ISIS and the Republican Party: Brothers in Arms

The first scholar of political language I ever ran across was Murray Edelman. From his book, The Symbolic Uses of Politics, I learned that one way to assess the meaning of a political expression is to see how it lines up with who else is using it.

Edelman pointed out, for instance, that in the volatile racial climate of the 1960s and middle east 3 copy1970s, the people pushing hardest for armed confrontation were the cops on the street and the armed and militant black groups. They saw the situation in remarkably similar terms. The Us v. Them language was prominent as was the scorn heaped on people who were trying to make things better. “There’s only one language they understand” was a sentiment as common among the armed and radical left as it was among the armed and reactionary right. The only real difference in this exchange of slogans as who :they” referred to. To the blacks, it certainly meant the cops and sometimes meant “the white power structure.” To the cops, it certainly meant the black militants and sometimes meant the entire black community.

The moderate black leadership and the moderate white leadership were sure there was a “problem” that could be “solved” by “men of good will.” The issues that divided them were really superficial and could be addressed by some new programs, some budgetary tweaking, and persistent efforts to communicate across the racial barrier. “What we have here is a failure to communicate” was a sentiment as likely to be heard on the moderate black side of the conflict as on the moderate white side. [1]

The moderates won. There was not a race war—not, at least, a war of the kind the extremists were calling for. The new programs were tried, the budgets were tweaked and what happened is what we have now. It is not what the moderates promised, but it was not a racial holocaust either.

Ever since then, I have tried to notice, when a political slogan is unfurled, who else is unfurling the same slogan. What I learned from Murray Edelman is that the sides in a conflict may be distinguished by the ends they would like to see achieved or by the tactics they think are appropriate. In a very practical and immediate sense, the people who are calling for the same tactics are “brothers in arms.”

This brings us to ISIS and the Republican party. [1] The Republicans campaign like a home security company. They create bogeywomen [2] to arouse otherwise unconcerned consumers. They define the bad guys in terms of a permanent inner proclivity. They specify the means by which the bad guys should be dealt with. They deprecate all other proposals for dealing with them as well as all other ways of defining them.  We can say that the response of the burglars has the normal range of responses, including seminars on how to disable alarm systems [3] As you see in the somewhat whimsical table below, the moderates are in a very difficult position. “Gee, Officer Krupke, what are we to do?” is the question asked in the three quotes below, including one by the Chair of the Senate Armed Services committee who actually knows “what we are to do.” He want to call the radicals “Islam” to send American troops (back) to fight them.

That table didn’t really do what I wanted.  The red cell on the left and on the right is supposed to read “radical militants;” the blue bars in the center, to read “moderate diplomats” and “moderate Muslims.”

middle east 8

If you can remember seeing West Side Story, you can remember what a hapless figure Officer Krupke was. The really cool guys were the Sharks and the Jets and they saw the situation in exactly the same way. “They” are a threat to “us” and need to be destroyed. That is the Shark/Jet position. It is, with some changes of language due to the international venue, the ISIS/Republican position as well.

ISIS desperately needs a religious war. ISIS recruiters fall asleep at night with visions of religious war dancing in their heads. A global conflict between Christianity and Islam is the “sugarplum” they see dancing. A war to establish a radical Islamic homeland doesn’t do the job. It isn’t urgent enough. Taking oil resources from its Western-supported neighbors doesn’t do the job. Too geopolitical. Getting the U. S. to withdraw military bases from Saudi Arabia, where they sit side by side, with Islamic holy sites doesn’t do the job. Too passive. “Holy War” against the “infidels,” (that’s us) of the “decadent West” (still us), and especially “the Great Satan” (us again) is what will do the job that ISIS has in mind.

What would that do?

It would bring recruits in unprecedented numbers from all over the globe. Nations with no real interest in seeing ISIS prevail against the Kurds or the Turks or the Iraqis or the Syrians would line up to support “a holy war against Christianity.” An Islamic banking system would flourish; arms and materiel would flow to the points of greatest need. The Caliphate would again become a thinkable thought and put fire in the blood of millions of young Muslims.

It’s a long shot, but ISIS is not really without hope because they have the support of theirmiddle east 5 partners, the Republican Party of the United States. “How can you say that?!” you say, having passed by all the paragraphs preceding, which I was counting on to prevent that response, “No one is more anti-ISIS than the Republicans.” That is true. And no one was more anti-cop than the black militants.  That is why I called them “brothers in arms.”

But look at the table. It is the radicals that feed off each other. If ISIS says “This is a war against Christianity” and the United States says, “No it isn’t. This about armed thugs beating up on their neighbors,” everything will be local and contained. If the United States says that the thugs are Islamic and their scriptures support their efforts and what these guys need is to see “a little Christian steel,” then conditions are set for the religious war ISIS needs so badly.

Who in the U. S. will volunteer to partner with ISIS. President Obama could. Since a sizable proportion the conservative electorate still thinks Obama is Muslim, it would be a very satisfying thing—a very un-Muslim thing— for him to do. But he can’t do that; he has a job to do and that would make everything worse. Obama has also been criticized for a “soft” or even a “cowardly” approach to foreign policy. Condemning ISIS in a way that highlighted their religious background would be a very satisfying way to shut up the critics and send his approval rating back north of 50%. But he can’t do that; he has a job to do.

You would think that the Republicans could do that if they really wanted to. They could look at the taunts of ISIS—all put in a religious mode—and refuse to take the bait. That’s not what they have done. They have been bitterly critical of Obama’s refusal to label ISIS as “Islamic militants.” The Republican case is that these guys are Islamic and they are militant, so they are Islamic militants. President Obama’s case is that they are a dozen other things, in addition to those two, and including a religious designation is only helping them achieve their war aims.

Here are a few quotes that I will attribute to right wing Islamophobes, not to the Republican party generally but they will help to identify the ground we are on.

1.  “Christians [should] prepare to wage holy war in an effort to utterly destroy all 1.6 billion of the world’s Muslims because Christians simply have to “face the harsh truth that Islam has no place in civilized society.”

That could not have been phrased better by anyone in ISIS. ISIS is the principal beneficiary. It is fully in accord with their war aims. They didn’t say it, however. This quote comes from Gary Cass, founder of the Christian Anti-defamation Commission.

How about this one?

2. Islamization, she has said, is not something that will happen overnight. “It’s a drip, drip, drip, drip…The mosque-ing of the workplace where you’re imposing prayer times on union contracts, non-Muslim workers have to lengthen their day. … These demands are a way of imposing Islam on a secular society.”

middle east 3More ISIS propaganda, trying to draw the U. S. into defining the conflict as religious, rather than military and political? Nope. This is Pam Geller, founder of the American Freedom Defense Initiative.

“This is a religious war!” is the only hope ISIS has of becoming a self-sustaining movement. “No it isn’t, it’s a regional mugging” is the best hope the U. S. has of isolating ISIS from Islamic nations worldwide. The President knows that. It is likely that the Republicans know it as well.

3.“Look at the world in 2009, and look at the world today. My friends, it is dramatically shifted in favor of the forces of radical Islam, forces of terror, and they are now direct threats to the United States of America.”

Obviously, this is not ISIS. The point of view is strongly opposed to ISIS, but it is strongly in favor of U. S. intervention with ground troops and it labels the bad guys by using religious terminology. They are “radical Islam.” So it still helps ISIS achieve their goal, which is to turn their neighborhood scuffle into an occasion for religious war.

middle east 4This one is by Sen John McCain who, at the time he said this (in an interview on Fox News) was on the verge of becoming the Chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He is now the Chair and has a very different view of the matter than the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces.

Everybody who understands the ISIS challenge knows that their only real hope of success is to call their cause “a religious war” and to taunt the United States into agreeing with them. When we say, as Cass, Geller, and McCain do, above, that they are right; that it IS a religious war, ISIS wins that round and is a step closer to the Caliphate.

[1] Thanks to Cool Hand Luke, that is an expression that has become useful in an amazing variety of circumstances.
[2] Trying really hard to get past gender stereotypes here.
[3] These seminars have been held for many years now in federal and state penitentiaries, where the masters of these crafts can be brought together with novices and a great deal of hard-earned knowledge shared.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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