Recently, US National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster once again downplayed the significance of faith by claiming that Islamic ideology is "irreligious"; meanwhile, up to 1.5 billion Muslims continue claiming, as they have done for 1400 years, that it is.
As Stephen Coughlin, an expert on Islam, told Gatestone, "It is the believers who define their religion, not the non-believers. If someone says his religion is that the moon is made of green cheese, that has to be your starting point."
On February 20, 2017, President Trump appointed McMaster, a serving Lieutenant General of the US Army, to the important position of National Security Advisor, after the forced resignation of Michael T. Flynn. McMaster came to the post with a reputation for stability, battlefield experience, and intelligence. According to the Los Angeles Times:
"It is not an overstatement to say that Americans and the world should feel a little safer today," tweeted Andrew Exum, an author and academic who saw combat in Afghanistan and writes widely about military affairs."
After the controversies surrounding McMaster's predecessor in office, McMaster came as a safe hand.
It was not long before divisions opened up within the NSC, however, with quarrels, firings, and appeals to the president. Many controversies remain today. By July, it was reported that Trump was planning to fire McMaster and replace him with CIA Director Mike Pompeo. By August, however, McMaster's position seemed secure.
U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
It is not the purpose of this article to discuss issues McMaster's spell at the NSC has brought to light, except for one: McMaster's position on Islam and terrorism. It became a cause for contention early in McMaster's incumbency and continues to engender divisions, not just among NSC staff, but also with the president. The general's viewpoint, which he has often expressed, is that international terrorism has nothing to do with the religion of Islam, a notion he seems to believe to the point where he has banned the use of the term "radical Islamic terrorism" -- a term that Trump uses often.
In an all-hands meeting of the NSC on February 23, 2017, three days after his appointment as NSC Director, McMaster said jihadist terrorists are not true to their professed religion and that the use of the phrase "radical Islamic terrorism" does not help the US in working with allies to defeat terrorist groups:
"The phrase is unhelpful because terrorist organizations like ISIS represent a perversion of Islam, and are thus un-Islamic, McMaster said, according to a source who attended the meeting."
More recently, on December 3, in an interview with Fox News Sunday anchor Chris Wallace, McMaster stated that "we make sure we never buy into or reinforce the terrorist narrative, this false narrative that this is a war of religion". He followed this by elaborating on the criminality and supposed secularism of Muslim terrorists:
"Those who adhere to this ideology are really irreligious criminals who use a perverted, what the President has called a wicked interpretation of religion, in an effort to recruit young, impressionable people to their cause, to foment hatred".
In taking that stance, McMaster has broken with many members of his own staff, several of whom he was later to fire, and with the Trump administration itself. This desire to deny a connection between Islam and terrorism or to distinguish between a "pure" Islamic religion and "perversions" of it had been for many years a characteristic of the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, as well as Hillary Clinton's tweets, when "this has nothing to do with Islam" was an oft-repeated refrain.
One of the people whom McMaster fired is Richard Higgins, a top NSC official who had written a memoir in which he warned of the dangers of radical Islam and its alliance with the far Left. In a lengthy document, Higgins wrote:
Globalists and Islamists recognize that for their visions to succeed, America, both as an ideal and as a national and political identity, must be destroyed...Islamists ally with cultural Marxists...[but] Islamists will co-opt the movement in its entirety...
Because the left is aligned with Islamist organizations at local, national, and international levels, recognition should be given to the fact that they seamlessly interoperate through coordinated synchronized interactive narratives...
These attack narratives are pervasive, full spectrum, and institutionalized at all levels. They operate in social media, television, the 24-hour news cycle in all media and are entrenched at the upper levels of the bureaucracies.
Clearly, Higgins did not mince his words, yet what he wrote seems entirely appropriate for the NSC, a body charged with the protection of the United States from radicalism of all kinds. According to Meira Svirsky, writing for the Clarion Project
Lamenting the lack of education given to government officials about radical Islam, Higgins previously wrote, "National Security officials are prohibited from developing a factual understanding of Islamic threat doctrines, preferring instead to depend upon 5th column Muslim Brotherhood cultural advisors." 
Higgins's stress on the lack of education about Islam is a vital recognition that something has been going wrong for years when it comes to American and European official responses to the religion and its followers. Rightly cautious about genuine Islamophobia, the growth of hate speech and intercommunal strife, governments and their agencies have adopted policies and measures to preserve calm even in the face of growing levels of terrorism by Muslims. Europeans in Paris, Barcelona, Manchester, London, Brussels, Berlin and Nice, to name just a few places, are at the forefront of attacks inspired by Islamic State, al-Qa'ida and other radical groups. But the US has suffered the heaviest casualties, with thousands slaughtered in the 9/11 attacks.
In the face of a renascent and at times violent Islam, politicians have adopted the policy of denying any connection between terrorist events and Islam. Many religious leaders have done the same. McMaster has adopted this policy, keeping him in line with established approaches:
"HR McMaster, a respected army lieutenant general, struck notes more consistent with traditional counterterrorism analysts and espoused consensus foreign-policy views during a meeting he held with his new National Security Council staff on Thursday".
According to Svirsky:
McMaster believes the "Islamic State is not Islamic," going so far as to describe jihadists as "really irreligious organizations." As did former president Obama, he opposes use of any language that connects Islam to terrorism.
McMaster also rejects the notion that jihadists are motivated by religious ideology. Instead, he says they are motivated by "fear," a "sense of honor" and their "interests," which he describes as the roots of human conflict for thousands of years. He believes U.S. policy must be based on "understanding those human dimensions."
There may be signs that McMaster, though he still has some way to go, at least recognizes that some deeply religious Islamic organizations are a threat to the West. Writing on December 13, Meira Svirsky cites a speech McMaster gave at Policy Exchange in Washington:
"Declaring the ideology of radical Islam an obvious and 'grave threat to all civilized people,' U.S. National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster singled out the Muslim Brotherhood and its brand of political Islam as a specific threat".
In that speech, the general spoke of Turkey and Egypt as two major sources of support for the Brotherhood, including its Palestinian branch, Hamas. He clearly sees the threat, but does not, as yet, fully understand the meaning of its religious dimension (however much other factors play a role in terrorism).
I have no wish to be disrespectful towards McMaster, who carries out a vital task in securing the lives and property of so many Americans, but I fear his statements show that he has little or no knowledge of Islam, its teachings, or its history. Either that or he has invented a form of Islam that bears no resemblance to the religion that many of us have spent most of our lives studying. Not implausibly, he has given ears to advisors, possibly including Muslims, who have sought to play down any possible link between violence and the Muslim faith.
This willingness, even eagerness, to misrepresent Islam plays directly into the hands of anti-Western Muslims, radicals who anticipate the coming of an apocalyptic global Caliphate. In a recent article, Professor Richard Landes of Boston University lists the many ways in which this is done:
Only the most fervent of true believers could think that, even with Allah's help, the global Caliphate was possible. In order to succeed, da'wa [outreach; proselytizing] Caliphaters needed the assistance of the targeted kuffar population to:
- Disguise their ambition to subject the kuffar, by downplaying jihadi acts of war and their deployment among the targeted population.
- Insist that "except for a tiny minority," the "vast majority" of Muslims are moderate and peaceful, and Islam is a "Religion of Peace" that has nothing to do with the violence of jihadists.
- Accept those who fight for the Caliphate with da'wa as "moderates" who have "nothing to do" with "violent extremists."
- Engage these "moderate" Caliphaters as advisors and consultants in intelligence and police work, as prison chaplains, community liaisons, college teachers, and administrators.
- Present Caliphater war propaganda as reliable information, as news.
- Attack those who criticize Islam (including Muslims) as xenophobic and racist Islamophobes.
- Adopt the Caliphater's apocalyptic enemy as their own, so that the kuffar join in an attack on one of their key allies.
- Legitimate jihadi terrorism as "resistance" and denounce any recourse to violence in their own defense as "terrorism."
- Respect the dignity of Muslim beliefs even as Muslims heap disdain on their beliefs.
- Take seriously Caliphater invocations of human rights when, in reality, they despise those rights for women, slaves, and infidels.
- Welcome an angry "Muslim Street" in the heart of their capital cities.
At the heart of the problem lies the fantasy that Islam must be very similar to other religions, particularly Judaism and Christianity, out of which it was, in fact derived. This would mean that Islam consists only of doctrines about a single God, heaven and hell, sin and punishment, spiritual endeavor, together with practices such as prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, and alms-giving. There would be nothing to concern us were that the case, and certainly no reason to connect the faith with a few supposedly fanatical people who have misguidedly distorted it and turned to violence.
But that would be to ignore the totality of Islam. Apart from 12 years at the start of Muhammad's mission, Islam has encompassed far more than worship and moral behavior. From the moment Muhammad led his followers from Mecca to Medina in the year 622, his religion became a system of government, of law, and of war. Several battles were fought with his Meccan opponents; the Jews of Medina were either driven out by force or executed and enslaved, and Muhammad returned to Mecca as its conqueror. On his death, his first successor embarked on a two-year war to bring recalcitrant tribes back within the fold, sent out armies to the north and, in just a few years, began the wave of invasions that made Muslims victorious across most of the known world. Of the first four "rightly-guided" caliphs, one was assassinated by an Iranian captive and the other two by other Muslims. Muhammad's grandson, Husayn, was killed with his family in Karbala in 680 by the second of the Umayyad caliphs, before further internal wars. Jihadi wars continued, year in and year out, after that; they are still invoked by modern terrorists. Islam has never been at peace with the non-Muslim world.
If jihad were permitted only in self-defence, then excuses implying aggression, as we have seen, would need to be readily available to justify attacks. As the Washington Post wrote a fortnight after the attack on the United States on 9/11/2001:
At the heart of the bin Laden opus are two declarations of holy war -- jihad -- against America. The first, issued in 1996, was directed specifically at "Americans occupying the land of the two holy places," as bin Laden refers to his native Saudi Arabia, where 5,000 U.S. troops have been stationed since the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The two holy places are Muslim shrines at Mecca and Medina.
In 1998, he broadened the edict to include the killing of "Americans and their allies, civilians and military . . . in any country in which it is possible to do it."
It is on such Islamic sources that fighters from Islamic State, al-Qa'ida, al-Shabaab, and hundreds of other groupings base their preaching and their actions. To say that such people have "nothing to do with Islam" could not be more wrong.
It is not only wrong, it is demeaning to the many ex-Muslims such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Ibn Warraq and reformist Muslims who are fully aware of the connection, but are often apparently considered delusional or even fanatical. Last year saw the publication of Ibn Warraq's detailed study, The Islam in Islamic Terrorism: The Importance of Beliefs, Ideas, and Ideology, which takes the reader through all the violent or violence-promoting individuals and groups in Islamic history, with discursions on the thinking behind them. With few exceptions, these individuals and groups are far from minor or obscure.
In chapter one of his book, Ibn Warraq examines what he calls the "Root Cause Fallacy", whereby politicians, security advisers, and others deflect attention from religion as a motivator for terrorism. He shows that most radicals and terrorists are not primarily inspired or justified by poverty, lack of knowledge of Islam, lack of education, the Arab-Israeli conflict, Palestine, anti-Semitism, U.S. Foreign policy, Western Imperialism, or revenge for the Crusades. He refers (p. 31) to David Wurmser of the American Enterprise Institute and his view that:
"Westerners attribute too many of the Arab world's problems 'to specific material issues' such as land and wealth. This usually means a tendency 'to belittle belief and strict adherence to principle as genuine and dismiss it as a cynical exploitation of the masses by politicians. As such, Western observers see material issues and leaders, not the spiritual state of the Arab world, as the heart of the problem'".
Overall, Ibn Warraq draws on an extensive body of scholarship, mainly from leading Western scholars of Islam and authoritative sources such as The Encyclopedia of Islam. McMaster and others, who repeat the mantra that Islamic terrorism has nothing to do with Islam, are hardly in a position to override comment by individuals who have spent a lifetime deeply involved in the study of Islam through its original sources.
Ibn Warraq, moreover, cites (pp. 139-140) several Western and Muslim scholars who have said repeatedly that the idea that the "true jihad is a spiritual struggle" is completely unauthentic. It is arguments based on a reading of texts in Arabic, Persian, Urdu and other languages that deserve to be treated as the basis for policy-making, identifying which people may be potential terrorists, or evaluating the true intentions of US-based Muslim associations such as CAIR or ISNA.
Clare Lopez, vice president of research and analysis at the Washington-based Center for Security Policy, has commented on the broad lack of knowledge about Islam and how it has distorted thinking within national bodies. Beginning with criticism of McMaster, she raises broader issues:
McMaster is just wrong for NSC on so many counts. I think at least in part because, like others across national security at his level, who made rank in years post-9/11, he was systematically denied fact-based training about Islam, jihad, Shariah and the MB [Muslim Brotherhood] – whose affiliates, associates, operatives, fellow travelers and useful fools remain embedded within and close to the federal government and local law enforcement at various levels.
Now, of course, anyone who's ever taken the oath to the Constitution has an affirmative obligation to know the enemy and that McMaster did not do this is his responsibility alone.
Those who got promoted within the military-security establishment over the past eight years got there precisely because of a "willful blindness about Islam".
The problem for the United States government, Congress, Senate -- and many important agencies which find themselves called on to discuss, monitor, report on, or make policies about Islam, American Muslims, Muslims worldwide, and more -- is knowing where to look for accurate and authentic information. In the past, all of these have depended on Muslim academics, uncritical and cosmetic non-Muslim professors and commentators such as John Esposito, Karen Armstrong and the many teachers identified by Campus Watch; numerous university and college Islamicists with vested interests in posts funded by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and other Muslim states (see here); self-appointed Islamic authorities such as CAIR, and amateurs within US institutions.
Criticism of Islam has become taboo and has been denounced as a right-wing or even far-right prejudice. The present writer, however, a political centrist, sees nothing wrong in bringing reasoned and fact-based criticism to bear on Islam, just as one would to every other ideology, from Marxism to Fascism. One can also appreciate the stunning contributions Muslims have made to science, art, architecture, calligraphy, music, and the spiritual endeavors of Sufis and Shi'i mystical philosophers. It is important for everyone to step back and bring accuracy and balance to the way we regard a large and expanding religion.
Denis MacEoin has an MA in Persian, Arabic and Islamic History from Edinburgh University and a PhD (1979) in an aspect of Shi'i Islam in 19th-century Iran. He taught Arabic and Islamic Studies in the Religious Studies Department of Newcastle University and has published many books and articles on Islamic topics.