Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, celebrated union-busting and current poll-leading Republican in Iowa’s presidential preference polls, appeared this week at a Conservative Political Action Conference gathering to enhance his conservative credentials.
Addressing the crowd with a nonchalance seemingly unbecoming a potential free-world leader, Walker offered that because he had defeated Wisconsin’s labor unions, he was similarly qualified to defeat Daesh (ISIS/ISIL): “If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world.”
The GOP continuing to rend its garments over President Obama’s Daesh-related comments – his refusal to call Daesh, as Walker puts it, “radical Islamic terrorists” – reminds us that facing America’s challenges is fraught with complexity and requires balance, perspective and patience.
Walker needs a crash course in international relations – maybe taught by a non-union adjunct instructor – to inform him that being commander in chief needs more understanding than just having watched American Sniper and Zero Dark Thirty.
At a time when America and the world are struggling to embrace strategies and tactics to confront Daesh and other nihilistic terrorist organizations, and to create alliances with Arab and Muslim nations to confront their evil, President Obama correctly has argued for a nuanced approach to defining the conflict.
The GOP went ballistic when President Obama challenged Republican exceptionalist assumptions at the National Prayer Breakfast. When Obama said, “Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ,” you would’ve thought that the horsemen of the Apocalypse were storming the gates of Washington.
Former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore said: “He has offended every believing Christian in the United States. This goes further to the point that Mr. Obama does not believe in America or the values we all share.”
Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani later echoed Gilmore’s sentiments saying that he does “not believe that the president loves America.”
“He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me,” Giuliani said. “He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.”
Beyond the fact that Obama was correct in contextualizing and understanding history – and correct in rejecting intemperate jingoism – Gilmore and Giuliani’s dog-whistles should be condemned, for the racism, for their ignorance and for their unpatriotic lack of support of the administration’s foreign policy.
Gilmore should recall that “believing Christians” were behind a warped theology that gave rise to the Confederacy in his beloved Virginia, where Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens believed the Confederacy to be “the first government ever instituted upon the principles in strict conformity to nature, and the ordination of Providence. . . . With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the Negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system. . . . It is, indeed, in conformity with the ordinance of the Creator.” This warped theology still informs some of the extreme Republican evangelical right, where 54 percent of Republicans still believe that “deep down” our president is Muslim, a poll figure that reflects such abject ignorance that we should all be frightened.
Obama was not equating Christians, or anyone, with Daesh. He was reminding Americans that no nation is free from historical moments of ignorance and bigotry. He was reminding us that we must be aware how the world perceives us if we want them to partner with us.
And such awareness must include an acknowledgement that our imperial footprint – boots on the ground – that America has left across the Muslim world since 2003 is not one easily erased by desert winds; that the footprint is seared into the collective memories of peoples with whom we now need to form alliances.
President Obama gets it right when he refuses to label the extremist violence we’re confronting as “Islamic terrorism.” He’s right for three reasons: First, naming it “Islamic terrorism” would be giving theological legitimacy to terrorists and criminals who desperately want to be identified as acting from within Islam.
Second, if America wants to partner with Muslims against Daesh, we need to use language that honors our allies – and their understanding of our common enemy – and not alienating them by using language that offends them, even if it makes us feel better to use it.
Lastly, it’s important to recognize that Daesh’s evil depredations have no more to do with Islam than Alexander Stephen’s Confederacy had with Christianity.
We can’t pretend that the Crusades didn’t happen – and that en route to save the Holy Land the Crusaders killed every Jew, Gypsy and Eastern Orthodox Christian they could find.
We can’t pretend that the Holocaust didn’t happen – a horror unprecedented in its evil, extended by the willful blindness of witnesses who refused to act and speak.
We can’t pretend that wars, massacres, assassinations, terrorism and acts of utter human depravity aren’t part of our collective global experience – we all know who did what to whom.
We can’t escape history by pretending something didn’t happen.
We can’t pretend that America wasn’t built by slave labor on stolen land. We can’t ignore the fact that Jim Crow happened, that thousands of Americans were lynched, some well into the 20th century, because of their skin color, and that there are still isolated communities of Americans living on the fringes of our body politic.
Daesh is not an existential threat to America. We can control and defeat it – if we don’t forget who we are. The current hysteria drummed up by some Republicans driven by passionate hatred of President Obama and by a national media so uniformed about the world that it attaches apocalyptic meaning to every Daesh depredation have combined to elevate Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi and Jihadi John to mythic status.
We should know better.
This column appeared originally in the Concord Monitor.