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Islamic State's holy war is mostly aimed at Muslims

ISIS fighters are not mere criminal misfits, they are religious fanatics

Here are two things that are true that, to the ranters on conservative talk radio, might seem contradictory: 1) The Islamic State terrorists are fanatical about their Muslim identity and 2) the United States is not fighting a holy war against Muslims.

Republican politicians, Fox News chatterboxes and all the rest of the loud crowd on the right have been excoriating President Obama for the careful way in which he characterizes Islamic State -- a.k.a. ISIS. When the president employs the rather generic term “violent extremism” to describe the nature of ISIS, conservatives are appalled. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz gets all red in the face and calls Obama “an apologist for radical Islamic terrorism.” When the president echoes the words of his predecessor, George W. Bush, and says Islam is a religion of peace and the ISIS philosophy is a distortion of the faith, commentators such as Bill O’Reilly declare he is denying the reality that a holy war against Christianity is under way.

There are certainly moments when Obama seems to be excessive in his verbal caution. However, there is a very good reason to try to counter Islamic State’s claim to be the true heirs of the prophet Muhammad. ISIS cannot be defeated without the help of Muslim governments and Muslims around the world. However stilted his language, Obama is trying to convince mainstream Muslims that the United States is their ally in opposing a terrorist group that threatens Muslims most of all.

Yes, conservatives, Muslims are the primary targets of Islamic State’s violence. Western reporters and aid workers have been brutally executed and Egyptian Christians have been beheaded, but the number of Muslim Syrians and Iraqis killed is far greater. That is because, while those who speak for Islamic State do rail against the U.S. and Europeans, that animosity has only a peripheral link to their principal goal: establishment of a “caliphate” to dominate the Muslim Middle East. Unlike Al Qaeda, whose wicked actions are more sharply aimed at terrorizing the West, Islamic State leaders and ideologues are focused on “apostate” Muslims in their own region who stand in the way of their medieval vision.

Those apostates are pretty much anyone claiming to be a Muslim who fails to submit to the extremely puritanical, regressive interpretation of Islamic texts and history that motivates everything Islamic State does. And that leads to the very crucial point that politically correct liberals, many moderate Muslims and perhaps even the president may not completely appreciate or acknowledge. ISIS is not just a collection of criminals or psychopathic killers or power-grabbing militants with political aims who use Islam as a cover. ISIS is a growing army of true believers who think they are caught up in an end-of-the-world struggle. For them it truly is a holy war -- a holy war against anyone who would modernize and temper what they believe is the true Islam.

It would be foolish to pretend that ISIS is not a very committed legion of religious fanatics, but it would be just as dumb to rush off to battle without America’s most vital allies in this fight: mainstream Muslims.

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