Argument

Monsters and Children

How dumb bigots and political correctness have hijacked our national conversation about radical violent extremism. (By which I mean: talking to Muslims about al Qaeda.)

The president of the United States may be the most powerful man in the world, but even an executive order cannot defy the immutable law of physics governing the relationship between having one's cake and eating it, too.

The administration's new 23-page strategy for countering violent extremism, released yesterday, seeks to preempt terrorist radicalization without specifically targeting Muslims, a "color blind" approach, so to speak. Let's look at some of the specific proposals, and see how they might work.

1) U.S. Attorneys will be tasked with outreach and engagement to communities at risk of radicalization. So to combat white supremacist recruitment and ideology, the U.S. Attorney in Texas, for instance, might hold roundtables with leaders of the local white community. Keep in mind that white people, of course, are the target audience for radical racist recruiters.

2) The Justice Department will produce brochures that explain steps white people can take if they feel they have been discriminated against.

3) White people will be engaged on issues other than white supremacist ideology, so that they don't feel that the government only sees them a national security threat.

4) Federal training programs will be scrutinized to make sure that the government is not including anti-white material in training programs for law enforcement officers.

5) The Department of Homeland Security, in conjunction with the FBI and the National Counterterrorism Center, will develop case studies on preoperational indicators, i.e., what are the behaviors of white people that might indicate they are about to commit an act of racist violence.

6) The government will seek to counter racist propaganda by stressing the inclusiveness of American values and our commitment to seeing white people obtain equal access to American democracy, freedoms, and opportunities.

7) The government will support efforts to communicate to the American public that not all white people are extremists and seek to discourage those who would cast suspicion on the entire white community.

I could go on, but you get the point. This is not a one-size-fits-all strategy no matter how much the president wishes it could be. At its heart, the document is condescending to Muslims, who are expected to be grateful for its tactful omissions, while simultaneously implying that homegrown terrorism stems in some quantifiable way from legitimate Muslim grievances rather than the intrusion of an alien ideology. Meanwhile, the power centers in American politics, both left and right, have grown increasingly counterproductive in their attitudes toward Muslim Americans.

On the right, embodied in comments by Republican presidential frontrunner Newt Gingrich, Muslims are treated largely as monsters, a seething mass of people who do not share American values and could, at any moment, establish a Taliban-style theocracy right here in the United States.

On the left, as epitomized by President Barack Obama's new strategy, Muslims are treated as children who cannot be left to their own devices, who must be carefully tutored in proper behavior but not made to feel like they are singled out, lest someone pick on them.

Virtually no one seems willing to speak to Muslims about this issue as if they are just people. In part, that's because our politicians and policymakers do not themselves seem to understand why they prioritize jihadist terrorism over other forms of violence.

The reason jihadist terrorism is treated as a greater national security threat than racism and other forms of extremism has nothing to do with the nature of Islamist states or a failure to accept Muslims as part of the American family.

It is as simple as this: Terrorists aligned with al Qaeda and related movements have proven themselves willing and able to plan and carry out mass casualty attacks on a consistent basis; other extremists, thus far, have not.

It's true that considerably more Americans have died on U.S. soil at the hands of racists than jihadists during the last ten years. But these attacks are generally categorized as hate crimes and receive less media coverage, primarily because most of them consist of individuals targeting other individuals.

It really is that simple. Glenn Beck may fear Muslims, and Newt Gingrich may suspect them of plotting to impose shariah law on America, but neither viewpoint would be part of our national discourse if not for 9/11. And Obama would not be introducing a strategy to combat violent extremism if not for the ongoing threat of a mass casualty event.

We should not be complacent and assume that white supremacists and other extremists will never develop the will to carry out mass casualty attacks on a consistent basis. But the fact is that over the last 10 years, the majority of specific and credible plots to perpetrate mass casualty events have originated within the tiny fraction of 1 percent of the Muslim community that accepts al Qaeda's tactics.

It is appropriate for law enforcement and intelligence agencies to single out individuals who possess the inclination and the capability to kill dozens or hundreds of people at a time. That is what drives the use of informants, drones, and other extraordinary tactics. That is why the government pursues al Qaeda and its adherents with such laser focus.

But let's be clear: al Qaeda adherents are targeted because of their tactical focus on mass casualties, not because they are Islamists and not because they are Muslims. The fact that they are found among Muslims is an unavoidable reality, as is the corollary that law enforcement activities countering al Qaeda will take place among Muslims.

Discrimination against Muslims in this country is unfortunately real. And it is unfortunately true that some American Muslims mix their religion and politics in ways that makes other Americans uncomfortable. But neither of these facts is responsible for -- or even all that relevant to -- America's focus on combating al Qaeda.

Unfortunately, the talking points have taken possession of our politicians.

It is unnecessary and counterproductive to treat the broad community of American Muslims as if they are monsters to be feared or children to be placated. It's time to start talking to them as what they are -- Americans who can handle a frank conversation about the safety of Americans.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Argument

What Egypt's Military Doesn't Want Its Citizens to Know

Political censorship is back in the new Egypt. But hiding the truth is a losing strategy.

On Dec. 7, Egypt's largest-circulation privately owned newspaper, al-Masry al-Youm, published an unsigned editorial under the title, "The British Independent Publishes a Fabricated Article About al-Masry al-Youm." In the editorial, the paper accused The Independent's Cairo correspondent, Alastair Beach, of being linked to Western intelligence agencies. It also alleged that I, a professor at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, was seeking to foment a coup d'état in Egypt.

Correspondent Beach was the target of these ludicrous assertions as a result of his coverage of al-Masry al-Youm's censorship of an article I had been commissioned to write by the editor of that newspaper's new English language weekly, rather paradoxically named Egypt Independent. To appear in the second issue of that new weekly, scheduled for publication on Dec. 1, my article noted the favorable image of the Egyptian military as reported in various domestic public opinion polls since Feb. 11. It went on to argue that Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, the country's official leader since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, would nevertheless be unwise to interpret this data as support for the ruling Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF). The available polling data suggests that SCAF's image is much less favorable than the military's and in fact is in precipitous decline.

I concluded that the field marshal's implied threat against civilian rule as embodied in the trial balloon he floated in his Nov. 22 speech, which referred to a possible referendum on military rule, could backfire against him. Not only would many civilian political forces in Egypt be dismayed by such an effort to prolong the SCAF's rule, but so too might military officers disapprove out of fear that their institution's reputation could thereby be damaged. This assertion was not just speculative, but based on substantial evidence to that effect. I also referred to Washington's explicit disapproval of efforts to prolong the SCAF's political role, for example, a Nov. 25 White House statement calling for Egypt's new government to be "empowered with real authority immediately."

It was these observations that resulted in the article being censored by Magdy el-Galad, the editor-in-chief of al- Masry al-Youm. I do not know whether he did so on direct orders from the SCAF or because he anticipated General Tantawi's negative reaction. What has been reported to me is that the editor in question is known to have close ties to the military and intelligence services. (The Egyptian Independent's brave reaction to the incident was to refuse to produce another edition of their weekly until it was granted editorial freedom from al-Masry al-Youm.)

Whatever happened behind the scenes, the censorship suggests marked sensitivity about the leadership and role of the SCAF and its relations with the broader military. General Tantawi must be aware that his perch atop both the SCAF and the military (indeed, for the moment, the entire state), is precarious. For years he was Mubarak's instrument to control the military. The measures he employed -- including promoting the incompetent over the competent, minimizing training and general preparedness, redirecting the institution's primary efforts to economic rather than military pursuits, and ladling out dollops of patronage to retain loyalty -- resulted in an indulged officer corps, but also one that harbors profound resentments. Those resentments have been greatly exacerbated by the SCAF's mishandling of the transition, especially the deployment of military units for crowd control, outright intimidation and even killing of demonstrators, and converting military bases into detention facilities.

As the political pressure on the SCAF intensifies, the question becomes whether or not its members might seek to defend its and the military's interests by dumping Tantawi, just as the field marshal dumped Mubarak. After all, the second in command is Chief of Staff General Sami Abul Enan, whose good reputation appears yet to be badly tarnished by Tantawi's and the SCAF's misdeeds. What could trigger an internal coup? Grumbling in the officer corps, combined with a growing fear of the appeal of Islamism among enlisted men -- especially in the wake of the electoral triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis -- are incentives for the SCAF to turn on Tantawi lest the military, possibly in some sort of alliance with Islamists, turn on the SCAF.

In sum, the political pressure on Tantawi, now heightened by the results of the first round of parliamentary elections and the SCAF's immediate attempt to disempower parliament even before it is seated, is enough to make anyone nervous. That he was Mubarak's manager of the military economy -- a vast enterprise including factories, bakeries, and other businesses -- for more than two decades, hence with plenty to hide, may cause him to wonder if he might end up on the wrong side of the dock with his old boss.

But clumsy censorship simply exacerbates his and the SCAF's problems. One lesson of the Arab Spring is that news now travels very fast indeed. Within hours of the 20,000 copies of the second issue of Egypt Independent being pulped, the story had spread not only in Egypt, but globally, as the article in London's The Independent attests. It did not used to be this way. A previous publisher of al-Masry al-Youm, Hisham Kassem, former chairman of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, clashed several years ago with the owners of the paper over the issue of editorial freedom. He ultimately resigned. That the ostensibly liberal owners of the paper, including Naguib Sawiris, founder of the possibly misnamed Free Egyptians Party, were not then revealed as having endorsed censorship suggests the profound enhancement of information flow over the past three or four years, to say nothing of commitment to that flow. (Indeed, the bravery of the staff of Egypt Independent provides ample evidence of that.)

But there are some worrying implications here, too. That even Egyptians nominally on the liberal side of the country's political spectrum drag out the old canards of foreign conspiracies and spies to discredit those whose views they fear might upset powerful actors does not augur well for a possible transition to a more liberal political order. And as far as the most powerful actor is concerned, the SCAF, its profound sensitivities, overreactions, and outright duplicity suggest that both its commitment and its capacity to orchestrate a successful transition are in grave doubt. Its misdeeds unfortunately threaten not only itself and its leader, but, paradoxically, the integrity of the military -- to say nothing of the stability and well being of the country as a whole. This in turn poses a huge challenge to Washington, which is now caught between an incompetent SCAF and a potentially hostile Islamist government, with no obvious place to turn given the apparent political weakness of liberal secularists.

In sum, there is lots of bad news in Cairo, but censorship will not prevent it from getting out.

ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images