Can the West be honest about the Islamist threat?

For 20 years, Americans have failed to adequately confront radical Islam as an ideology and faith. The fall of Afghanistan is a reminder that defending liberal values requires truth-telling.

Taliban fighters inside the presidential palace in Kabul. Source: Screenshot.
Taliban fighters inside the presidential palace in Kabul. Source: Screenshot.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

It was only two months ago that the U.S. embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, boasted on Twitter about flying a gay pride flag to signal its support for “supporting civil rights of minorities including LGBT persons,” and added the hashtags #Pride 2021 and #PrideMonth. Some derided that move, which was repeated at U.S. embassies and consular establishments around the world as an empty gesture. Others worried that the flying of such flags would endanger Afghans who worked at the embassy or at other facilities where similar events occurred.

For 20 years, Americans complimented themselves on saving Afghan women from abuse and virtual slavery at the hands of the former Taliban rulers and for promoting the kind of liberal values that pride flag symbolized in a country where support for women’s rights was marginal, and those of the LBGT community, nonexistent. But now that the Taliban, emboldened by America’s strategic retreat and the Biden administration’s feckless abandonment of our allies there, has taken complete control of the country, the controversy about the flags seems like it happened in another century.

In a rambling speech in which the president claimed to accept responsibility for the debacle, he also cast blame on every conceivable actor in this drama but himself and his administration. Biden added that the United States would continue to “support” the Afghan people, and stand for human rights and the women of Afghanistan. That kind of meaningless rhetoric is more of an insult to the people he left behind, including tens of thousands who worked with the United States and its NATO allies, than anything else. America is no longer in any position to do a thing to help them.

Perhaps the allied effort to stave off the Taliban’s resurgence was always doomed, and it’s clear that most Americans had tired of the effort even if the relative cost of the commitment was low compared to other conflicts in which the United States engaged. And as I previously noted, there’s plenty of blame to go around in assessing the American failure in Afghanistan across four administrations from both parties. As Afghanistan slides back into the Middle Ages, it’s worth examining not just the strategic failures and poor leadership that produced this result, but the fundamentally unserious approach of the West to an ongoing conflict with a set of foes whose hostility is not so much rooted in economics or national rivalries as it is in religion.

The Taliban and their spiritual confederates elsewhere, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, ISIS and Al-Qaeda—not to mention state actors like Iran—pose a real threat to the liberal approach to 21st-century life. So it ought not to have been too much to ask that our government and those tasked with informing and educating Americans about these issues be honest about the fact that all of them are, in one way or another, waging a religious war on the West and all it stands for.

And given that these forces are also waging war on the rights of women and gay people—rights that liberal democracies are sworn to protect at home and to encourage abroad—one would think that honesty about recognizing that Islamism is incompatible with modernity and equality would also be a must.

Yet almost from the moment that the planes hit the World Trade Center nearly 20 years ago, U.S. leaders have been loath to acknowledge these facts.

The reason for that was obvious. The United States had no interest in fighting a religious war against all Muslims, a population that numbers nearly 2 billion. And, of course, not all Muslims, including those living in the West, supported the Islamists. What America wanted was to create an alliance of moderate Muslims and Western allies to crush the fundamentalists who posed a threat to everyone.

The desire to avoid what some called a “clash of civilizations” was understandable. But it was also almost immediately apparent in the early days of what the Bush administration ineptly termed a “war on terror” that a sensible fear of exacerbating an already wide-ranging struggle was breeding a tendency to obfuscate the cause of the conflict.

Though it remains an article of faith repeated endlessly in the mainstream media that 9/11 led to an anti-Muslim backlash, the fact remains that this is a myth. Nothing has ever provided better proof that Americans are, on the whole, fair-minded people than the fact there was no wave of violence or hate crimes against American Muslims. Throughout the last two decades, as FBI hate-crime statistics have consistently shown, attacks on Muslims remained rare and represent a fraction of the total of anti-Semitic incidents that were recorded during this same period. Hate crimes against Jews continue to be the most prevalent form of religious prejudice with rates going up in recent years.

That fact notwithstanding, since 2001, Americans have been preoccupied with the idea that Islamophobia is our greatest worry with respect to conflicts in the Middle East. But while any instance of prejudice against Muslims is deplorable, that has produced a mindset that has seemed to argue that anyone who speaks the truth about radical Islam and those who enable it are Islamophobes. Indeed, in one of the worst such instances, the Anti-Defamation League—the organization tasked with defending Jews against anti-Semitism—actually opposed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s nomination for the post. They claimed that he was an Islamophobe because he called upon American Muslims to condemn acts of terror committed by Islamists. Groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center also regularly smear those who are honest about the Islamist threat as bigots.

The left is preoccupied with criticisms of American conservatives with whom they have disagreements on many domestic political issues and whom they have falsely accused of waging a “war on women.” And yet, liberal groups are curiously unenthusiastic about calling out those who are waging an actual war on women such as the government of Iran and other Islamists.

Just as some who deplore terrorism seem to exclude Palestinian terror against Israel from their concerns, the same people are more concerned that the Jewish state’s liberal policies that ensure freedom for gays be used as a reason—what they call “pinkwashing”—to refute attacks on the legitimacy of Zionism.

The result is that discourse about the subject has become hopelessly distorted, and the misogyny, homophobia and anti-Semitism that is normative in most of the Muslim and Arab worlds is downplayed or ignored. That makes a mockery of any attempt to stir up advocacy for human rights in countries dominated by Islamists simply because to speak up exposes those who do so to false charges of prejudice. The willingness of too many to give a pass to members of the left-wing congressional “Squad” because two of them are Muslims—Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.)—for their anti-Semitism and relative silence about the fate of their co-religionists under the thumb of groups like the Taliban, Hamas, Hezbollah and their Iranian allies do more to undermine human-rights advocacy than anything said by their critics.

The fall of Afghanistan and the abandonment of its people to the tender mercies of Islamists are a reminder that the struggle against those who are a real threat to the rights of women and minorities must involve a frank discussion about what it is that we oppose and why. As long as we fail to note that the oppression that these illiberal groups promote is rooted in a popular version of their faith, we will fail to help those under their power and to prevent the further spread of this illiberal movement.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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