Crystallizing who our enemy is -- and the policies we need to prevail.
Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Jacob Laksin, the managing editor of Frontpage Magazine. As a fellow at the Phillips Foundation, he reported about the war on terrorism from East and North Africa and from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He is co-author, with David Horowitz, of One-Party Classroom: How Radical Professors at America's Top Colleges Indoctrinate Students and Undermine Our Democracy. His work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Philadelphia Inquirer, The Weekly Standard, City Journal, Policy Review, as well as other publications.
FP: Jacob, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
I’d like to talk to you today about your view of the terror war, how the Obama administration is handling it and how a U.S. administration should preferably and ideally be handling it.
I would like to begin this discussion by talking with you about the nature of the threat we face in general. You and I have had a few disagreements (I think) in our own private discussions about Islam and to what extent it represents the “problem” in terms of the enemy we face. Tell us a bit about your thoughts on this issue, in terms of Islam and in what way you deem it to represent, or not represent, “the threat” to us in this terror war. And share with us some of your travels to the Islamic world that have, perhaps, influenced your outlook.
Laksin: First, thank you for having me, Jamie. It’s not often I find myself on this side of an interview, let alone in this space, but the honor is doubly great since one of my favorite interviewers is conducting it.
Islam is a complicated subject but I suppose where we disagree is in our definition of the threat it poses. You believe that Islam is the problem; I think there’s a good deal to that. Robert Spencer and others have made a convincing case that Islam is foundationally less tolerant, more supremacist, and more militant than other major religions and hence presents a unique threat. I’m willing to accept that argument, though more on empirical than doctrinal grounds: Wherever terrorism takes place today, Islam is usually connected. That is surely no coincidence.
But while I agree that Islam as such is a threat, I don’t agree that it is the threat. As I see it, Islamic texts may be immutable but Islam is not monolithic; it is a reflection of the society at large. Thus, Islam in Arabia is very different than Islam in Africa, and the differences are apparent even within the same continent. I’ve drunk boukha (a kind of fig liquor) with educated Muslims in Tunisia who have read the Koran, and I’ve been accosted and forcibly converted to Islam by a Muslim gang of young and likely illiterate thugs in East Africa. (I happen to be an atheist by persuasion, but when it comes to potentially life-threatening situations, I am not a stickler for principle.)
The lesson I draw from those experiences is that culture makes the difference. If you take the hothouse culture of, say, Saudi Arabia – tribal, puritanical, violent, sectarian – you are very likely to get something that resembles Wahhabi Islam. That also means that even if Islam ceased to exist tomorrow, the threat we associate with its terrorist followers would persist. I think this is what T.E. Lawrence was getting at when he wrote so lyrically of Wahabism that:
It was a natural phenomenon, this periodic rise at intervals of little more than a century, of ascetic creeds in central Asia. Always the voteries found their neighbors beliefs cluttered with inessential things, which became impious in the hot imagination of their preachers. Again and again, they had arisen, had taken possession, soul and body, of the tribes…the new creeds flowed like the tides or the changing seasons, each movement with the seeds of early death it its excess of rightness.
I see it similarly. So, while it may sound paradoxical, I think it’s simplistic to blame Islamic texts, which many in the Muslim world have not read – even in Egypt, a relatively modern state by the Arab world’s standards, almost half the population is illiterate – for the threat posed by Islamic extremism. Meanwhile, arguably the worst “Islamic” terrorist organization of the last half century, the Palestinian PLO, was at least notionally secular.
All that said, I think the points of agreement here are more important than the differences. Whether you think that Islam is the problem, or whether you think the culture from which it emerges is the problem, the same policy implications should follow: a reduction in immigration from Muslim countries; a skepticism about the Western world’s ability to transport its values and forms of government to that part of the world; a vigilance about Muslim extremism in the U.S.; and a steadfast support for democratic countries like Israel that live surrounded by the threat. If there can be some agreement on these points, I will accept that the rest is academic. Finally, though I don’t fully agree with the thesis that Islam as a religion is the main threat, I am dismayed that this is considered a fringe view while the idea that Islam is a “religion of peace” enjoys the status of mainstream truth. In a saner, more observant world, that would be reversed.
FP: Thanks Jacob, the debate on whether “Islam is or is not the problem” continues in many places and, obviously, also here at Frontpage and at NewsReal. So, while we disagree on several realms, we aren’t going to engage in a debate on it here today -- and that is also not our purpose. For those interested, Robert Spencer has recently crystallized his argument at Newreal, and my own position is pretty much synthesized in my debate with Dinesh D’Souza.
Let’s follow up on the policy implications that you mention should be put in place in countering the threat we face. You point to a reduction in immigration from Muslim countries. Why is this important in your view and how could it be administered, especially in a climate of political correctness – that appears to not only shape the boundaries of national discourse but also the policies of the country?
Laksin: Several years ago, Daniel Pipes, writing of Muslim immigrants in the U.S., posed this provocative but pertinent question:
“[W]ill they insist on adapting the United States to Islam, or will they agree to adapt Islam to the United States?”
It’s because I don’t think the answer to this is definitively clear cut that a restriction on immigration from majority Muslim countries – with exceptions made for refugees and political dissidents – is a reasonable precaution to take.
Recall that twenty years ago, an operative in the Muslim Brotherhood wrote a strategy memo advising supporters to
“understand that their work in America is a kind of grand jihad in eliminating and destroying the Western civilization from within and ‘sabotaging’ its miserable house by their hands and the hands of the believers so that it is eliminated and God’s religion is made victorious over all other religions.”
It’s tempting too dismiss this as a fringe view, but unfortunately a Muslim Brotherhood-created organization, the Muslims Students Association, is now ubiquitous on college campuses and its ideals converge frighteningly with those of its parent group (It is not surprising that the president of one college MSA chapter has been convicted of aiding terrorist groups). Meanwhile, the leading the Muslim advocacy group, the Council on American Islamic Relations, has ties to a terrorist-funding charity.
I don’t mean to suggest that all American Muslims are extremists or anything like it; no doubt many would find the anti-American agendas and stealth jihad campaigns of such groups abhorrent and some – I am thinking for instance of the indefatigable Zuhdi Jasser of the American Islamic forum for Democracy – have labored to distance themselves from their more fanatical coreligionists and outline a vision Islam compatible with our secular democracy. At the same time, I’m very mindful of the fact that the United States has been more successful in integrating its Muslim immigrants and has fewer problems with Muslim extremism than Europe in no small measure because it has had less immigration from Muslim countries. The intifada-style riots that swept France in 2005 is something I don’t want to see repeated in this country, and a precautionary policy of restricting immigration seems to me a defensible way to do it.
Political correctness is, alas, an omnipresent factor in contemporary policy debates but I’m not sure that its impact on this issue will be decisive. First, the United States already has one of the most selective and restrictive immigration policies in the world. Moreover, the tightening of security restrictions after September 11 has made immigration from Islamic countries even more difficult. So, I think the roots of the kind restrictions I have in mind are already partly in place.
FP: What would a legitimate and effective “vigilance about Muslim extremism in the U.S” require in your view?
Laksin: There are a number of things – from monitoring mosques with suspected terrorism ties, to closer scrutiny of Muslim advocacy groups like CAIR, to extending warrantless surveillance of terrorist communications (one of the many Bush administration counterterrorism policies whose value President Obama has come to recognize in office). Ironically, I think government officials encourage such vigilance – if very inadvertently. Every time a high-ranking official goes on television to lecture the American people that [insert Islamic terrorist act here] has nothing at all to do with Islam, which is really a peace-seeking religion, you see, Americans grow more distrustful of the official spin. I know I do. A sure way to instill resentment of political correctness is to tell people that they don’t really see what is staring them in the face.
FP: You mention the importance of a steadfast support for democratic countries like Israel. The Obama administration is wavering from that. Your thoughts on Obama and Israel and what we are seeing happening right now? Why is the Obama administration more concerned about Israelis building apartments than about Islamic entities fanning the flames of anti-Semitism, engaging in terrorism against Israel and building bombs?
Laksin: Last week there was a “fake news” hoax involving a spoof Associated Press story reporting that in private meetings President Obama had urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to get rid of the refrain “next year in Jerusalem” for this week’s Passover holiday because it would be provocative and jeopardize peace talks. That this story sounded credible to so many people is a telling commentary on the deterioration of the U.S.-Israel relationship under Obama.
I don’t know why the Obama administration – or indeed any American administration – is so determined to forge a peace settlement where there is only one serious negotiating party. (Hint: it is not the one that has refused unequivocally to recognize the other party’s right to exist.) Perhaps its hubris on the president’s part: He really does believe the hype that he is the transformational president whose vision will win out through sheer force of charm and charisma. Or perhaps this administration, like others before it, has bought into the Arab states’ self-serving and demonstrably bogus assurances that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at the heart of all instability and terrorism in the Middle East. (In truth, of course, the conflict is nothing more than a convenient pretext for corrupt and repressive Arab regimes to focus their people’s fury on something other than the fact that they are ruled by corrupt and repressive regimes. They must secretly dread the day a peace deal is reached and they have no distraction from their failures.) Whatever the explanation, the administration’s conduct toward Israel has been reprehensible, especially when one considers the more pressing issues still to be addressed. I am not generally an admirer of Mike Huckabee, but I think he put it well the other day: “Israel is building bedrooms, and Iran is building bombs. Worry about the bombs, Mr. President.”
FP: Let’s narrow in a bit on the Obama administration and how it is handling the terror war overall. Your thoughts?
Laksin: With the notable exception of Iran, I think the Obama administration has a better record in this regard than it wants its supporters to know and its critics to believe. The little-told story of this administration is that, even it has a made a show of condemning the Bush administration’s counterterrorism policies, it has largely replicated them. (A report in the New York Times this week tries, and fails miserably, to show that the administration has significantly changed the Bush-era policies.) Despite the terrible decision, since aborted in New York, to try high-profile terrorists in civilian courts, the administration has kept in place the military commissions system established under President Bush – much to the fury of the ACLU. With only the most cosmetic changes, it has continued the Bush policy of detaining terrorists without trial. It has further outraged the Left by continuing the Bush policy of rendition – that is, sending terrorist suspects to other countries for detention and interrogation – even as it pretended to wash its hands of the moral stain of harsh interrogation techniques. (The most severe of which, like waterboarding, were in any case ended five full years before Obama became president.) The administration has followed the Bush administration’s timeline for drawing down troops from Iraq and it has stepped up the military campaign in Afghanistan. Targeted assassinations of terrorists have actually increased under Obama.
All this is to the administration’s credit. Now, one could justly argue that this also makes Obama a hypocrite. For my part, I don’t really care. So long as the administration has preserved these vital counterterrorism tools in practice, it is of no concern to me that it has disavowed them in theory.
It’s in the places where the administration has tried to chart a genuinely new – as opposed to rhetorical – course that it has blundered. The now-scuttled decision to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York was strategically stupid and a very foreseeable a public relations disaster. The president’s order to close Guantanamo without having an alternative detention facility was ill-conceived and premature, something the administration has now discovered. (Yes, President Bush also wanted to close Gitmo, but he was wise enough to refrain from ordering it closed until a new location could be found.) Worst of all, perhaps, are the administration’s repeated threats to pursue criminal prosecutions of Bush-era CIA officers who presided over the harsh interrogations of high-value terrorist detainees. Not only was that program perfectly legitimate – it was legal, safe, effective and helped foil terrorist plots and save countless lives – but the administration’s threats will surely make an already risk-averse agency even more conservative. From a national security perspective, it all seems spectacularly self-defeating.
FP: When you say it is of “no concern” to you that the administration has disavowed the vital counter-terrorism tools in theory, are you dismissing the damage done by the verbalization of ideology by elites, no matter what is actually done? A leadership’s rhetoric, let alone any rhetoric that reaches a mass audience, has a massive impact on the psychology of a nation.
Laksin: A fair point. I suppose it’s cynicism on my part. If it comes out of the mouth of a politician, my personal policy is to regard it with suspicion, and so I tend to discount the importance of political rhetoric – too lightly, as you suggest. That admitted, though, I think you can make a good strategic case for the administration’s rhetorical approach. To the Left and our critics overseas, it offers the comforting illusion that they are being listened too. To the Right, it offers the quiet compliment of largely adopting its preferred policy agenda. In a twisted way, everyone wins.
FP: When you say how “spectacularly self-defeating” some of the Obama administration’s approaches to the terror threat are, what do you think accounts for this self-defeating approach? I stand on the ground that it is deliberate destruction and self-destruction. I have a hunch you might differ from this position. You attribute it more to naiveté? Or to what?
Laksin: Motives are notoriously difficult to gauge, but if I had to guess I would say an excess of self-righteousness. On the KSM trial, the administration seemed determined to prove that it knew better than its critics – even to the extent that it has exaggerated the civilian courts’ successes in prosecuting terrorists. Why do that, particularly when you are keeping the military commissions system anyway?
We saw something similar in the health care debate. Sure, half the country opposed the legislation, but the president just knew that he was right, and darn it if the country wasn’t going to get the bill. On some level, I think the administration has internalized the liberal intelligentsia’s critique of the Bush administration, namely that it was too impulsive and insufficiently intellectual. Where Bush went with his gut, Obama goes with his head. If nothing else, Obama’s tenure has shown us that intellectuals don’t necessarily make wiser or better leaders.
FP: Hypothetically: Obama calls you today and tells you he is rethinking his strategy in the terror war and needs to start hearing some different voices. He has heard you’re one of the main people to start listening to. He wants to know some changes he should make (and some changes he shouldn’t make) on a few realms in the short-term future. What do you tell him?
Laksin: I would respectfully submit that he fire Eric Holder. From the ill-conceived move to try KSM in New York (after he’d already offered to plead guilty in a military tribunal), to the destructive witch-hunt of CIA interrogators, to the dangerously wrongheaded decision to read underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab the Miranda rights before he had been adequately interrogated, the most serious missteps that the administration has made in the terror war can be traced directly to the attorney general’s door. This needn’t continue. As this New York Times report makes clear, there are a number of Justice Department lawyers who understand the stakes in this war and are willing to take the steps necessary to win it – and who are not going to repudiate a common sense approach to counterterrorism for narrow ideological or partisan grounds. Surely any one of them would be a suitable replacement. And if it's advice the president wants, he could do worse than to consider what some of his critics are saying – starting, of course, with Front Page magazine! (I would apologize for the blatant self-promotion, but, perpetual campaigner that he is, I think the president would forgive it.)
FP: Jacob Laksin, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.