Less than a week after the murderous attacks in Paris, Hillary Clinton addressed the Council on Foreign Relations. Here is part of what she said: “Let’s be clear, though. Islam is not our adversary. Muslims are peaceful and tolerant people and have nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism.” On the same day, she tweeted a virtually identical statement. From my perspective, this assertion cries out for closer examination, but it has been pretty much ignored by the biggest media outlets.
Of course, there is no Western leader who has ever even hinted that Islam is our adversary. Indeed, no serious person, whether leader or not, would entertain such an idea. But, just as we all know that Islam is not our adversary, so do we all know that the other ideas Ms. Clinton asserts are quite clearly false. Indeed, those ideas, coming from a former Secretary of State and the all-but inevitable-Democratic-presidential-candidate, are alarmingly wrong-headed.
Someone ought to introduce Ms. Clinton to the words ‘many,’ ‘most,’ and ‘some.’ Those are very useful, albeit small, words. If used thoughtfully, they can frequently convert a foolishly incorrect statement into a quite correct one. Here is an example. The statement, “Muslims are peaceful and tolerant people,” is false, because a native speaker of American English understands this statement in its unqualified form as asserting that all Muslims are peaceful and tolerant people. A glance at the headlines for the last few weeks gives the lie to that unqualified assertion. If, in contrast, Ms. Clinton had asserted that many Muslims are peaceful and tolerant people, she would have avoided foolish falsity. Indeed, many people believe that it would also be true to say that most Muslims are peaceful and tolerant people.
In the same vein, Ms. Clinton’s assertion that Muslims “have nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism,” is just about as false as any observation regarding current events could be. What is true, of course, is that some Muslims have nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism. (There is one of those little words again!) It is also true that many Muslims have nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism. It may even be the case that most Muslims have nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism. But one would have to be brain-dead to sincerely believe that there are not some Muslims who engage in terrorism in the name of Islam. That is, some Muslims do in fact engage in terrorism, and they do in fact believe that Islam obligates them to commit their acts of terrorism, and they do in fact believe that Allah will reward them in the afterlife for having committed their acts of terrorism in this life. The perpetrators of the recent attacks in Paris are exemplars.
Why would Ms. Clinton assert something that is so obviously false? I can only speculate, but I think part of the answer is related to President Obama’s reluctance (which Ms. Clinton shares) to use the term ‘Islamist terrorism’ or any cognate term. People who are positioned toward the left on the political spectrum — and I include both the president and Ms. Clinton in that category — are particularly uncomfortable with the idea that terrorism might be motivated by sincere religious conviction, because that idea suggests that there can be no effective diplomatic, soft-power response.
If people are being murdered in Paris because their killers sincerely believe, for example, that Islam imposes an obligation on pious Muslims to kill all citizens of countries opposing the establishment of a ‘caliphate’ in the Middle East, it is difficult to see how negotiating with such Muslims would lessen the threat to the West. Sincere religious convictions are not typically amenable to change by way of negotiations. The implication would be that force would have to be used by the West, and I think it is fair to say that most people on the left of the political spectrum are less likely to endorse the use of force than those on the right.
Perhaps another reason Ms. Clinton so clearly misstates the facts when she asserts that Muslims “have nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism” is that she is anxious to convey to the world-wide Islamic community the idea that we in the West have no animosity toward Muslims or Islam in general. And so, from this perspective, Ms. Clinton’s falsehood amounts to what children are told is a ‘white lie.’ Of course, since 9/11, leaders in the West, beginning with then-President George W. Bush, have stated truthfully, explicitly and almost continuously that the West has no animosity toward Muslims or Islam in general. Ms. Clinton adds nothing to this positive message by asserting obvious falsehoods.
Moreover, concerns about the wider Muslim community can lead to the conclusion that her falsehoods actually worsen relations between that community and the West. It has been said repeatedly by leaders in the West that only the Muslim community itself can rectify the distortions of Islamic faith that lead to twin towers collapsing in New York and blood flowing in the streets of Paris. But if the Muslim world hears Western leaders assert that Muslims “have nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism,” surely that reduces substantially the incentive to fight against extremism in their own communities. If, in contrast, we in the West assert what is plainly true — some Muslims do commit mass murders because they believe that Islam requires them to do so — perhaps a sense of shame felt by the broader Muslim community will be at least a part of the stimulus behind efforts to wipe out that kind of murderous theology.
Finally, a word about the so-called mainstream media. When Donald Trump mistakenly claims to remember seeing pictures of thousands of Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the attacks on the World Trade Center, that falsehood is front-page news for days. When Ms. Clinton claims that Muslims “have nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism,” that howler is barely mentioned by the major news outlets. The difference in coverage is interesting.