On December 2, 2015, Syed Farook, an American-born citizen of Pakistani descent, and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, a Pakistani-born lawful resident of the United States, armed with semi-automatic pistols and rifles, murdered fourteen people in San Bernardino, California, and seriously wounded another twenty-two. The victims of this jihadist atrocity were attending a work-based Christmas—sorry, holiday—party/luncheon. The San Bernardino massacre and the proximate response to it by key public figures, from Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton to the Republican front-runner Donald Trump, may have shaped the 2016 presidential campaign as much as any other single event.
In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Hillary Clinton adopted the default position of the progressive-leftist narrative about mass shootings per se in America: “I refuse to accept this as normal. We must take action to stop gun violence now.” Fellow Democratic candidate Martin O’Malley also took pains to omit any reference to radical Islamic jihadism: “Enough is enough. It’s time to stand up to the National Rifle Association and enact meaningful gun safety laws.” Bernie Sanders had a similar message: “We need to significantly expand and improve background checks.” Clinton would later pillory Sanders in a television debate for voting against the Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act to establish a national criminal background check system.
However, scrutiny of the criminal or mental health record of the jihadist husband-and-wife hit team would not in itself have found anything amiss. There is some talk of Syed Farook experiencing a “troubled” childhood, but the twenty-eight-year-old municipal health inspector was characterised by colleagues and neighbours as a mostly polite and equable fellow. In travels abroad he met and wed twenty-seven-year-old Tashfeen Malik, a pharmacology graduate from an upper-middle-class family in Pakistan. The PC-compliant authorities vetted Malik on her arrival in America and—finding everything to be in order—granted her Green Card status in 2014; a baby daughter was born in mid-2015. One of the few times the “very quiet” Farook brought attention to himself was on the occasion that he argued a little too vociferously with a work colleague that Islam was “a peaceful religion”.
In one sense, at least, President Obama wrong-footed Democratic presidential candidates Clinton, Sanders and O’Malley in the wake of the massacre. Maybe they were not up with the latest PC meme. Back in 2009 the Obama administration had appeared to accept the proposition that the massacre of thirteen people at Fort Hood, Texas, in November of that year was the result of “workplace violence”—even though the perpetrator, American-born Muslim Nidal Hasan, shouted “Allahu Akbar!” before opening fire on his victims. Three years later, though, Barack Obama had shifted his position. The fallout from the Boston Marathon attack in April 2013 prompted President Obama to concede that both the Fort Hood shooting and the Boston bombing were “inspired by larger notions of violent jihad”. Several days after the San Bernardino atrocity he likewise accused Farook and Malik of having “gone down the dark path of radicalisation” and acknowledged to America, in only his third-ever address from the Oval Office, that “the threat from terrorism is real”.
President Obama recognised that explaining away the San Bernardino assault in the non-jihadist terminology of workplace violence, social alienation, religious discrimination and mental illness was implausible—a prudent move given that Tashfeen Malik had posted on her Facebook account the family’s allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State. There was also the matter of the couple’s botched attempt to kill emergency personnel arriving at the murder scene. The homemade explosives, which failed to detonate, were modelled on instructions helpfully provided by Al Qaeda’s online magazine Inspire.
Unlike Clinton, Sanders and O’Malley, the Republican presidential candidates were quick to contextualise the San Bernardino bloodbath in terms of a war being waged against America. The name of the war and the nature of the enemy, nonetheless, proved somewhat elusive. Jeb Bush, not unlike his brother after September 11, 2001, sounded downright vague on specifics: “If this is a war, and I believe it is since they have declared war on us, we need to declare war on them.” Who, we might legitimately ask, is “them”? Chris Christie referred to “radical Islamic jihadists” determined to “kill Americans and disrupt and destroy our way of life”, and yet he could not put a name to this global conflagration, calling it simply “a new world war”.
Donald Trump explicitly connected the political convictions of various latter-day Muslims with violent jihadism by advocating a “total and complete ban” on Muslims entering the United States. The White House, and even a spokesman for the Pentagon, criticised this proposition. Trump was repeating the recommendation he had made after the November 13, 2015, Islamic State attack in Paris, which took 129 lives. At that time he also advocated “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives figure out what is going on”. Trump would say much the same after the Salafi-jihadist attack in Brussels on March 22, 2016, which claimed thirty-two innocent lives plus the lives of the three Islamic State terrorists: “I would close up our borders to people until we figure out what’s going on … We don’t learn … The whole thing gets worse as time goes by.”
President Obama, in response, tore into the Republican front-runner: “The Republican vision has moved not just to the right, but has moved to a place that is unrecognisable.” Obama reproached not only Donald Trump but also his closest rival for the Republican presidential nomination, Senator Ted Cruz, who called for the “surveillance” of Muslim neighbourhoods in America after the Brussels butchery: “We need to empower law enforcement to secure Muslim neighbourhoods before they become radicalised.” Barack Obama contrasted 2008 Republican presidential candidate John McCain with the “meaner” 2016 Republican contenders: “John McCain didn’t call for banning Muslims from the United States.”
Trump has since turned the rhetoric down, emphasising the temporariness of a ban that was, in any case, only a “suggestion”. In the second week of May, having assumed the role of the GOP’s presumptive nominee, he floated the possibility of appointing former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani—who had rejected the idea of a ban as “unconstitutional”—to head a commission that would properly investigate the subject of “radical Islam” and immigration. Cooler heads appear to be prevailing. Towards the end of May, nevertheless, no less a figure than General David Petraeus, writing in the Washington Post, asserted that politicians “who toy with anti-Muslim bigotry must consider the effects of their rhetoric”. Petraeus did not stop there. He proceeded to make the case, implicitly at least, for Hillary Clinton to be “the future commander-in-chief” rather than someone—and who might that be?—with a penchant for “inflammatory political discourse”.
How, for instance, can Washington expect its various Muslim allies around the world, from Saudi Arabia and Turkey to Pakistan, to support the struggle against “Islamist extremism” if Islam itself is criticised? Clinton’s position on the matter clearly echoes Petraeus. When the Paris–San Bernardino–Brussels carnage prompted Clinton to speak more explicitly about the perils of terrorism, she was careful to censure Cruz’s use of the expression “radical Islamic terrorism”, preferring instead the term “radical jihadist terrorism”. She defended such “semantics” during a CNN interview in March by drawing on the precedent of President Bush’s post-9/11 practice of detaching—conceptually speaking—religious conviction from terrorism: “George W. Bush said it, that to, you know, do anything that implies that we are at war with an entire religion, with … 1.2 or 1.4 billion people is not only wrong, it is dangerous.”
One of the more insightful criticisms of General Petraeus’s line of reasoning has come from Robert G. Rabil, author of the erudite Salafism in Lebanon: From Apoliticism to Transnational Jihadism (2014). In an essay for the National Interest, “Profiling Muslims is Bad. So is Ignoring Radical Islam”, he expresses broad agreement with Petraeus’s contention that “demonising a religious faith” not only contravenes America’s constitutional principles but also threatens to undermine US national security. Rabil concurs with Petraeus’s admonition about “profiling Muslims, discriminating against Islam or lumping Muslims as radicals”. Nevertheless, he insists that Clinton and Petraeus, not to mention Obama’s administration and the Bush one preceding it, have misunderstood the nature of Islamist extremism:
Put simply, the war against Islamist extremism is not, as General Petraeus describes, a war against a fanatical ideology based on a twisted interpretation of Islam. It is a war against a triumphant religious ideology that cloaks itself in the sanctity of the sacred and the history of “authentic” Islam as applied by the first four rightly guided caliphs.
In the opinion of Robert Rabil, America’s struggle against Islamist extremism has failed because Western politicians, including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, refuse to factor into their calculations the consequences of America’s Muslim allies experiencing “complicated” relations with the forces of Islamic revivalism in their own countries. Many of these national leaders have been variously co-opted or threatened by radical agents in their midst while assenting to—and, in numerous incidences, subsidising—radical Islamic missionary-propaganda work (da‘wa) abroad, including in Europe, the United States and Australia. To combat the worst excesses of Islamic revivalism—the Islamic State and Al Qaeda—while ignoring the ideology of Salafi triumphalism is a recipe for disaster or, shall we say, a continuing and mounting disaster.
Fighting what is —that is, the Long War or the War of Freedom —in purely military terms represents utter folly. For instance, America’s regional Muslim ally in Operation Enduring Freedom against Al Qaeda was Pakistan. Today the Taliban is experiencing a revival, thanks to direct or indirect support by Pakistan’s army and intelligence—the same army, as Rabil notes, “that feigned shock on knowing that Osama bin Laden’s hideout was a villa not too far from both the Pakistan Military Academy at Kakul and the Army Burn Hall College”. We might say the same about Turkey’s “help” in the battle against the Islamic State in Syria, which has seen a proliferation of Saudi- and Turkish-backed “moderate terrorists”. It is past time, concludes Rabil, to “take Muslim regimes to task when they directly or indirectly promote radical Islam”. The United States needs to desist with the Bush–Obama orthodoxy of “compromised co-operation with America’s Muslim allies”—something Clinton will not do due to a misconception of the very nature of Islamist extremism.
Thus, the scholarly Rabil tacitly endorses the unscholarly Trump because of his “disposition to break with the deleterious foreign policy status quo”. While Clinton remains locked into Obama’s PC-informed view that terrorism is a “perversion of religion”, Trump has the brazenness to demand that the “country’s representatives figure out what is going on”. In the public domain, at least, the country’s chief representative for the past seven and a half years has demonstrated limited understanding of “what is going on”. Obama’s 2009 Islamic outreach, in conjunction with the assassination of Osama bin Laden in 2011, was meant to put an end to “extremist violence”, but the global situation has gone from bad to worse, including the unanticipated emergence of the Islamic State in late 2013.
There is also the domestic angle. Once a person is persuaded to a Salafist point of view—decoding the world through the template of seventh-century Arabia—then the door to millennialist madness is open, and not even a pious or traditional Muslim authority can necessarily provide a remedy. As Rabil demonstrates in Salafism in Lebanon, activist Salafism (the Muslim Brotherhood) and Salafi jihadism (Al Qaeda/Islamic State) are complementary, though often bickering, forces that share the same broad apocalyptic goal. While activist Salafism advocates civilisational or stealth jihad, Salafi jihadism advocates violent jihad, but the quest to subjugate the infidel and the entire world to the will of Allah through the restitution of the caliphate is the same.
The discovery of works by seminal Muslim Brotherhood theorist Sayyid Qutb amongst the effects of Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik did not make headlines, but it should have. All roads to Islamic radicalism pass through Sayyid Qutb’s interpretation of the Koran. According to Qutb, not only must “false Muslims” be reprogrammed or cleansed by an activist Salafi vanguard, but the source of the corruption, the West in general and the United States in particular, needs to be conquered or destroyed. Forget about spurious Islamophobia, because here we have a real phobia on steroids—Westophobia. If the relevant governmental authorities had not been instructed long ago by the Obama administration—as Stephen Coughlin claims in Catastrophic Failure: Blindfolding America in the Face of the Jihad (2015)—to wear PC-sensitive blinkers, a Westophobic warrior such as Tashfeen Malik would never have been granted a Green Card in 2014.
The Brussels massacre found President Obama in Cuba attending to archaic Cold War “misunderstandings”. Some saw his determination to enjoy a game of baseball in Havana after barely addressing the new terrorist outrage as a sign of statesmanship; others considered it another indication of his cluelessness. There is certainly a hint of Forrest Gump about his more formal response later that day: “What they can do is scare people and make people afraid and disrupt our daily lives and divide us, and as long as we don’t allow that to happen, we’re going to be okay.”
Barack Obama, for reasons of hubris and his own modern-day leftist ideology, cannot comprehend the nature of a global revolutionary phenomenon in any terms other than economic and social. As a consequence, there is nothing to be done for American and non-American—and Muslim and non-Muslim—alike but to hold onto our seats as we race towards our uncertain fate.
An article by Walter Russell Mead in the American Interest, “The Meaning of Mr Trump”, comes closest to accounting for the popularity of Donald Trump. Even Trump’s supporters cannot be sure he is going to do what he says he is going to do, but what they do know is that contemporary America feels like an express train speeding towards the abyss. Donald Trump is starting to look like the fellow bold enough to push the Emergency Stop button on a carriage full of frightened and cowed passengers.