Shammai Engelmayer
Shammai Engelmayer

Terror as an election tool

Bombings and attempted bombings in New York and New Jersey and multiple stabbings in Minnesota dominated the news last weekend. Fear and uncertainty spread throughout the United States, mainly because these cowardly acts were influenced by radical Islamic extremists, and especially by the so-called Islamic State.

These acts of terror may be just the beginning; more such acts may occur, God forbid, before Americans go to the polls on Election Day. Beginning at least in the early 1990s, radical Islamic organizations have used terrorism to sway democratic countries into electing right-wing politicians, preferably of the saber-rattling variety.

In the context of the 2016 presidential election, the Islamic State would prefer to see Donald Trump elected. His Islamaphobic campaign rhetoric fits perfectly into its recruitment efforts because the Islamic State sees the rhetoric as confirming its argument that the West is out to destroy Islam.

There is one word that can inflame Muslim passions: crusade.

President George W. Bush used the word in the days after 9/11. This “crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take awhile,” he said on September 16, 2001. Even Christian Europe cringed at his use of “crusade.” As an article in the Christian Science Monitor explained it three days later:

“President Bush’s reference to a ‘crusade’ against terrorism, which passed almost unnoticed by Americans, rang alarm bells in Europe. It raised fears that the terrorist attacks could spark a ‘clash of civilizations’ between Christians and Muslims, sowing fresh winds of hatred and mistrust.”

Said the Paris newspaper Le Monde in an editorial: “If this ‘war’ takes a form that affronts moderate Arab opinion, if it has the air of a clash of civilizations, there is a strong risk that it will contribute to Osama bin Laden’s goal: a conflict between the Arab-Muslim world and the West.”

The three crusades of the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries were launched by Christians bent on wresting “the Holy Land” from the Muslims who controlled it, but Jews, too, were its targets. To this day, the aftershocks of the Crusades are felt in the Jewish world, particularly in certain prayers, including the Av Harachamim dirge recited in many synagogues on Shabbat mornings before the Torah scroll is returned to the Ark.

Muslims, however, always have had a much more visceral reaction.

In the words of Dr. Abdullah Mohammad Sindi, a Saudi-born American professor of international relations (and no friend of Israel), “Of all the religious wars in human history waged by any religion, at any place, and at any time, none have been bloodier, more genocidal, more barbaric, and more protracted than the 200-year ‘holy wars’ by the Western Crusades against the Arabs and Islam….The objective of the Crusades was simple, to destroy the Arabs (whether Muslim or Jew) in the Holy Land of Palestine and its environs….”

The Islamic State plays on that fear. In a broadcast statement following the March 22 Brussels bombings, it said, “We promise the Crusader states allied against the Islamic State with dark days, in response to their aggression against the Islamic State, and what is coming is worse and more bitter, Allah permitting.”

The only way this group of bloodthirsty terrorists, or any of its like (such as al Qaeda, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, or Hamas), can turn moderate Muslims into radical murderers is to convince them the West plans yet another crusade. Electing politicians who threaten just that plays right into their hands.

They also want to “expose democracy” as hypocritical. The more acts of terrorism there are against ordinary people, they believe, the greater the likelihood that there will be a voluntary diminution of civil rights. In this, as we have seen over time, they are not totally wrong. People prefer security over illegal searches and seizures, for example. There was little outcry over the U.S. Supreme Court decision in June in the case of Utah v. Strieff that ruled some illegally obtained evidence to be admissible.

For the Palestinian terrorist groups, there is yet another motive. If peace ever broke out in the Middle East, they would quickly lose their support among the average Palestinian.

And so terror is used to keep the death engine running.

Yitzhak Rabin was making headway, or seemed to be doing so, when he was assassinated by a Jewish terrorist. Three months later, Acting Prime Minister Shimon Peres called for new Knesset elections, hoping to ride the sympathy for Rabin to a stronger Labor government. Peres had a 30-point lead over the Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu at the time.

Four bombings over two months, with 50 Israeli dead, pushed the election to Netanyahu.

In 2000, Labor’s Ehud Barak, Israel’s most decorated war hero, was prime minister and was making yet another push for peace. In September 2000, the so-called Second Intifada broke out. Less than five months later, Likud’s Ariel Sharon was elected to replace him.

In the United States, President Bush’s approval rating was below 50 percent in 2004, but a video from the 9/11 mastermind, Osama bin Laden, gave Bush the election over his rival, then-Senator John Kerry.

A new study by an Arab journalist, Burhan Wazir, published in the Columbia Journalism Review, explains what happened next:

“Issued just four days before polls opened, bin Laden’s video was intended to hold up other recent events like the terrorist bombings in Madrid and violence in Iraq as warnings of what might happen in America.

“The effect was immediate…. Overnight, terrorism command centers throughout America were put on high alert. An initial poll from Newsweek magazine claimed that Bush jumped to a six-point lead as a result of the reaction to bin Laden’s message.”

There are other examples elsewhere in Europe and Asia. Terror is the tool of choice to use to influence the outcome of Western elections. It may yet be the tool to influence this one.

Certainly, we must confront the terrorists where they live. Yet we also must develop ways to demonstrate to their true targets — the Arab street — that the terrorists are the ones to fear, not the West, and not western democracy.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at
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