’s why – and this might come as a shock to some American conservatives – you routinely see governments in southeast Asia taking steps to contain Islamic extremism. In Indonesia, which is the largest Muslim country on the planet, you see arrests and prosecutions of extremists and the president calling on citizens to resist radicalization. In Malaysia, which is a majority Muslim country, you see arrests of suspected ISIS supporters and convictions of others, as well as other steps. And in Singapore, which is almost 15% percent Muslim, an imam that made what was considered radical statements was forced to apologize and to pay a fine, while at the same time the country’s leaders express their firm commitment to a multi-religious society.

So, should Mrs. McFarland come to Singapore, I’ll be curious to find out what she’ll learn as she lives here. Maybe she’ll stick to her strong condemnations of Islamic radicalism (which has the possibility of backfiring and breeding anti-Western sentiments). Or maybe she’ll start to see that some Islamic countries are often just as committed to stopping radicalism as the West. (It is, after all, largely a recent import from the Middle East.) If she learns a little and moderates her views, she might become an effective representative of the U.S. in Singapore and beyond.

Set aside fear and prejudice and become a freedom fighter

Regarding the Syrian refugees, we should let them in, of course.

First, it’s good policy. To undermine support for radical Islam, we have to win moderate and liberal Muslim hearts and minds. By denying entry for the refugees, we give ISIS and similar groups the public relations and moral victory that they want.

It is also just the right thing to do – to help those in need – especially in times of war.

However, we still need to ask why so many Americans are opposed to the Syrian refugees. Some of it might be because they’re uniformed. (The resettlement process is actually quite rigorous.) Undoubtedly some of it is just rank, un-American religious bigotry. I applaud everyone who in the last week has fought against the ignorance and intolerance out there.

But I think advocates of admitting the Syrian refugees need to acknowledge that many Americans are genuinely worried about the safety of their families and friends. It’s unfair to just ignore this worry. After all, we need be honest that, while the risk of terrorism from the refugees – and overall – is small, it will never be zero. There simply cannot be perfect safety.

And that is why we need to enlist our fellow Americans in this battle for hearts and minds. We, as a people, can take a positive, active role in defeating radical ideologies. We don’t do it by closing off our country – and our own hearts and minds. We don’t do it by destroying our open, liberal republican society and its promise of inclusiveness and freedom. Instead, we defeat these radical ideologies by remaining open – and yes, somewhat exposed – and proving that our society is stronger than the illiberal, pre-modern ideologies – like radical Islam – that oppose it.

In a sense, this puts U.S. citizens on the “front lines”. But as the saying goes, freedom isn’t free. Normally that’s used to celebrate soldiers, but I say we use it to celebrate ordinary American citizens who take the risk of setting aside fear and prejudice and dedicate themselves to realizing American values at home. That’s a noble cause. And it’s one all Americans should support.

Radical Islamist and radical Christianist terrorism

I’ve seen some stories bouncing around drawing equivalencies between Islam-inspired terrorists and Christianity-inspired terrorists.

Three thoughts occur:

  • I get the impulse to equate the two. However, the threat from radical Christianist terrorism – both to the West and Islamic countries – is much smaller. That’s good, of course, but why it’s smaller is what really matters. At this point in time, radical Christianists mostly have to operate in stable, secular, liberal democracies that are committed to inclusiveness, have a robust political life, and don’t subscribe to visions of apocalyptic religious war. That kind of society effectively drains the swamp in which these sick ideologies breed. That kind of society needs to appreciated, cherished, and defended.
  • Fortunately, radical Christianist groups don’t have massive amounts of oil money to fund their operations.
  • Again, yes, radical Islamists are more dangerous, but we have to keep in mind that they are not an existential threat to the West. ISIS will not be rolling in Washington, D.C., or Paris or London to takeover the country. In the most horrific case imaginable, they might destroy a city, but they will not conquer any Western countries. The fact remains that they and other radical Islamist organizations are a far greater danger to other Muslims than us. We should temper our reactions to match this reality.

Is America at war with radical Islam?

Short answer: Yes, of course. But we can’t say that too loudly.

Let me explain.

This question came up during Saturday’s Democratic presidential debate, which followed the attacks in Paris. I freely admit that – to a wounded and frightened world populace – the Democrats responses seemed like weak tea, with their inability to straightforwardly say whether we were or were not at war with radical Islam. The Republican presidential candidates clearly thought they had a gotchya moment here and attacked the Democrats. Donald Trump even says the problem of terrorism can’t be solved until we say the magic words “radical Islamic terrorism”. (It’s like saying hocus pocus, I guess.)

While this demand to speak the words is probably very satisfying to some, it is also very irresponsible – especially coming from presidential candidates.

You see, what U.S. presidential candidates say is not just for domestic consumption. Their words are heard around the world. Citizens of other countries – who don’t get to vote, of course – are very much effected by what the U.S. does, and they follow our politics closely. When discussing terrorism, you have to be nuanced about how your criticize Islam. If you’re not careful, you’ll lose the battle for hearts and minds before you even have a chance to fight. If we’re ever to stop Islam-inspired terrorism, we cannot alienate moderate Muslims. We cannot have them thinking, “Well, they hate us anyway, so screw ‘em. Bring on the jihad.” Hillary Clinton came closest to articulating this that night. She even – and it kills me to say this – rightly praised George W. Bush for his restraint:

If they hear people running for– president who basically shortcut it to say we are somehow against Islam– that was one of the real contributions– despite all the other problems that George W. Bush made after 9/11 when he basically said after going to a mosque in Washington, “We are not at war with Islam or Muslims. We are at war with violent extremism. We are at war with people who use their religion for purposes of power and oppression.” And yes, we are at war with those people that I don’t want us to be painting with too brand (sic) a brush.

So, what seems like mealy mouthed responses from the Democrats are, in fact, finely calibrated responses.

Can we not criticize Islam at all, then? Of course we can. Look, clearly ISIS is a religiously inspired movement. For some reason – and it’s not at all clear to me why – a certain brand of fundamentalist Islam is proving remarkably attractive to some Muslims across the world, who are willing to travel to Syria to fight and to conduct terrorism at home. This is certainly a fact that Islam and its adherents must confront.

We must discuss, understand, and criticize Islam as it relates to terrorism. But we have to be careful in how we go about it. And certainly presidential candidates saying things that will be perceived to threaten Muslims worldwide won’t help. It matters who does the criticizing. If that’s not satisfying to you, well, I don’t know what to say. Maybe you should just grow up a little.

Reflections on terrorism, peace, and human nature

My heart goes out to all of those killed and wounded by terrorist attacks — in Paris, Beirut, Mumbai, the U.S., of course, and elsewhere. Nothing I write or say can take away the pain, sadness, anger, and vulnerability they must feel. I have a few thoughts regarding terrorism, peace, and human nature that I try to keep in mind at times like these. I don’t think they’re very comforting to those who have lost loved ones, but I hope, should I or my family ever be the victim of these evil events someday, someone would gently remind me of what I wrote here.

  • It’s important to realize that, as Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack write, we live in one of the safest periods in human history. Many kinds of violence are at historically low levels, and the deaths associated with terrorism are nothing compared to world wars — let alone the very real possibility at one time of a global nuclear war.
  • Revenge is natural part of human psychology, but blunt, vengeful militarism and bombing will not solve the problem of terrorism. In fact, it can inflame it by creating new enemies, especially when we callously accept that innocents will die as part of our bombing, as we have during Pres. Obama’s drone war. Such bombing becomes, in the minds of innocent victims, just another form of terrorism. Instead, we need to look to policing and politics. A study published by the Institute for Economics and Peace (h/t emptywheel) highlights (PDF) a RAND Corporation report that found that more than 80% of terrorist groups end though improved policing or through the group becoming part of the political process. Military force alone accounted for only 7% of terrorist groups ending. In this case, our strength will come from our restraint.
  • The same RAND report did find that only 32% of religious terrorist groups ended during its study period. Religious movements seem to be particularly intractable. However, simply blaming religion or, in this case, Islam in particular will not help. In fact, the more we stoke anger and divisiveness — especially along religious lines — the easier it is for them to recruit new terrorists. I’m not saying we can just ignore the religion of the terrorists — after all, it is a significant source of fuel for their movement — but an excessive or unilateral focus on it will only serve the interests of the terrorists.
  • We in the United States and in the West must acknowledge the role of our foreign policy in creating these terrorists. The list is long: the disastrous decision by the Bush administration to drive us into the Iraq War and destabilize the entire region; the tacit support for all of Israel’s actions, no matter how illegal or misguided; the propping up of brutal regimes that leave very little room for political change; the drone bombing I mentioned above.
  • Also regarding policy choices, we have to recall that the only reason the Middle East is of unique strategic importance is because of oil. Without the need to keep the oil flowing, we wouldn’t have much interest in the area. After all, there are humanitarian and human rights disasters across the world, but we don’t invade all of them. Also, oil money is what continues to fund much of the violence. Our dependence on oil is a public policy choice that we make. We could be spending the billions we spend on bombs to look at alternatives.
  • These terrorists are terrible people, but not uniquely terrible. This capacity exists within all societies and within all of us for this kind of violence. We’re all very good at crafting reasons for violence that are very convincing to ourselves. After all, one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. If you live in the United States or another Western nation, count yourself lucky to be living in a certain time and place that is relatively secure and not targeted by the world’s great powers. And count yourself lucky to live a secular nation, where religious extremism is undermined by the larger cultural commitment to peaceful, inclusive, and robust politics. In the long run, the greatest threat to the terrorists is that we stand firm in support of our democratic republican values. The alternative leads to our becoming just like them.