John Brennan Is Wrong About Islam: Jihadists are Certainly Muslims

Nor should we fear to criticize them as such, for except that we utter the shaḥāda, they do not care what we say.

BY Immanuel Al-Manteeqi · @Al_Manteeqi | October 6, 2016

At the recent Washington Ideas Forum interview with journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, John Brenan, the current CIA director,  puts on his politically correct imam hat and decides to pontificate about what Islam is or isn’t.  In doing so he comes into conflict not only with eminent scholars of Islam such as Michael Cook and Bernard Haykel of Princeton University, but with the people whom he dares to read out of Islam.

Brenan audaciously declares, for example, that “extremists and terrorists are driven by an ideology that is not rooted in Islam [emphasis added].” We are also told that comments that “taint” Islam “as being the source of the problem” are “tremendously detrimental to our interests and to a better understanding of this phenomenon” of terrorism [emphasis added].

In addition, he states that he has met “with princes or presidents and prime ministers throughout the Middle East,” and that

…they are outraged that their community has been infected by this cancer, [viz.,] individuals who [have a] distorted and very perverted interpretation of Islam [and who] pursue these psychopathic agendas of horrific violence [emphasis added].

When asked by Jeffrey Goldberg what he would say to Trump about the impact of his discourse, Brennan responded by stating that he would try to show Trump how his comments, and similar comments from others, are “feeding” the narrative that terrorist organizations are propagating. Brenan explains  that Donald Trump’s comments and similar incendiary remarks  do not help to

…arrest this [Islamist] cancer that has taken over so many of the communities because of a lot of the underlying conditions that exist within the Middle East and Africa, South Asia, [and] other areas because of economic deprivation, political disenfranchisement, [and] lack of opportunity. These terrorist organizations, and this perverted version of a religion preys upon their sense of hopelessness. And by making comments that are incendiary and are viewed as attacking a religion or a people or a community only further drive[s] those individuals to grasp onto those extremist views because they interpret a lot of the comments that are made as “the Western United States are out against them.”

For Brennan, it is “the extremist comments on both sides of this [public debate on Islamism] that have just fed those sources of extremism.” To him Islam is being hijacked and gravely perverted, just as Christianity and Judaism have been hijacked and perverted throughout the centuries. These are familiar lines that have been uttered by many people in power and by a number of politicians across the political spectrum, even if they have no formal training in Islamic studies or a reasonable understanding of the religion of Islam.

President George W. Bush, for example, stated less than a week after the September 11th attacks that “Islam is peace.” His successor, President Barack Obama, maintained hat ISIS is not only unislamic, but that it is anti-islamic—never mind that al-Azhar, the seat of Sunni Islam, refused to denounce ISIS members as non-Muslims in 2014, with the Grand Mufti of al-Azhar, Ahmad al-Tayyib, doubling down in 2015. Indeed, on the very same day Brennan made the above statements, Obama explained to a Gold-Star mother at CNN’s townhall meeting why he shies away from using the term “Islamic terrorism.” The reasons were, as to be expected, essentially the same or consonant with those given by John Brennan.

One wonders if John Brennan, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and others who make similar statements really and truly believe that Islamic ideologies are not the primary motivators of jihadi terrorists, or if they are hedging their bets on a utilitarian calculus in which publicly propagating the false view that ISIS-like organizations are not Islamic decreases the probability of jihadi attacks on the U.S., and hence, increases the probability that the U.S. is secure.

If the former, then they are just categorically wrong. The most notable “Islamic” terrorist organization, ISIS, has already explicitly stated their reasons for hating and fighting the West in a conspicuous article entitled, “Why We Hate You and Why We Fight You,” published in the fifteenth issue of their magazine, Dabiq. In the article the author(s) make the following type of statements:

The fact is, even if you were to stop bombing us, imprisoning us, torturing us, vilifying us, and usurping our lands, we would continue to hate you because our primary reason for hating you will not cease to exist until you embrace Islam.

It would be very hard for ISIS members to write a clearer exposition on the primary reason for their hatred of the West, a hatred which they explicitly say is grounded in the West’s lack of adherence to the Islamic religion.

Moreover, if one reads the early Islamic source texts in a reasonably objective manner,[1] then it becomes clear that many of the actions that are perpetrated by Jihadi groups like ISIS and Al-Qā’ida are Islamic. Indeed, many of the jihadi groups’ teachings can be traced back to the early Islamic source texts: from the caliphate, the rape of female war captives, the cutting of the hands of thieves, the killing of apostates, the extracting of the poll tax (jizya) from Christians and their subjugation, to their jihad against “infidels.” All such things can be found in mainstream Islamic source texts. True, jihadists are selective in their interpretations of certain texts, particularly in justifying the wanton killing of innocents, but many of their actions are definitely in keeping with mainstream Islamic teaching.

But how about if Brennan and others do not really believe that ISIS et al. are un-Islamic, but are just stating otherwise in hopes of winning a propaganda war against Islamists, thus increasing the probability that the U.S. remains secure? If this is their position, then they would not only be wrong, but they would be engaging in risky deception. As I have already pointed out in another article the implicit reasoning used by Brennan and others here is flawed. For they are implicitly assuming that Trump’s rhetoric will significantly increase the probability that jihadists will hate us, and therefore that his rhetoric will significantly increase the probability that the U.S. will face jihadi terrorist attacks (hence significantly decreasing the security of the United States).

As I pointed out before, although Trump’s rhetoric and the rhetoric of certain vociferous anti-Islam voices may technically increase the probability that jihadists hate us, it does not significantly increase the probability that they will—indeed, the probability increase is negligible, and so not worth mentioning.

Jihadis are not sitting around thinking, “what will Trump say? And how will this affect our policies towards the West?” They do not really care what U.S. politicians say or do, short of uttering the shaḥāda and becoming Muslims.[2] They hate the West and all it stands for with a passion anyways. Contrary to Brennan et al., the rhetoric of a few politicians, or those who point to violent elements in Islam to explain or explain away terrorism, is hardly “tremendously detrimental” to our national security interests.

The truth of the matter is that Islam has both peaceful and violent elements, and that jihadists like to focus on the violent elements. As Muslim reformer Shireen Qudosi points out in her recent testimony before Chairman Scott Perry for the Subcommittee on Oversight and Management Efficiency (of the House Homeland Security Committee) of the U.S. Congress, in a hearing entitled “Identifying the Enemy: Radical Islamist Terror,” Islam is “both war and peace,” and that Muhammad, in certain parts of his life, was “warmongering.” By this she ostensibly means that Islam has both peaceful and violent elements, and that Muhammad had certain warmongering proclivities (if the earliest sources of Islam are to be trusted). This has to be accounted for if one is to have even a prayer of reaching a comprehensive understanding of jihadi terrorist groups.

In addition, if Trump’s admittedly sometimes irresponsible rhetoric is all it takes to drive Muslim fence sitters to grasp onto extremist views, as Brennan seems to suggest, then there is a huge problem in the Muslim community. Furthermore, this attitude towards Muslims that is expressed by Brennan and others in power seems to be one that infantilizes them. Brennan and others treat Islam and anything having to do with Islam with kid gloves. It is a mentality indicative of what is now widely called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

Muslims, like Christians and Jews, and everyone else in civilized society, should be able to handle criticism of their most cherished beliefs without recourse to violence. Attempting to thought-police or sanitize what people can or cannot say about Islam is not going to get anywhere, especially in this age of the internet and staggering globalization. It is an attempt doomed to fail.

Moreover, although factors that Brennan and others frequently cite, like socioeconomic disenfranchisement and lack of opportunity, may provide a partial explanation for why some Muslims choose to join the ranks of jihadi groups like ISIS, it is at best only some pieces of the puzzle. The bigger piece of the puzzle is religious ideology. Indeed, ISIS recruits come from a wide variety of different countries and socioeconomic and educational backgrounds,[3] but what they all share in common is a commitment to the truth of certain violent interpretations of Islam. For Brennan and others to ignore or try to deemphasize this bigger piece of the puzzle is for them to ignore what our enemies are saying and, in effect, to engage in wishful thinking.

However, if Brennan et al. do not even believe in what they are saying about the peacefulness of Islam and how its teachings cannot be plausibly interpreted to validate the positions of Islamists, then, as I said above, they are engaging in deception and are doing a disservice to the truth. The truth matters—it really does.

And if Brennan et al. are consciously engaged in propagating information which they believe and know to be false—e.g., that these Islamists are not fundamentally motivated by religious ideology—then their whitewashing attempts are not only dangerous from a national security standpoint, they are outright immoral from an ethical standpoint. The truth matters, and people in a position of power like Brennan and Obama ought to speak the truth to power here, even if it has untoward consequences of alienating some Muslims.

In Brenan’s case, he is probably more familiar with the Islamic religion than most of his compatriots in power, as he has traveled to the Middle East and studied Arabic in the Arab world—indeed, his Arabic is not bad for a non-native Arabic speaker. Be that as it may, he is just dead wrong about Islamism and the motivations that ultimately move Islamists.

So why do we keep hearing such statements? Part of the answer is ignorance of Islamic history. The people who tout claims that the Islamic religion itself has no violent elements, or no elements that would lead people to do what ISIS, al-Qāi’da, and other Jihadi organizations are doing are just ignorant of the contents of the early Islamic source texts.

As I pointed above, there is no question that ISIS and other self-proclaimed Islamic groups are drawing heavily from early Islamic source texts. One need not believe that Islam is a terroristic religion in order to believe the relatively innocuous claim that there are violent elements in the religion from which Islamists draw inspiration.

Another part of  the reluctance of Brennan et al. to link terrorism with anything Islamic is that many of them are living in the relatively secular United States of America.[4] So they have a hard time wrapping their minds around how there can be millions of people in regions like the Middle East who actually believe, with all their minds, doctrines like that God has prepared for them an eternity of sexual gratification in paradise, and that they can arrive there by waging jihad against infidels.

Indeed, many in the Muslim world believe in radical doctrines that we in the secular West would find to be crazy. Radical beliefs are quite widespread in the Muslim world. If one crunches up the absolute numbers from a 2015 Pew Research study on the favorability of ISIS in the Muslim world, then one will find that at least 60 million Muslims the world over have a favorable view towards ISIS. And far more than 60 million Muslims hold to radical beliefs or Islamist views. As Brennan admits, the Islamist cancer has “taken over so many of the [Muslim] communities.”

As hard as it is to fathom for one who has grown up in a relatively secular Western country, the reality is that radical religious beliefs are widespread in the Muslim world. Many Muslims the world over sincerely believe what Westerners would describe as radical religious beliefs; and they don’t just believe in them because they have been pushed to do so by destitute socioeconomic conditions, conditions which do not apply to many of them in the first place.

Another reason why Brennan et al. make such politically correct statements is that they do not want to alienate Muslim allies in the perpetual fight on the “war on terror.” This is probably the best reason that they offer for not linking terrorist groups with Islam.

It is certainly correct to say that speaking the truth sometimes has the consequence of alienating certain individuals or groups, even it is not intended. However, if our “allies” are really and truly our allies, and not just wolves in sheep’s clothing,[5] then they should not feel alienated over our leaders’ utterances that Islamist organizations like ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra are in fact Islamic groups, and that they draw inspiration from Islamic source texts. After all, it really is blindingly obvious that these groups are drawing inspiration from Islamic source texts.

Indeed, Bernard Haykel, Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, believes that the debate over whether ISIS, the most barbaric of Islamic groups, is islamic is a “total” waste of time because it is abundantly clear that it is. The following are his concise and poignant words, which I’m sure he would agree can be applied, mutatis mutandis, to many jihadi groups:

To say that IS is not Islamic is inaccurate. IS is definitely an Islamic movement; they are an extreme Islamic movement, but to say that they are not Muslims or that they are outside the interpretive parameters of Islam is factually incorrect. You know, ending up in this debate [about whether IS] is Islamic or not Islamic is a total waste of time. There is no question that these people are drawing inspiration from Islamic texts. There is no doubt. And they know these texts better than most Muslims.[6]

Haykel’s colleague at Princeton, Professor Michael Cook, one of the most eminent scholars of Early Islam, states the following in response to a question citing Haykel and inquiring on Cook’s stance on the peacefulness of Islam:

If you want your Islam to be a religion of war, you have an easy time of it—just read the biography of the Prophet and the “book of jihad” in a standard legal handbook. If you want to be a Muslim pacifist you have a harder time of it—though you can maybe invoke the phase in Muhammad’s career as a prophet before God gave him permission to fight [emphasis added].

The views of these two eminent scholars of Islam is clearly contradictory to the narrative that Brennan and others are pushing. At the very least, this, in conjunction with all the violence that we are witnessing perpetrated in the name of Islam, should give them pause, and cause them to doubt the truth of their pronouncements.

Brennan’s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg at the Washington Ideas Forum is a great expression of the standard politically correct narrative on Islam. Brennan hits on most of the points commonly propounded by those who believe in this narrative. However, although Brennan hits on many of the reasons for why people (usually on the Left) do not want to use adjectives like “Islamic” to describe groups like ISIS, he does not hit on all of the oft-repeated ones.

For example, Brenan does not mention how stating that there are violent elements in Islam or that groups like ISIS are Islamic is to somehow engage in hasty generalizations about Muslims (although he would certainly agree with it). But Obama, on the same day, made sure to do so in an answer he gave to a gold star mother whose son was killed by Islamic terrorists.[7] President Obama said that he has “been careful” about when he describes “these issues [of terrorism]” in order “to make sure that we do not lump these murderers into the billion Muslims that exist around the world.”

However, no rational anti-Islamist lumps the Islamists with the more than one billion Muslims that live in the world.[8] This is just a strawman that is often repeated. No rational critic of Islam states that all Muslims are Islamists; and the fact that one criticizes Islam or Islamism doesn’t entail that one is thereby attacking Muslims. There is a stark difference between ideologies and the people who believe in the ideologies. Even if one sharply criticizes the religion of Islam itself, and believes that it has very violent elements in it,that does not entail that one harbors any sort of animus or ill-will towards Muslims, or that one lumps the more than 1.6 billion Muslims in the world with jihadi militants.

All this being said, it does seem like many of those in power truly believe in the narratives that they have been peddling about Islam and the reasons that Muslims seek to join these Islamic groups, and are not actually engaging in deceptive information warfare. They truly think that jihadi groups are not fundamentally motivated by a religious ideology that represents a legitimate and not implausible interpretation of the source texts.

John Brennan, for example, caved into outside pressure and purged all mention of Islam and jihad from law enforcement counter-terrorism training materials in 2011. One would expect that if he actually believed that jihadi groups are Islamic, he would not have acquiesced to this demand being pushed by certain Muslim groups, even if he would not have wanted to alienate his Muslim allies by publically refusing to describe jihadist groups as “Islamic.” Indeed, the Obama administration probably dismissed retired General Michael Flynn as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency because of, as he puts it, “the stance that [he] took on radical Islamism.”

No, these are not simply utilitarian propagandists, but ideologues who truly and sincerely believe in a skewed view of reality and the threat that Islamists pose to the security interests of the United States. They are well-intentioned people who are just horribly wrong.

The rhetoric of anti-Islamists is hardly as detrimental to the U.S.’s national security interests as is the political correctness about Islamism that is rampant in the Obama administration (which would undoubtedly be perpetuated in a Hillary Clinton presidency). As Robert Spencer, an expert on Jihadi terrorism, states:

A chief reason that the Islamic State’s “global reach” has not been reduced is because the U.S. has failed to identify, confront, and oppose the ideology that has enabled it to amass “a large cadre of Western fighters.” That ideology has spread unchecked in the U.S. in large part because Brennan didn’t think it was worth teaching law enforcement about it [emphasis added].

Spencer is correct. The censorious policies of Brennan and others in the Obama administration is an impediment to effectively combating Islamic terrorism.

In the interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, Brennan, citing the late Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington, suggests that we should not want to play into ISIS’ narrative that we are currently in a clash of civilizations. The idea is that we should not perpetuate the jihadi world view.

However, not everything that comes out of the mouth of ISIS or evil organizations is false—some of their views may be true. In this case, their idea that the world is witnessing a clash of civilizations with the Islamic world, a view that Brennan rightly notes was popularized by Huntington in the 1960’s, is actually true, and to refuse to acknowledge that it is true because it would further some sort of narrative is silly. The truth is the truth, and whether it comes out of the mouth of evil people or good people doesn’t change that fact.[9]


[1] None of us can reach true objectivity on any issue.

[2] The shaḥāda is the Muslim profession of faith, which states that “there is no deity but God, and Muhammad is his prophet (or messenger).”  Speaking the shaḥāda is thought sufficient to convert to Islam.

[3] Certainly foreign ISIS recruits from Western countries, at least the vast majority of them, are not joining ISIS because of socioeconomic reasons. After all, they must know that their living conditions in war torn Syria  is going to be worse than the conditions that they currently enjoy in their first-world countries. Moreover, there are quite a number of educated people in the ranks of jihadi groups. The current leader of al-Qā’ida, Ayman al-Ẓawāhirī, is a trained heart surgeon. The leader of ISIS, Abū Bakr al-Baghdādī, has a PhD in Islamic Studies from Saddam University (with a dissertation on Qur’ānic reciation). In addition, many people in jihadi groups hail from engineering backgrounds, so much so that a book entitled, Engineers of Jihad, has been published on this by Princeton University Press. Moreover, a very recent study by the World Bank of internal ISIS records reveals that “recruits to Islamic militant groups are likely to be well educated and relatively wealthy, with those aspiring to be suicide bombers among the best off.”

[4] The secular understanding of the world remains a very Western phenomena, and indeed is expected to proportionally decrease in the foreseeable future.

[5] An example of wolves in sheep’s clothing are some of our “allies” in Saudi Arabia. These Saudi “allies” are the wellsprings or enablers of Wahābī teachings that foster and promote extremism.

[6] “Bernard Haykel: How Islamic is the Islamic State?” YouTube video, 3:08, posted by “Buno Braak,” Nov. 23, 2014.

[7] Obama answered the mother’s question in a CNN townhall meeting, which was held on September 28th, 2016, the very same day that Brennan held an interview with the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg at the Washington Ideas Forum.

[8] However, perhaps it could plausibly be argued that Trump is lumping the Islamists with Muslims in his (over-the-top) proposal to temporarily ban all Muslims from entering the United States. But people who make the claim that we should not lump all Muslims together in one basket are usually not just criticizing Trump, but also the vociferous critics of Islam, or Islamism, or people who make the innocuous claim that these jihadi organizations are very much motivated by ideologies that are to be found in Islamic source texts. Indeed, when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton make such claims, they don’t seem to have in mind just Trump and his over-the-top rhetoric. In fact, they themselves seem to be lumping in Trump with the more rational voices on Islamic terrorism, voices of people like Ted Cruz.

[9] In more technical words, the truth of a proposition P is independent of the character of the person who affirms P.  And an argument to the effect that one should not believe or publicly proclaim P because it would play into the narrative of nefarious people who believe P is a terrible argument.



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