US President Donald Trump shakes hands with US Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster (L) as his national security adviser at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, on February 20, 2017. / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM
NSA McMaster breaks with Trump on Islam
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Editor’s Note: H.A. Hellyer, senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council and the Royal United Services Institute in London, is author of “Muslims of Europe: The ‘Other’ Europeans” and “A Revolution Undone: Egypt’s Road Beyond Revolt.” He is on Twitter @hahellyer. The opinions in this article belong to the author.

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H.A. Hellyer: If terrorism were authentically Islamic, there would be far more terrorists

Denying terrorism has anything to do with religion takes narrative back from extremists, he says

CNN  — 

Donald Trump’s new national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, is a man whose view of extremist Islamism is far more nuanced than his predecessor.

Indeed, he may be the most sensible senior figure in the Trump national security apparatus – and if the United States faces a terrorist attack on its soil during Trump’s tenure, that may be more vital than we currently realize.

Almost 12 years ago, the United Kingdom faced a terrorist attack by indigenous extremist Islamists on British soil. In its aftermath, I was appointed as deputy convener of the UK government’s working group on tackling radicalization and extremism.

Nuance, rather than reactionary populism, was crucial in building and sustaining resilience in the UK after that attack.

The statements on Islam from Michael Flynn, McMaster’s predecessor, were not dissimilar to that of right-wing conspiracy theorists. He decried the religion as “a cancer” and sympathized with the notion that Islam and the West were headed for an inevitable clash.

In that regard, the “enemy” for Flynn went far beyond extremist Islamists – it included Muslims at large – at home and abroad.

Had we in the UK upheld that point of view in 2005, our counterterrorism strategies would have been stymied – and rather than making us safer, it probably would have made us more vulnerable and less robust.

More details about McMaster’s views will become evident as he comes more into the public eye, but it appears his perspective is rather more rational.

Such a viewpoint is also quite common and standard among specialists in the counterterrorism sector, whether in or outside of government. According to this view, the label of “radical Islamic terrorism” is unhelpful, because terrorists are “un-Islamic.”

That’s not the view of others in the Trump administration, including Trump himself. But it is the one we in the UK insisted upon in 2005. It is also the same view that all recent Democratic and Republican presidents, before Trump, espoused as well.

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Who is H.R. McMaster?
01:35 - Source: CNN

Denying that terrorism is intrinsically Islamic has two major advantages: The first is that your partners in Muslim communities, whether indigenous ones who are a part and parcel of your societies, or international partners with whom you coordinate, do not feel they are being targeted as part of “the problem.” Rather, they become part of the solution.

Our intelligence services in the UK – and intelligence services in the United States, as well as elsewhere in the world – have made it clear that members of Muslim communities, functioning as citizens who have nothing to prove, have consistently contributed intelligence that has likely saved huge numbers of lives. In the international arena, the fight against groups such as ISIS and al Qaeda would be tremendously more difficult without the active participation of Muslim-majority nations.

The second advantage is the denial happens to be accurate. If terrorism were essentially Islamic, then a much larger number of terrorists would exist and Islamic scholars at large would not condemn the ideology of groups such as ISIS and al Qaeda. Of course, those groups want that religious authenticity to be granted to them – why any of us should grant them that propaganda victory, especially when it is patently false anyway, is beyond stupidity.

McMaster is likely going to be met with resistance by those in the Trump administration who are going to claim he’s denying any linkage whatsoever between Islam and terrorism. This would be demonstrably ridiculous. Denying the religious authenticity of extremist Islamist terrorism doesn’t mean religion has nothing to do with it. Rather, it means that the nature of that religious ideology is heterodox and profane, rather than bona fide. The Ku Klux Klan, the “positive Christianity” of the Nazis and the Lord’s Army of Uganda all claimed a Christian pedigree. Few would claim any of them are authentically Christian – even though they use religious vocabulary.

It was precisely that argument that we used in the UK after the 7/7 bombings in 2005 – that a neo-religious, extremist narrative was being used to justify terrorism by extremist Islamists. It was not, by any means, the only factor involved in motivating this nefarious violence. But where ideology was involved, as we admitted it often was, it was pragmatically absurd to declare it was “Islamic.” If we’d said otherwise, while our partners in the Muslim community wouldn’t have become our enemies – they’re not so easily tempted by terrorism, even if government policies get things wrong – they probably wouldn’t have been all that keen to be our partners either.

As it is, we still had and have issues in properly engaging with our Muslim communities in the UK – but we have not had a repeat of 7/7, and many attacks have been foiled with the right intelligence.

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    McMaster will probably have many voices arguing against what appears to be a sensible and nuanced point of view in the Trump administration. But he should be confident in realizing that not only does his happen to be more accurate in terms of the facts; it is also far more effective in successful counterterrorism.

    One should hope that the United States never faces a terrorist atrocity on its soil ever again – but if it does, McMaster’s approach will be far wiser than the approach promoted by his adversaries who want a civilizational war against all Muslims and Islam.