After Orlando, Why Trump and Clinton Both Get the Jihadists Wrong

What we do know so far about Orlando: in a 911 call, the killer at the Pulse nightclub pledged allegiance to Islamic State, and he had previously expressed a fervent desire to become a “martyr.” In their speeches responding to the massacre, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump each sought to demonstrate a firmer, clearer grasp of the jihadist menace — and therefore prove themselves best positioned to combat it. Each channeled one of the prevalent views in our culture. Both, however, are profoundly wrong. Both are united, ironically enough, in negating the crucial role of ideas in animating the jihadist cause.

The view Trump put forward, which appeals to many people, is meant to sound like a serious, factual account. “We are importing Radical Islamic Terrorism into the West through a failed immigration system.” Because Trump has frequently mouthed the words “radical Islam,” some people believe this view constitutes plain-speaking. But instead of conceptualizing the enemy as an ideological movement — one that people join because they choose to embrace particular ideas and doctrines — the account Trump has voiced negates the role of ideas. Essentially, it is a tribalist outlook, dividing the world into us vs. them — America vs. the outsiders.

But it turns out that the killer in Orlando was born — like Trump himself — in New York. Revealingly, the blame is put on the fact that the killer’s parents were Afghan immigrants: “The bottom line is that the only reason the killer was in America in the first place was because we allowed his family to come here.” That applies equally to generations of Americans, the vast majority of whom were law abiding citizens. So for Trump, the blame falls on the killer’s outsider bloodline. His parents came from a faraway land, so he is forever an outsider; his beliefs and chosen actions are irrelevant. On this view, the tag “radical Islam” turns out to be vacuous: far from designating a substantive conception of the jihadist cause, in fact it serves as a shorthand for tribalist bigotry against outsiders (which manifests as outright racism when Trump applies it to Hispanics).

You can see that in the depressingly popular “solution” of enacting a sweeping ban on Muslim immigration. Obviously, a rational immigration policy must bar entry to individuals seeking to violate our rights (thus barring anyone with ties to or membership in Islamist groups and organizations), while allowing entry to individuals seeking to live and work peacefully. The proposed ban, however, starts with the opposite, tribalist premise. Outsiders: bad. Maybe some will turn out to be OK, but don’t count on it.

Notice how this view wipes out a crucial distinction, one that’s necessary for understanding the jihadist cause. While all jihadists are followers of Islam, it is blatantly false that all Muslims are jihadists. It should go without saying, though today it is necessary to say so, that countless Muslims are law abiding, peaceful, productive Americans. Jihadists, by contrast, are individuals who choose to join an ideological cause, a cause intent on the totalitarian imposition of Islamic religious law. What distinguishes the jihadists is not any inborn tribal identity, but the vicious political-ideological vision they strive to realize. It is this ideological factor that the tribalist view negates.

So does the marginally more sophisticated perspective that Hillary Clinton conveyed in her post-Orlando speech. The killer, she insisted, was a “madman filled with hate, . . .[a] horrible sense of vengeance and vindictiveness in his heart, . . . rage.” [Emphasis added] Here, emotion and above all, some form of madness are taken as fundamental. Therefore, we’re instructed, more has to be done to address the persistent “virus that poisoned his mind.” [Emphasis added.]

Where, then, does his 911 call, swearing fidelity to the caliphate, fit in to this causal narrative? Or his stated wish to become a martyr? Or the reports of him bellowing “Allahu Akbar” as he sprayed bullets into the crowd? These data points reflect a certain ideological outlook. That’s precisely what Clinton’s view trivializes. And in doing so, it forecloses anything that might resemble a sensible policy for combatting the threat.

The same is true of a variation of the Clintonian narrative, which puts even greater emphasis on mental illness. People who are mentally ill, writes Jeet Heer in The New Republic, can be drawn to an “extremist ideology,” so, a “mental-health framework has to be a key part of the solution no less than other policy initiatives” — at least on par with everything else. We can agree that many factors are at play in explaining the actions of a given individual. But it is a serious mistake to downgrade ideology as just one factor among many, precisely because of its immense power over people’s minds, a fact evident in umpteen jihadist attacks. (Besides, you can make a strong claim that espousing jihadist doctrine is kind of detachment from reality: for example, what else can it mean to seek “martyrdom”?)

These prevailing views get the jihadists wrong. We need to grasp that fundamentally the jihadists are moved by the ideas they accept and choose to act on. To view this from a wider perspective, note that the Communists were moved by their ideal of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” erecting dictatorial regimes to put their vision into practice. And that cause attracted some of the worst specimens of humanity, power-lusting thugs, haters of achievement, and psychotics among them. Note that the Founding Fathers, by contrast, upheld the ideals of individualism and reason as the foundation of a free society, creating a constitutional republic to safeguard individual rights. And their cause appealed strongly to productive, independent people seeking a better life. The larger point is that philosophic ideas — whether true or false — are crucial in human life and in understanding cultural-political movements.  

That point is lost on many people today, especially the leading presidential candidates. They fail to understand the centrality of philosophic ideas in animating the jihadist cause. The last two administrations failed properly to define the nature of the Islamist movement. Look around — we’re living with the consequences of their irrational policies. Fitting within that dismal tradition, Clinton and Trump have put forward views that negate the ideological character of the enemy, and so neither has the understanding necessary to deal effectively with the mounting threat we face.