The tragic attack early Sunday morning at the Pulse nightclub by a radical Islamist devotee led to very different responses from President Obama and the presumptive Republican Nominee, Donald Trump.
Obama, after noting that the attack was terrorism (which is a tactic -- not the reason the tactic was used), pivoted to his version of a solution: gun control.
"This massacre is therefore a further reminder of how easy it is for someone to get their hands on a weapon that lets them shoot people in a school, or in a house of worship, or a movie theater, or in a nightclub," Obama said. "And we have to decide if that's the kind of country we want to be."
Trump, in contrast, focused his remarks on "the growing threat of terrorism inside of our borders." He added that "a radical Islamic terrorist targeted the nightclub not only because he wanted to kill Americans, but in order to execute gay and lesbian citizens because of their sexual orientation."
Obama, in response to Trump's speech, was unimpressed. "That's the key, they tell us -- we can't beat ISIL unless we call them 'radical Islamists,'" he said. "What exactly would using this label accomplish? What exactly would it change? Would it make ISIL less committed to trying to kill Americans? Would it bring in more allies? Is there a military strategy that is served by this? The answer is none of the above. Calling a threat by a different name does not make it go away."
While it may not make the threat go away, its proper identification would inform the strategy needed to defeat the threat.
Terrorism is a tactic used by individuals and groups to achieve their political, social or religious goals. It is not, in itself, a belief system. Former diplomat Christian Whiton lays out in his 2013 book, "Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War," a critical error made by the Obama administration, which has failed to clearly identify "two distinct but overlapping elements" that he identifies as Islam and Islamism.
"The former is a religion of nearly a quarter of the world's population; the latter (Islamism) is a political ideology whose central tenet is unifying government and Islam, and is advocated by a small subset of Muslims." Unless we are aware of the difference, we cannot create a strategy to win.
According to Whiton, "Successful political warfare against this ideology could involve three broad steps: First, we should tell the truth about radical Islam and adopt a policy of opposing Islamism globally. ... Being honest about this threat is not anti-Muslim. In fact, political warfare ideally would involve getting Muslims to turn decisively against the Islamists.
"Second, we need to focus on nonviolently undermining Islamist governments like Iran's. While ISIS may earn headlines, Iran's theocracy has tentacles throughout the Middle East and may soon be armed with nuclear weapons.
"Third, we should work with allies to suppress radical Islam culturally. ... We should support institutions that give power to modern Muslims who believe in separating mosque and state."
We have to use all of our sources of support, power and influence to prevail over Islamism. Even if we defeat the terrorism of the Islamic State, other radical Islamist groups are ready to move in and focus on the end goal of Islamism.
In March, a New York Times article noted that the goal of the radical Islamists "is to weaken Western society by spreading fear and panic, turning citizen against citizen, feeding xenophobic sentiments and further alienating and radicalizing Muslim youths." What the newspaper identifies as the Islamists' goal is only a midpoint.
The end goal of radical Islamism is the unification of government and Islam, which would be antithetical to the values inherent in Western democracy.
While Obama denies the importance of naming and understanding, Trump understands that "many of the principles of radical Islam are incompatible with Western values and institutions. Radical Islam is anti-woman, anti-gay and anti-American. If we want to protect the quality of life for all Americans -- women and children, gay and straight, Jews and Christians and all people -- then we need to tell the truth about Radical Islam."
Trump is correct; Americans' belief system runs counter to radical Islam, regardless of the tactics that its followers use.
Our system embraces freedom and diversity; theirs embraces adherence and purity.
We have to identify by name those who are at war with us, and begin to understand that a political ideology that encourages adherents to undertake suicide missions differs from our Western view of what is acceptable and requires we take a different approach if we are to prevail.
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