In his inaugural address, President Trump singled out radical Islamic terrorism as the sole enemy. He did not even mention Russia or China as threats to the security or prosperity of the United States. In terse and clear words, Trump said: “We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones and unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate from the face of the Earth.” In fighting against radical Islamic terrorism, Trump asserted that “We will be protected by the great men and women of our military and law enforcement. And most importantly, we will be protected by God.”
What Trump Means
There are three points worth consideration to understand Trump’s speech on radical Islamic terrorism. Each point is rooted in history and academic literature, and each point carries serious implications for the peace and security of the United States and the world.
First, radical Islamic terrorism is presented as a threat to “the civilized world.” Historically, the phrase “civilized world” was coined in the era of colonialism to refer primarily to the European nations and by implication to the “uncivilized world” such as Native Americans in Americas, slaves from Africa, and the colonized populations in Asia. Under contemporary standards of global discourse, the phrase “civilized world” is rarely used by diplomats, heads of states, or academic scholars. There is a new understanding that the world is blessed with numerous diverse civilizations, including the Islamic civilization that spans over centuries in all continents of the world. It is unclear whether President Trump includes fifty-six (56) Muslim countries as part of the civilized world.
Second, the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” was invented to argue that Islamic violence emanates from the religion itself and not from any concrete geopolitical grievances for which Muslim militants are fighting in various parts of the world. The phrase “radical Islamic terrorism “was popular with neoconservatives who wanted to shift the focus from grievances to Islamic psychology. For example, the phrase implies that the Palestinians as Muslims are addicted to violence that has nothing to do with occupation or misery they face as a people. Likewise, the phrase would suggest that the Taliban as Muslims are hooked to religiously-inspired warfare and their violence has little to do with the invasion of Afghanistan. By adopting the phrase during his campaign and mentioning it in his inaugural speech, President Trump has bought into the idea that a radical version of Islam is inherently brutal and will find excuses to perpetrate violence throughout the world even after all the problems have been solved.
Third, Trump has added a holy war component to the eradication of radical Islamic terrorism from the face of the Earth. In addition to seeking protection from “the great men and women of our military,” Trump claims that “we will be protected by God.” This simply means that God is on the side of the United States in its wars against various nations and populations, particularly radical Islamic terrorism. This understanding of God’s partisanship in human wars is the cardinal principle of the holy war whether the concept is invoked by Catholics, Protestants, Shias, Sunnis, or Shiv Sena.
Understanding Islamic Terrorism
A serious study of Islamic terrorism suggests that Muslim militancy originates in concrete geopolitical causes, including occupations and invasions. Muslim militants desert their families and children, forfeit their lives, and invite the wrath of mighty states because they are fighting occupation of their lands, resources, or way of life. Unless the grievances factor is honestly included in the counter-terrorism equation, radical Islamic terrorism will not abate.
The phrase radical Islamic terrorism is overly provocative. It is a bad piece of rhetoric that does more harm than good. It implicates the religion of Islam, spawning hatred against ordinary Muslim families living in Western countries. The phrase also discourages peace-loving Muslims all over the world to join the fight against terrorism as they feel their religion is being maligned. As far as Muslim militants are concerned, they do not care whether they are called terrorists, radical Islamists, brutes, uncivilized, or any such phrases.
There are good reasons for all, including Americans, to criticize when Muslim militants openly and deliberately violate the laws of war. Destroying ancient temples, Sufi shrines, ramming trucks into civilian crowds, bombing cities, and threatening nuclear holocaust, all these and other acts are condemnable. Muslims are obligated to openly and unreservedly condemn when Muslim militants commit such atrocities that have nothing to do with any version of Islam.
Finally, bringing God into the fight is ill-advised. For centuries, God is presented as a sponsor of violence and warfare. Trump has ruled out the possibility that God is indifferent to human wars and that God does not condone or take part in cluster bombings, drone attacks, or the use of nuclear weapons against any cities.