“France is our oldest ally,” President Barack Obama said during a speech last Friday in Tennessee. “I want the people of France to know that the United States stands with you today, stands with you tomorrow.”
Shamefully, Obama did not stand side by side with the French people on Sunday, January 11th when they really needed him the most. He should have matched rhetoric with action and gone to Paris as the leader of the free world to march in the huge Paris rally honoring the victims of jihad and supporting free expression.
Instead, he decided to stay home.
The rally attracted more than a million people, including over 40 presidents and prime ministers marching arm-in-arm. They were paying homage to the slain civilians, gunned down by jihadists in attacks at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and at a kosher supermarket last week, as well as the three murdered police officers. The rally even brought together Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Abbas for a short time. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov also showed unity of purpose in joining the march. Along with prominent Western European leaders who marched, Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and Queen Rania and King Abdullah II of Jordan participated.
But Obama was missing in action. To be more precise, he spent part of Sunday watching a football playoff game, according to an administration official.
It is one thing when, as a state senator in Illinois, Obama voted “present” 129 times, ducking issues he felt were too difficult on which to take a stand. At least he was marked present. Now, as president of the United States, Obama was absent when clear moral leadership on the issue of fundamental liberty and free expression required his presence.
And not only was Obama in absentia. He didn’t even deign to send Vice President Joe Biden or Secretary of State John Kerry to the rally. His Attorney General, Eric Holder, was in Paris for a terrorism summit but did not appear at the rally.
Kerry, who decided to stay in India for a climate change conference, complained that criticizing the absence of any senior Obama administration officials at the rally, not to mention the president himself, was mere “quibbling.”
After Kerry’s pitiful attempt to trivialize the latest fiasco, the White House then went into damage control, even though the damage had already been done. Press Secretary Josh Earnest said on the day after the rally that “It’s fair to say we should have sent someone with a higher profile to be there. Had the circumstances been a little bit different, I think the president himself would have liked to be there.”
What circumstances? Scheduling the rally so that it did not interfere with the playoff games or with the president’s campaign-style speeches?
The only real circumstance is that Obama could not be bothered. He thinks we are dealing with pockets of violent extremism unmoored to any particular religion or ideology.
Recall that in September 2012 President Obama told world leaders gathered in New York for that year’s high-level General Assembly session that the “future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam.”
Josh Earnest’s predecessor Jay Carney in 2012 criticized the “judgment” of theCharlie Hebdo magazine for being too inflammatory: “We are aware that a French magazine published cartoons featuring a figure resembling the prophet Muhammad, and obviously we have questions about the judgment of publishing something like this. We know these images will be deeply offensive to many and have the potential be inflammatory.”
For all we know, Obama and his staff are saying “we told you so.” If publications like Charlie Hebdo had just listened to the president and his spokesperson and avoided content offensive to Muslims, everything might have been alright, they are probably thinking. Except it would not have been alright. Free expression would have been further on its way to becoming an endangered species.
Obama has now decided to host a Summit on Countering Violent Extremism next month where everyone can just scratch their heads and talk about fostering harmony and understanding. The agenda will include discussion of community engagement and religious leader engagement. That’s not surprising coming from the community organizer-in-chief who thinks that “violent extremism” is a fairly isolated problem, having nothing to do with Islamic ideology. Who knows? Maybe Hillary Clinton, of “what difference does it make” fame, will be invited to repeat her words of empathy for our enemies that she uttered last month.
Why doesn’t President Obama invite Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi instead to give the same address he did earlier this month at Al-Azhar, the oldest and most prestigious Sunni religious school? Obama might actually learn something.
President al-Sisi acknowledged the elephant in the room when he said that it was adherence to the “corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the years” which “is antagonizing the entire world.”
President al-Sisi was not talking about a handful of alienated “violent extremists” who are perverting true Islam, as Obama believes. But rather he is saying it is the texts and ideas themselves, blessed over the centuries and today by prominent Islamic scholars and religious figures, which are providing the fertile soil for jihad to spread. At the seat of Islamic learning, the Egyptian president said that “we are in need of a religious revolution.” He exhorted the imams to act because “this umma is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost – and it is being lost by our own hands.”
To be sure, President al-Sisi is a very imperfect messenger. But his harsh military and political actions at home cannot be allowed to obscure the importance of his message about Islam and its doctrines that are “antagonizing the entire world.”
The fact is that dishonoring Islam and its prophet is a serious, if not the most serious, crime under Sharia law, which many Muslims regard as divinely inspired. In Muslim majority countries, death or a long prison sentence is the consequence. But jihadists who believe in the supremacy of Islam over all other belief systems are not content with imposing Sharia law in just Muslim majority countries. They want to it to govern anywhere they choose to live, particularly whenever there is a conflict with what they denigrate as mere man-made laws. Already there exist what are known as no-go zones in France and other European countries, where central authority has given way to Sharia law.
Whether through the means of terrorism or through the means of stealth jihad to manipulate Western and international institutions, jihadists are determined to export their ideology as far and wide as they possibly can. Jihadists have no intention of adapting to the norms of a free society, in which free expression lies at the core. They expect by hook or crook to transform the democratic, pluralistic norms of free societies we have taken for granted to more closely comply with the requirements of Sharia law. The storm clouds are gathering fast all around us, and free expression versus absolute unquestioning respect for Islam and its prophet is right at the center of the storm.
In turning a blind eye or even helping to abet the problem rather than confront it, the President Obama has forfeited the role of leader of the free world.