When he’s talking foreign policy you can bet he’ll pull it out the bag. And you can bet he’ll repeat it. His body language tells the tale. Every time the president utters “radical Islamic terrorism,” his eyes glint and he nods in self-regard. He knows he’s found something simple, punchy, and popular with the vast majority of conservatives. In three words, he identifies a threat and hints at easy solutions.
Unfortunately Trump’s phrase is idiotic.
For a start, it assumes all Islamic terrorists source their ideology from a sustaining set of beliefs. They most certainly do not. Aside from their appreciation for the Koran, the five pillars of Islam, and Muhammad, Islamists vary in their theological interpretations, political structures, and strategic intentions. At a very basic level are the distinctions between Sunni and Shia Islam. While Sunni vs. Shia characterizations are often used in overly simplistic ways to assess particular circumstances (Maliki hates Sunnis, etc.), they help inform distinctions between modern Islamic terrorist groups. And identifying just a few of these distinctions helps explain why “radical Islamic terrorism” is as useful a strategic catch-all phrase for counterterrorism as “use varied foods” is to our ability to make a good consommé.
Take the legacy of history and modern Islamic political identity. As it pertains to terrorism, the martyrdom of Shia leader Husayn ibn Ali at the Battle of Karbala in 680 CE is especially noteworthy here. Regarded by Shia Muslims as dishonorably murdered at the battle’s climax, Husayn is also revered for refusing to submit to Sunni tyranny.
In a useful example of modern relevance, consider Shia interpretations of Husayn’s death and the strategic identity of the Lebanese Hezbollah terrorist group. Seeing themselves as heirs to Husayn’s piety and intransigence against powerful tyrants, Hezbollah places special emphasis on the celebration of patient sacrifice and martyrdom. Unlike Daesh (or ISIS), for example, iconic symbolism plays a heavy role in Hezbollah’s identity. So does appreciation for time. Seeing themselves as the long-oppressed underdogs of Islamic history, Shia terrorist groups tend to be more patient in strategy than Sunni terrorist groups.
On the flip side, contemporary Sunni terrorist groups tend to take banner under Salafi-Jihadist ideology. Salafism presumes a natural supremacy of Sunni Islam over all ideologies and a more urgent desire for global conquest. Relevant here are a multitude of Sunni scholars from the 13th century Ibn Taymiyyah, to the more recent Sayyid Qutb, in influencing al Qaeda and Daesh toward ideological intransigence. It’s a major reason why these groups regard Shia Islam as a mystic sect that stands as an affront to God.
Deep and overt hatred for Shia Muslims is imbued in most Daesh commentaries. But in another distinction, Shia sectarianism against Sunnis tends to flow less from aged theology and much more from Iran’s Khomeini-sectarian ideology. Iran’s, after all, is an ideology with political imperialism at its core. And Iran skillfully veils its imperialism under its appropriation of Shia ideology. It is notable that Iranian-led Shia groups tend to be most responsible for atrocities against Sunni Muslims.
Regardless, these distinctions matter deeply to the United States in that we need different strategies to deal with different terrorist groups. With the Lebanese Hezbollah for example, we need to be able to have tea (of the non-polonium kind) one moment and employ less pleasant options at the next. With Daesh we need to apply attritional warfare against its senior and mid-ranks. With Iran and Saudi Arabia we need to empower political moderates and restrain revolutionary extremists. Most of all we need an open mind. Yet, every time Trump uses his catch phrase, he closes Muslim minds. Even if he doesn’t intend this, it is his effect.
Anti-Americanism is a casual impulse of many populist opinion makers (whether imams or editors or TV hosts) in most Muslim-majority nations. Correspondingly, while Trump might believe he is segregating (radical) terrorists from other Muslims, his three-word rallying call is easily translated into anti-American effect. It lets those who already don’t like us tell others who might like us that we hold them only in disdain. Think “tear down this wall!” rendered “get lost losers!” It’s a great loss because American conservatives have much in common with Muslims.
Ultimately, my real gripe with Trump’s phrase is its substitution of a stump slogan for serious strategy. Just as President Obama wrongly neglected the varied Islamic roots of different Islamist terrorist organizations (and thus discounted the importance of Muslim reformation efforts), Trump assumes simplicity where none exists. In doing so, a president who prides himself on solutions is wandering in the wilderness of stupidity.