Yesterday, at a White House reception for members of the diplomatic corps, the president took a moment to address the deadly attack on Nice, which, it was confirmed early today, was “inspired by ISIS.”
A good portion of the speech was boilerplate (“heavier hearts than normal,” “another tragic and appalling attack on the freedom and the peace that we cherish”), but that’s to be expected in speeches by world leaders.
Where Obama differs from most is in his willingness (make that desire) to politicize events like this by injecting his own spin. For example, five paragraphs in, he said:
And this is a threat to all of us. We don’t know all the details, but what we know is the capacity of even a single individual to do extraordinary harm to our people, to our way of life…. In recent weeks, we’ve seen heinous attacks, inspired or directed by ISIL, here in the United States, in Turkey, in Iraq, in Bangladesh, in Saudi Arabia. And these terrorists are targeting and killing innocent people of all backgrounds and all faiths, including Muslims. [Emphasis added]
The highlighted phrase has a sore thumb quality to it. Nowhere in the 440 odd words leading up to it was there any mention of Islam or any other religion. But let me not be coy. He added these two words to let everyone in the room know that he does not consider ISIS to be guided by Islamic principles — the group’s name and edicts notwithstanding.
Later in the speech, he took on the twin issues of radical Islam and non-radical Islam again. After affirming that “hateful ideologies … twist and distort Islam — a religion that teaches peace and justice and compassion,” he said:
In the wake of last night’s attacks, we’ve heard more suggestions that all Muslims in America be targeted, tested for their beliefs; some deported or jailed. And the very suggestion is repugnant and an affront to everything that we stand for as Americans.
Without naming names, he was referring to Newt Gingrich’s admittedly un-American recommendation that Muslims in the U.S. undergo a “shariah test.” Obama’s mention of “jail” was a distortion, but Gingrich’s ideas as stated were pretty extreme:
Let me be as blunt and direct as I can be. Western civilization is in a war. We should frankly test every person here who is of a Muslim background, and if they believe in Sharia, they should be deported. Sharia is incompatible with Western civilization. Modern Muslims who have given up Sharia, glad to have them as citizens. Perfectly happy to have them next door.
But Obama’s reaction was also pretty revealing:
We cannot give in to fear, or turn on each other, or sacrifice our way of life. We cannot let ourselves be divided by religion — because that’s exactly what the terrorists want. [Emphasis added]
He’s made similar statements, but they’ve always posed the same paradox: If ISIS does not speak for, represent, or embody the ideals of Islam, why would the group care if the United States let itself “be divided by religion” — or, to address Obama’s actual point, singled out Muslims?