At a White House event yesterday, President Obama described terrorists in a direct and constructive way. “Al Qaeda and ISIL and groups like it are desperate for legitimacy,” he explained. “They try to portray themselves as religious leaders – holy warriors in defense of Islam…. We must never accept the premise that they put forward, because it is a lie. Nor should we grant these terrorists the religious legitimacy that they seek. They are not religious leaders – they’re terrorists.”
The president’s comments came less than a day after Bill O’Reilly adopted the exact opposite posture – the terrorists characterize their efforts as part of a holy war, and now, the Fox News host does, too.
“The holy war begins…. The holy war is here. And unfortunately it seems the President of United States will be the last one to acknowledge it…. President Obama needs to lead – needs to lead the world in this holy war.”
Monica Crowley, one of O’Reilly’s guests, cheered the host on. “I think your call tonight is a very important move,” Crowley said on the show. “I think it’s long overdue. I give you kudos. I also give you kudos for using the phrase ‘holy war.”
It’s tempting to dismiss this as irresponsible nonsense – which will likely be celebrated by some of the same people O’Reilly opposes – but let’s not brush past this too quickly.
As Rachel explained on the show last night, the American mainstream has traditionally rejected the kind of rhetorical framing that terrorists prefer, which makes it all the more jarring to hear notable conservative figures actually embracing the “holy war” premise espoused by extremists.
“ISIS wants everybody to believe that there’s a holy war in the world and they are one side and the West is the other side. That’s what ISIS wants people to believe. That’s what al Qaeda wants people to believe too.“And it used to be American consensus politics – at least American consensus mainstream politics – to reject that narrative, to not let those terrorist groups define what’s going on here and define themselves as half of the fight in a clash between two equal civilizations, with them as the Muslim side and everybody else as the other side.“There used to be a consensus in American politics that giving them that framing for what they’re doing which they seek so desperately was not only repeating their big lie, it was idiotic strategically. It was doing their work for them.”
And yet, here we are.
The recklessness of O’Reilly rhetoric is hard to overstate. Terrorists are aggressively pushing a very specific, radicalized narrative, and the Fox News host, instead of condemning it, has decided to endorse that narrative. As Max Fisher described this as “dangerous.”
ISIS insists on seeing the conflict this way out of earnest (if twisted) religious conviction as well as for strategic reasons; framing itself as representing jihadism as in civilizational conflict against the apostates is good for its recruiting and stature. So is antagonizing the US into putting boots on the ground; the 2003 US invasion of Iraq was a boon to jihadist recruitment.For O’Reilly to … argue that Obama must adopt ISIS’s worldview and confront the group on its own ideological and strategic terms is alarmingly short-sighted.
Remember, from O’Reilly’s perspective, he’s not calling for a “holy war,” so much as he’s convinced the “holy war” is already here.