Orlando Was Not an Act of Hate. It Was an Act of War.
President Barack Obama responded quickly and forcefully to the horrific mass-casualty attack at a gay nightclub in Orlando early Sunday morning, condemning it later that day as “an act of terror and an act of hate.” And his eloquent reminder that attacks on any American, “regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation,” is an attack “on all of us” of course echoed the most basic truism about what defines Americans as a people.
But perhaps more important than what the president said, is what he still will not say. And it is these omissions that serve as a stark reminder that his administration remains unable or unwilling to speak openly and honestly about the nature of the threat posed by the militant Islamist movements that have grown in strength and number during his time in office. Worst of all, this lack of candor is clearly impacting our ability to effectively fight Islamic terrorism.
First and foremost, the Orlando attack was not an “act of hate”—it was an act of war. Yes, the attacker, a Muslim American named Omar Mateen, specifically targeted America’s gay community. But to make that a prime focus of attention exposes a key blind spot for this administration (and for the West in general) regarding the militant Sunni (Salafist) ideology that underpins today’s jihadi movements.
For nearly a century, these movements—from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, to Jamaat-e-Islami in South Asia, to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS)—have been unabashedly at war against not only the West’s undue influence in the Arab and Muslim world, but against Western liberal philosophy in general, specifically the West’s open and tolerant way of life. Yet the manner in which Western leaders often choose to characterize the violence perpetrated on behalf of such movements says much about their own Western preferences and biases.
Consider the statement made by Secretary of State John Kerry following last November’s ISIS-inspired attacks in Paris against street cafes and a music venue, which killed 130 and injured hundreds more. Kerry described the violence as “absolutely indiscriminate,” because it “wasn’t to aggrieve one particular sense of wrong.” This, he surmised, made it different from the Al Qaeda–directed massacre earlier in the year against the Paris satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which was famous for mocking Islam (among many other things); and which he said at least offered the attackers a “rationale” because it was something that made them “really angry.”
In fact, to militant Islamists there is no difference between a magazine exercising the right of religious satire and women sitting with men in a Paris café drinking wine, or young people dancing at a rock concert. Just like there is no difference between a gay nightclub that exemplifies liberal tolerance and a World Trade Center that represents global capitalism. They are all equal targets in a war against American and Western global power and liberal ideology.
Secondly, in the aftermath of the Orlando attack, President Obama again doubled-down on his reluctance to simply describe the threat for what it is, out of fear it will spark a backlash against Muslim communities. While this is certainly understandable, particularly in the age of Trump, it is ultimately counterproductive. The vast majority of Muslims worldwide—and especially in the United States—are both moderate and also well aware there are longstanding militant strains within their religion that, unfortunately, have been growing in power and appeal.
But instead of calling it out by name—which would strengthen, rather than weaken America’s partnership with the moderate Muslim world—Obama continues to fall back on vacuous descriptions of the threat, as he did on Monday following an FBI briefing. Despite the fact that Mateen had declared his allegiance to ISIS during the rampage, and that Obama himself called it an “act of terror,” as to the attacker’s motivation the president would say only that it “appears that the shooter was inspired by various extremist information.” That would be like saying on December 7, 1941 that Pearl Harbor was attacked by “violent people.”
Obama eventually acknowledged what everyone already knew—that Mateen dedicated the attack to ISIS—but he again tried to downplay its meaning, saying it was merely done “at the last minute,” and that Mateen was part of no “larger plot.” In fact, ISIS online recruiters specifically instruct would-be foot soldiers to not declare their allegiance until the moment of attack (as also seen in the San Bernardino case), to reduce the possibility of preattack detection. And the “larger plot” is the ideology of ISIS, Al Qaeda, and all the other militant Islamist groups dedicated to a global war against apostates in Muslim lands and infidels in the West.
Finally, while some may take comfort that Mateen seemed to have multiple personal triggers pointing him toward radicalization and violence—that is actually the most dangerous part of the story: the more powerful (and seemingly “successful”) the Islamist ideology being spun and promoted by ISIS and like-minded groups, the greater the numbers (and diversity) of the recruits it will be able to net across countries and communities, including inside the United States.
Confronting a “Perfect Storm”