Is political Islam in America’s best interests? This question should be central to our strategy of fighting ISIS and Islamist terrorism in general. Yet it’s one that many political leaders would rather not answer, because of our politically correct climate. But since Trump’s transition team announced last week that it’s considering retired Gen. James Mattis for secretary of defense, this reluctance might fade.
In a speech given at the Heritage Foundation last year, Mattis spoke about America’s position vis à vis political Islam. Rather than equivocating on the matter in order to avoid saying something uncomfortable or politically incorrect, Mattis simply pointed out that America needs to make a decision about its stance toward this ideology.
Recall that political Islam, or Islamism, is a movement within Islam: it works toward the increasing implementation of Islamic law and values in all areas of life—usually via state control—in order to make Islam a dominant force in the world.
Why We Don’t Talk About Islamism
Mattis’ suggestion—which sounds like a basic element of defense strategy—has been surprisingly neglected in the years since 9/11. The U.S. tends to deal with Islamism on a case-by-case basis. And so long as any particular group or political entity doesn’t have a direct and obvious link to terrorism, we tend to give them a pass. Even then, this is sometimes too high of a bar, as is the case with the Muslim Brotherhood and associated groups.
No one wants to delve into the question of Islamism because it has become a politically charged issue, one that often leads to accusations of bigotry and Islamaphobia. As Islam is increasingly treated as a protected class by America’s progressive Left, any scrutiny of any faction within Islam is considered off limits. This is done in the name of tolerance, but is in fact a highly intolerant position. But it’s successfully scared off politicians and military personnel, who tend to make vague and noncommittal statements on the topic.
This makes Mattis’ statements all the more notable. He’s simply urging the U.S. to make a decision. And what’s more, he’s arguing that this decision ought to be based on what we believe is in our best interest:
“Is political Islam in the best interest of the United States?…If we won’t even ask the question then how do we even get to the point of recognizing which is our side in the fight? And if we don’t take our own side in this fight we’re leaving others adrift.”
What Is In The Country’s Best Interests?
This is a surprisingly unpopular question to ask in general, and specifically when it comes to Islam. The concept itself—asking what is in America’s best interest—has largely been ignored as of late. Under Obama, America has pursued a policy of “leading from behind,” and more or less disregarding America’s interests abroad. The Obama administration has done this based on the notion, central to the progressive narrative of history, that America is a de facto colonialist power, whose influence in the world is malign and ought to recede of our own volition.
But if the U.S. can’t identify what is in its best interests, or refuses to pursue those interests out of an oversized sense of political correctness, there’s no way to forge a comprehensive global defense strategy. As Mattis points out, if we won’t even talk about political Islam with a critical eye, how can we figure out which side we’re on, and make decisions from that point? Neglecting the question not only hurts our interests—it leaves our allies unsure of where we stand and how we will proceed when Islamist movements gain traction in their countries.
Mattis also points out that ISIS is counting on Americans not having a debate on whether political Islam is good for America. If we don’t examine this question, we can’t create a cohesive strategy, and our fight against ISIS’s self-proclaimed Caliphate (or other groups like them) will ultimately fail.
This is the opposite of what some Islamist apologists and those on the left insist, which is that ISIS wants us to talk about the connections between Islam and violence, in order to make Muslims feel like the West is at war with their entire religion. Then, so the thinking goes, Muslims will turn on the West.
Mattis Would Change Our Reputation
As it is, ISIS has largely won this battle. Any serious strategic discussion about the relationship between political Islam and American national interests has been deemed illegitimate and offensive by the political Left. See, for example, the scrubbing of terms related to Islam from Department of Homeland Security training materials.
Mattis’ appointment as Defense Secretary would be a marked change not only from the Obama administration, but also from the Bush years. Both administrations were reluctant to substantively engage in a debate on the merits or threats of political Islam.
Since giving this speech at Heritage, ISIS has experienced significant territorial losses. But the question Mattis raises has not lost its relevance. It will be central to many of the Trump administration’s foreign policy challenges. Political Islam remains, and will remain, a problem for the West both in terms of domestic security and global strategy. Whether it’s the Muslim Brotherhood’s activities in the U.S., or political Islam in a post-Arab Spring Middle East, the U.S. needs to know where it stands on this issue.
Mattis concludes that political Islam is not, in the end, good for America. But he acknowledges that what’s most important is that we have a discussion about it—so that we can develop a broader strategy for how to deal with Islamism in the world. Without a cohesive strategy, there is little hope of checking the destructive influences of political Islam both at home and abroad.