In calling for Muslims to oppose terrorism, Obama ignores its root causes

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

After seven years in office, President Obama finally visited an American mosque on February 3. That he had already visited a synagogue and multiple churches, and Michelle Obama visited a Sikh temple, made Obama’s speech at the Islamic Center of Baltimore all the more striking. The belated timing of the visit signaled that rising anti-Muslim bias and hate crimes are not a priority for the Obama administration.

What is a higher priority for the administration is leveraging American Muslims to lead a worldwide effort to oppose terrorism. But this strategy is doomed to fail as long as Washington supports dictators in Muslim-majority countries. While Obama commendably rejected the notion that there is a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West, he failed to address the root cause of terrorism perpetrated by groups misappropriating the banner of Islam—authoritarianism. 

In the same sentence that Obama proclaimed “all Americans have a responsibility to reject discrimination,” he curiously declared that “Muslims around the world have a responsibility to reject extremist ideologies that are trying to penetrate within Muslim communities.” In doing so, Obama equates an open society where laws staunchly protect freedoms of speech and association with repressive societies that manipulate laws to suppress these same freedoms. 

If Obama wants his request for Muslim scholars worldwide to “consistently speak out with an affirmative vision of their faith [and] teach that Islam prohibits terrorism” to be taken seriously, then America should not undermine such efforts through its support of oppressive regimes. 

The reality is that the political space necessary to engage in public debate—whether on secular or religious topics—does not exist in Middle East countries. The few brave souls who dare to speak out or mobilize citizens are either prosecuted in kangaroo courts, “disappeared,” tortured in jail, or found dead. 

In Egypt, for example, thousands of people with myriad political persuasions have suffered these fates since the 2011 mass uprisings that sought to overthrow an entrenched authoritarian government. That the vast majority were citizens who opposed extremism demonstrates that dictators’ top priority is to retain their firm grip on power, not to combat terrorism. Similarly, Bahraini human rights activists seeking political reforms were beaten by state police while others were sentenced to years in jail. And political dissidents in Saudi Arabia have been flogged or executed.

So long as state violence is left unchecked, non-state violence will thrive, no matter how many Muslim leaders dutifully condemn it. The moderates will be dismissed as naïve or government lackeys while the militants will leverage populist anger arising from state violence to recruit and tout themselves as defenders of justice.

So long as state violence is left unchecked, non-state violence will thrive, no matter how many Muslim leaders dutifully condemn it.

In his speech at a mosque in Baltimore, Obama’s failure to mention the authoritarian regimes that create the culture of fear and violence—and whose offspring is terrorism—was glaring. The omission was especially galling considering the United States’ pivotal role in propping up Middle East autocrats through military, economic, and political aid. 

Obama’s call for Muslims to engage in open debates to challenge the ideology of Da’ish and Al-Qaida ignores the repressive political environment under which the majority of Middle Eastern citizens live.

To be sure, the barbaric violence of the Islamic State group (or Da‘esh) is beyond the pale, and must be countered. Indeed, Da‘esh has eclipsed al-Qaida in terms of the depravity and degree of violence it has unleashed on Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Yet as each iteration of terrorist groups becomes more vicious, the international community responds with the same failed counterterrorism policies.

Specifically, global counterterrorism strategies misguidedly focus on symptoms rather than the underlying social, political, and economic inequalities that produce politically-motivated violence. Moreover, U.S. counterterrorism efforts are appropriated by military and security interests of authoritarian states, which often results in local grievances that autocrats redirect into anti-American sentiment. 

[G]lobal counterterrorism strategies misguidedly focus on symptoms rather than the underlying social, political, and economic inequalities that produce politically-motivated violence.

Likewise, Western nations often limit their counterterrorism practices to merely preventing violence on their soil while buttressing dictators with military hardware that they use against their own citizens. Punitive air strikes, harsh investigative techniques, and extrajudicial killings engender more conflict and exacerbate the underlying populist grievances. 

State violence then begets non-state violence to produce a downward cycle of insecurity for all. 

With the advancement of technology and ubiquity of international travel, the West can no longer afford to ignore deteriorating conditions in authoritarian states that could quickly become terrorist safe havens. One need only look to the terrorist attacks in New York, Madrid, London, and most recently Paris as evidence of the internationalization of local conflicts. Indeed, terrorist groups based in failing sub-states have made no secret that they target the “far enemy”—the Western nations who support the autocratic regimes deemed as the “near enemy.” 

Simply put, citizens in the West can no longer wall themselves off from the violence inflicted on citizens in the East.

But rather than wait until countries fail to the point that extremists are able to gain a foothold, Western nations should proactively address the underlying political, social, and economic hardships that produce politically motived violence. This entails empowering local communities—not the political elite serving the autocrats—to shape and implement development initiatives that redress systemic inequalities.

In his speech, Obama asked “how do we move forward together?” and “how do we defend ourselves against organizations that are bent on killing innocent civilians?” 

The first step is to acknowledge the correlation between authoritarianism and terrorism. At this point, we can pursue preventive counterterrorism as a generational project that starves terrorists of recruits and ideological legitimation through long term development and non-coerced stability. 

Until then, whatever security we gain will be short lived.