At the Republican National Convention, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich declared, “We are war with radical Islamists” and that “they are determined to kill us.” The first statement is partially true. And if there is any truth to the latter statement, we need to understand the reasons why. Only then will we be able to answer the question, “How do we keep America safe?”
To begin, the real war is a war within Islam. Radical Islamists are at war – first and foremost – with their fellow Muslims. Indeed, Gingrich acknowledged that, “they [Muslims] are often the victims of the violence themselves.” He also said that “since January of 2015, some 30,000 people have been killed at the hands of terrorists,” but failed to mention that the vast majority of those deaths — almost 80 percent — were in five countries with significant Muslim populations: Iraq, Nigeria — which account for over half of the deaths — Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria. Gingrich did not cite the source of his data, but according to the 2015 Global Terrorism Index, there were more than 32,000 deaths from terrorism in 2014.
The reality is that radical Islam is a civil war in the Muslim world for the soul of Islam that too often spills over into the West, including America. Our government’s priority must be to keep us safe from such violent extremists – which will largely be the work of focused intelligence efforts and good, old fashioned police work. The radicals’ vision is one of a strict and conservative interpretation of Islam, and it’s important to understand the radical vision is not monolithic. Although both are considered radical Islamic terrorist groups, even al Qaeda and ISIS have some significant differences.
Indeed, the core goal of ISIS is to establish an Islamic caliphate in the heart of the Muslim world. What the rest of the Muslim world seems not yet to have to come to grips with and agreed upon is what a 21st century version of Islam should be. But like 16th century Europe, Islam is experiencing its version of the Reformation. How long that will last is unknowable, but military efforts to impose a swift resolution from the outside has had drastic, negative consequences.
As such, it is not up to America or the West to decide what Islam should be. The more we involve ourselves in someone else’s civil war, the more we make ourselves an easy target. And the more we play to the radical Islamic narrative that America and the West is at war against Islam. It is worth noting that the perpetrators of recent terrorist attacks in Belgium and France cited those governments’ military operations killing Muslims in Syria and Iraq as a reason for violence – not a desire to convert either of those countries to Islam.
On the RNC stage, Gingrich raised the same specter then-Vice President Dick Cheney used to make the case for invading Iraq. But despite his fearmongering, terrorism and terrorist groups such as ISIS, al Qaeda, Boko Haram — now the deadliest terror group in the world – are not existential threats.
That is not to say that terrorism is not a threat or that we can afford to ignore it. But we need to place the threat – and our response to it – in perspective. According to the Global Terrorism Index, lone wolf terrorism (terrorist attacks without the support of a terrorist organization) – which accounted for 21 attacks and 18 deaths in 2014—are the biggest threat in the U.S. That these are “homegrown” terrorists underscores the fact that killing would-be terrorists in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere does not inherently make us safer.
It is also important to understand that to the extent that this is a war, it is largely a war of hearts and minds. So however sometimes necessary, simply killing more Muslims who we believe to be terrorists is not a winning solution. In fact, it could be counterproductive – especially with regard to collateral damage, which is inevitable.
Every innocent Muslim civilian killed has a mother, father, brother, sister, or other relative who would have powerful motivation to hate America, which makes them more easily radicalized and take the first step toward becoming a terrorist – seeking to avenge the loss of their loved ones.
Newt Gingrich was right about one thing: “the vast majority [of Muslims] are peaceful.” But with some 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, we cannot afford to continue to engage in ill-conceived rhetoric and actions that give them excuses to turn their ire on America.
Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow with the Defense Priorities Foundation. He has more than 25 years of experience as a policy and program analyst and senior manager, supporting both the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security. Peña is the former Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.