General McMaster Gets it Wrong on Islam

A Great General’s Blindspot

General Michael Flynn, author of The Field of Flight, offers an “Islamophobic” reading of history according to Juliette Kayyem, national security expert and former Harvard professor. Kayyem believed (and hoped) Flynn wouldn’t even make it to past January 21st, so disliked was the maverick anti-Islam General. Thankfully, in her mind, Flynn’s meetings with Russian officials and ‘forgetful’ reporting to his higher-ups made him a political time-bomb primed to explode. And so Vice President Mike Pence, the victim of Flynn’s reports, urged him to resign. Before that could happen, however, the bomb went off: details of Flynn’s deception leaked to the press, forcing Trump to fire his loyal National Security Adviser (NSA). A victory for common sense and a defeat for Trump, it seemed. 

Flynn is responsible for shaping President Trump’s foreign policy views and promotes the belief Islam will never reconcile with Western values. The Muslim ban was therefore a policy part-cooked (although half-baked) in the conversations of Trump and Flynn. Flynn’s replacement does not suffer the same bigoted afflictions. Whilst beyond qualified, the new NSA holds the same misperceptions as the Obama team and thus seems destined to repeat their mistake.

General McMaster is a three-star army General and author of The Dereliction of Duty that concluded the Vietnam war was a misguided project lead by a headstrong President with little-no effective military advice. He is a veteran of the Iraq War and, unlike Flynn, highly respected in national security circles. It is a shame then that he that has travelled from Cold-War era prescience to a purveyor of poor advice as the ideological battle of my generation rages on.

McMaster fails to recognise the Islamic nature of Islamist violence. He does not see ISIS as a religious movement – albeit a heinous, barbaric, and evil one. Its preachments, in his view are simply “perversions”, not Islamic teachings that must be disavowed with the help of reformers. McMaster would rather play the role of telling us what Islam isn’t rather than what it is. For some strange reason it keeps coming up in conversation!

On Islam: McMaster Imports a Failed Policy from the Past

McMaster commits the same error as Obama. He assumes that describing Islamist violence as “radical Islamic terrorism” automatically subscribes one to the view that there is an inherent conflict between East and West. This “clash of civilisations” has implications that help polarise both Muslims at home and abroad and everyone else in the secular west. The narrative goes: Muslims feel the west “otherises” them and grows hostile; Westerners ostracise and distrust Muslims. Conflict arises with no solution in sight and sews misery for us all.

It does not have to be this way. One need only adopt the view that religion is as diverse as any political spectrum: you get pacifists and you get fascists, you get progressive Muslims and you get ISIS, and you get Quakers and you get crusaders. Thus, there is no reason to view Islam as peculiar or allergic to modernity. In fact, some scholars argue that the Islamist plague of the Arab World and beyond amounts to a clash within Islam itself, and we need to pick a side. 

It is important to admit that Islam and terrorism are connected – though not necessarily at the hip. Likewise, emphasising that Muslims are not all dormant terrorists awaiting activation should also be a priority – this is a crucial distinction between bigoted far-right smearing of an entire group and honest evaluation of an ideology. President Obama himself made the connection himself when he discussed Islamism with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg:

He [Obama] then offered a critique that sounded more in line with the rhetoric of Cameron and Hollande. “There is also the need for Islam as a whole to challenge that interpretation of Islam, to isolate it, and to undergo a vigorous discussion within their community about how Islam works as part of a peaceful, modern society,” he said. But he added, “I do not persuade peaceful, tolerant Muslims to engage in that debate if I’m not sensitive to their concern that they are being tagged with a broad brush.”

Indeed, Obama seems to admit the problem lies within Islam itself. I would, however, urge a different tactic to Obama in dealing with that reality. We should not whitewash history or fudge the facts to fit a narrative like the Obama team. We know it doesn’t do much good to say ISIS is  “unIslamic”, in McMaster’s words, when we can point to Muhammed’s similar penchant for brutality and allow IS a monopoly on text. But the answer to addressing Muhammed’s violence is not to pretend it does not exist. Nor should we only look to Muhammed during his more peaceable days. The answer to both of these very real and very hard questions is to contextualise them as pieces of history and not a set of normative behaviours.

The key to accomplish our goals is help from Muslims. Progressive Muslims – supporting reformers who spread an Islam that upholds a respect for human rights as we understand them today. Many leaders in this movement exist today, something I wouldn’t be able to say just a few years ago: Maajid Nawaz, Irshad Manji, Usama Hasan, Haras Rafiq, Raheel Raza among the most prominent. And then there is a wider community of Atheist Muslims and ex-Muslims who, too, contribute to modernising Islam: Ali A Rizvi, Faisal Saeed Al-Mutar, Maryam Namazie, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Raif Badawi, and others. 

Obama, despite understanding the problem rested within Islam, was not vigorous at all about affirming that new forms of Islam should emerge. This is because it would play into ISIS’s narrative that this is a religious war, says McCants, in an NYT interview. This sloppily buys into the binary worldview that there is only one version of Islam (ISIS’s version) and the West is coming to destroy it. Reality offers a more more nuanced reading. There are many brands of Islam, some good, some bad, and the West should promote ones that and can adjust to western values. Sadly, McCants says, “There is a deep hunger for McMaster’s view in the interagency,” – a view does not square with reality. And so the pseudo-redeeming factor that Trump, unlike his opponents, admits that terrorism has some religious roots no longer exists.

On a more optimistic note, the appointment of General McMaster is by no means a bad thing. The man brings expertise and insight that Flynn does not touch. He is against torture, not a Russian shill, and a voice of reason alongside General Mattis and General Kelly. On the question of Islamism, however, McMaster needs to take his own advice and be better informed.

About Mitchell Bate 16 Articles
Mitchell is a blogger currently studying Politics and International Relations at the University of Bath

1 Comment

  1. How can anyone NOT see ISIS as a religious movement? This is the kind of whitewashing that allows violent (religious!) extremism to flourish. Not recognizing the relationship between religion and ISIS is like not seeing the connection between sex and pregnancy. Thanks for a great analysis Mitchell Bate.

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