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Little Stated in Final 'Union' Address

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

By now it's clear that John McCain's "blasphemy" on conservative principles is making some conservatives consider "apostasy" on Election Day -- not voting Republican.


A quick Google search shows such terminology popping up in campaign coverage, whether to describe the intensity of conservative disaffection with McCain's assaults on baseline conservatism ("McCain's "apostasy" on immigration, for example), or to indicate mock-horror at, say, Mitt Romney peeling the skin off a piece of fried chicken before eating it -- "blasphemy here in the South," according to CNN.

For deeply rooted cultural reasons, such terms serve as metaphors in our society. This helps explain how it is that President Bush, in this week's State of the Union address, could hold up as an example to the world how "Republicans and Democrats can compete for votes and cooperate for results at the same time."

I haven't noticed much cooperation over the last few decades, but ours is a peaceable, if sharp-elbowed, political phenomenon well worth showing "them," as Bush said. Of course, it wasn't entirely clear who Bush meant by "them" -- those he called "our enemies" and "the terrorists," or those he called called "men and women who are free." It also wasn't clear what he meant by "enemies," either. And even as the president reminded us, "We are engaged in the defining ideological struggle of the 21st century," he never defined the ideology we struggle against. The fact that "the terrorists oppose every principle of humanity and decency we hold dear" had to suffice.

Such vagueness marked his seventh and final annual address as strangely vacuous. Writing at the Counterterrorism Blog, Andrew Cochran elaborated on this theme, contrasting the language of this week's address with those of the past. In 2007, he wrote, Bush highlighted the aggression of "Sunni extremists" and "Shia extremists." In 2006, he warned against "radical Islam." In 2008, the president merely decried "assassins," "bombs," "extremists" and "terrorists." Why the fuzzy focus? Why declare a "defining ideological struggle" without defining the ideologies involved?


Among the principles Bush said we hold dear, we would undoubtedly include the freedom of religion. Going back to Bush's terminology, which "terrorists" oppose this freedom? One answer is Al Qaeda and the Taliban, which the president pointed out we are still fighting in Afghanistan. But so, recent events confirm, does Afghanistan itself oppose religious freedom, which the president didn't mention at all.

Or, rather, he mentioned Afghanistan, but simply as a "young democracy" where, thanks to the war on jihadists waged by the United States and its allies, the Afghan people "are looking to the future with new hope." Not Sayed Parwez Kaambakhsh, of course. Kaambakhsh is the 23-year-old journalist sentenced to death last month by an Afghan court for blasphemy. His future is hardly hopeful, especially since Afghanistan's senate this week endorsed his death sentence. (The senate's statement, Agence France-Presse reports, was signed by senate leader Sibghatullah Mojaddedi, "a close ally of President Hamid Karzai.")

Bush couldn't mention the Kaambakhsh case without spoiling the presidential narrative. What kind of "young democracy" infused with "new hope" sentences a citizen to death for "insulting Islam"? The answer is a democracy that enshrines Islamic law (Sharia). But confronting the role of Sharia in Islamic societies -- including those propped up by the U.S. military -- calls into question the strategy of the "war on terror" itself. After all, we're supposed to fight "terrorists" on behalf of peoples who, on liberation, are expected to join us in our "defining ideological struggle" to fight "terrorists." But how do we handle mounting evidence that the peoples we have assisted find themselves in greater sympathy with the Islamic ideology driving the "terrorists" than with our own?


This is the terrible lesson of the Kaambakhsh case, or would be, I think, if it came to wider public attention. How would our presidential candidates react to these blasphemy charges, Afghan style? It seems we'll never know.

Of course, not everyone is ignoring the story. AFP reports this week that the Taliban have weighed in on the case, also calling for "severe punishment" for Kaambakhsh. The jihadist group effectively called for the man's death by labeling him the "new Salman Rushdie" after the Bombay-born British writer whose 1988 Islamic death sentence from Iran marked the arrival of the jihadist movement into the West.

A defining moment, you might say. But no one seems to want to consider what it means.

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