President Obama has given ISIS a propaganda clip of incalculable value, and they don’t even have to edit it. As he stood at the Prayer Breakfast last week and likened the barbarity of current-day Islamic extremists to atrocities committed during the Crusades and the Inquisition, Obama seemingly validated the terrorists’ centuries-old calls for vengeance.
Moreover, his references to slavery and Jim Crow channeled Islamic recruiters who warn of coming Islamophobia in the U.S. by calling out black-white tensions. Given that our battle with ISIS is in large part a war for hearts and minds, Mr. Obama’s comments are symptomatic of profound ignorance, at best and were extremely reckless.
The al-Qaeda hijackers brought down the World Trade Towers on September 11 because unbeknownst to most in the West, the date is an important one in Islamic history. It was in 1683 “that the conquering armies of Islam were met, held, and thrown back at the gates of Vienna,” as Christopher Hitchens wrote. This was, he explained, a “hinge” event, in that “the Ottoman Empire never recovered from the defeat. From then on it was more likely that Christian or western powers would dominate the Muslim world than the other way around.”
Hitchens notes, “In the Islamic world, and especially among the extremists, it is remembered as a humiliation in itself and a prelude to later ones,” and thus the perfect date to inflict on the West an equally humiliating injury.
History matters to Islamic terrorists; avenging past defeats suffered by Muslims is central to their cause. And no chapter of history is more painful than the battles fought for the Holy Lands between Christians and Muslims during the Middle Ages. Thomas Asbridge, director of the Center for the Study of Islam and the West at the University of London, told The New York Times, “Any use of the word ‘Crusade’ has to be made with great caution. It is the most highly charged word you can use in the context of the Middle East.”
The propaganda materials produced by ISIS and its savage brethren buttress this claim. One publication, "Dabiq,” shows President Obama and “Sen. John McCain as ‘crusaders’ who will ‘bring about the complete collapse of the modern American empire,’” according to CNN. The magazine is named for the town of Dabiq, site of an Ottoman victory in 1516 that led to the last Islamic Caliphate.
The first two editions of the magazine quote Al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi: “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heart will continue to intensify — by Allah’s permission — until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq.” Another edition shows the ISIS flag photo-shopped and flying over the Vatican under the title: The Failed Crusade.
Any confusion about whether or not we are engaged in a religious war is squashed by Flames of War, a 55-minute propaganda film released by ISIS last year that describes their capture of a Syrian Army’s base near Raqqa. In it, the head of ISIS refers to the U.S. as the “defender of the cross.”
Surely, President Obama and his speechwriters know this background. They must be aware of the propaganda efforts of the jihadist organizations. After all, these ventures are not new. Al-Qaeda “increased its media production in the years following 9/11 to compensate for the loss of its training camp infrastructure and its corresponding centrality among jihadist groups,” write terrorism experts Bill Braniff and Assaf Moghadam, both formerly associated with West Point.
In an article tracing the maturation of al-Qaeda after the World Trade Tower attacks, the authors note, “Ayman al-Zawahiri’s assertion that at least half of the overall battle against the Crusader-Zionist foe takes place in the media.” To indicate the extent of al-Qaeda’s media effort they point to the growth in the terrorist group’s propaganda releases – from 6 in 2002 to 97 in 2007.
Not only do the jihadists rely upon historical antagonisms to motivate their followers, they also exploit racial discord in the U.S. The first edition of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s English-language Inspire magazine contained an article titled, “Message to the American People and Muslims in the West,” which predicts growing discrimination against Muslims, citing our country’s history of racism to prove their point.
Malcolm X is identified as a Muslim martyr who died fighting against racial injustice (no matter that he was assassinated by Nation of Islam rivals), al-Zawahiri describes African-American politicians as “house-slaves” and others try to incite blacks to strike back at their “oppressors.” In its publications, al-Qaeda openly calls for not only Muslim soldiers but also African-Americans to attack their fellow GIs; the Fort Hood shootings followed.
So President Obama not only appeared to buttress the historical argument made by Islamic terrorists, he also supported the parallels they draw between racial tensions in the U.S. and probable bigotry against Muslims. To what end would he feed these narratives that ISIS and others have found so effective in recruiting young fighters from all over the world? Is he so desperate to prove his even-handedness that he is consciously providing support to their campaign? Or are he and his team so impossibly ignorant that he was unaware of the impact his speech might have?
It is hard to know, but a few weeks or months from now, when ISIS predictably releases their new video starring President Obama confirming their talking points, the damage will have been done.
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