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Marci A. Hamilton

The 2009 Holidays and the War Against Islamic Religious Zealots


Thursday, January 7, 2009

As if 2009 had not been bad enough, its holiday season included a series of events that, in my view, amount to a clarion call to Americans to fight more vigorously against their determined enemies.

November: An Army Psychiatrist and Muslim Zealot Kills Fellow Soldiers on an American Military Base

Shortly after Halloween, an Army psychiatrist who is also a Muslim radical shot and killed 13 people on a military base in Fort Hood, Texas. As the investigation continued through Thanksgiving and into December, we learned that he had had contacts with a radical imam who advocates violent jihad against nonbelievers, and that his zealotry had been increasingly apparent to those who worked with him. Despite the evidence of his radical views, no one in the Army took him seriously enough to ensure the safety of the base.

Christmas Day: A Nigerian Muslim Zealot Attempts to Blow Up an Airliner Heading from Europe to Detroit

Then, famously, on Christmas Day, a Nigerian man attempted to blow up an airliner headed to Detroit. He did not succeed, but his plan reminded all Americans that the threat of violence on our own soil, or in our own airspace, remains potent and real. Most troubling is that there was ample information in the intelligence community to have stopped this man from flying into, or entering, the United States. But the intelligence branches completely failed to put the pieces together. Luck saved Americans this time.

Between Christmas and New Year's: A Jordanian Muslim Zealot Kills Seven CIA Officials in Afghanistan

Next, in a far less widely publicized, but just as disturbing incident, on December 30 a suicide-bomber Jordanian Muslim zealot killed seven CIA officials at a remote base in Afghanistan. Reports indicate that he was being groomed to be an informant for the CIA, but that he was in fact a double agent and had not been patted down before entering the compound.

All three of these incidents show religious zealots, who have embraced a deadly version of Islam, easily entering our supposedly safest arenas – a military base, an airline, and a CIA base—with murderous intent. If even the CIA cannot protect itself, it is just plain foolish to think that any American can. The federal government under President Obama has failed, failed, failed to secure the United States against our most virulent enemies. Indeed, the terrorists seem to be experiencing a surge of fresh energy against us.

New Year's Day: A Danish Cartoonist Narrowly Escapes the Deadly Intent of a Radical Muslim Angry About the Cartoonist's 2005 Depiction of Muhammad

Then, on the night of New Year's Day, a Somali man attempted to break into the Danish home of the cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, with an apparent intent to kill him. As readers may recall, Westergaard ended up at the center of an international controversy after he created a cartoon of Muhammad wearing a turban that was drawn to resemble a bomb with a fuse.

Westergaard's drawing became the most famous of the twelve cartoons that were published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten on September 30, 2005; it and several others were reprinted around the world, sparking international controversy. The Danish newspaper had intended, by publishing the cartoons, to further public discussion about radical Islamicism and the freedom of speech, and it achieved its aim. But it also triggered public protests, and even riots in a variety of countries.

On February 12, 2008, a Dane and two Tunisians had tried to kill Westergaard as well. The four men seeking Westergaard's death, in these two attempts, are united by both their Islamic belief that Muhammad should not be depicted, because such depictions are close to idol worship, and their willingness to resort to violence to enforce overcome the right of others to debate and discuss current issues.

Westergaard has been under police protection since the first attempt on his life, and this time, the Danish police arrived in time to stop his attacker – who was clutching an ax in one hand and a knife in the other. Westergaard and his family then went into hiding.

Why the Attempt to Kill Westergaard Should Matter to Americans, Too

For many Americans, the New Year's Day event involving Westergaard probably did not seem terribly relevant. On its face, it may seem like a European problem, but it is so much more than that. Most importantly, it is a prompt to remember that, as I discussed in a previous column written shortly after the 9/11 attacks, our current enemy – a radical wing of Islam, the age-old faith that, of course, boasts millions of good and peaceable followers as well -- is not opposed to us personally, but rather to our constitutional structure.

We hold dear the right to exercise the freedom of speech and to engage in robust public debate. The radicals believe that when such speech and debate derogates their faith, then the righteous and correct response is to murder the speaker with which they disagree. That is an intolerable either-or situation for every Western democracy, and especially the United States. That is when war becomes necessary.

For those who are inclined to think that the dilemma over whether to print the cartoons would be no dilemma at all in free-speech-loving America, think again. The Yale University Press responded to the Danish situation by pulling all depictions of Muhammad from one of its books. They said they feared violence. To put it more crisply, they plainly saw the either-or choice in front of them: Follow the American ideal of free discourse (supposedly most revered in our universities), or avoid violence.

The one thing we should not – indeed, cannot -- do is to follow Yale University Press's callow choice. Patrick Henry described the same dilemma and made clear the only moral choice: "Give me Liberty, or give me Death." We have no choice but to engage in a war with those who take aim at the very core of what America stands for.

These 2009 holiday incidents should be a reminder to all Americans that religious zealots are willing to sacrifice their lives to destroy not just the United States, but the very core of Western civilization. Unless the Obama Administration now dedicates its full attention to the threat we face, we will lose. It is ridiculous to make health reform, valuable as it may be, the top priority in the face of this extraordinary threat. Health reform could be done by the 50 states; the Commander in Chief is the only member of government who has the power to lead us to victory over the enemy.

This Is a War Against Religious Zealots, Not Terrorism, and Not Just Al-Qaeda

The name of this war matters, because the United States currently lacks the urgency needed to fight it. The Bush Administration coined the term "war on terrorism," as it struggled mightily to explain the seriousness of the threat from Islamic fanatics. That Administration correctly chose the term "war" because it describes the most serious level of conflict possible. Yet the name "war on terrorism" was a mistake: The term is too vague and faceless.

The Obama Administration has now tried to replace the phrase "war on terrorism" with the phrase "war on Al-Qaeda." That is better, because at least it puts human beings into the picture. The unvarnished truth is that this enemy is a collection of zealots united by their interpretation of Islam and a deep fear and hatred of Western civilization. They are enemies at base no different than the ideologues of Naziism or of Russian and Eastern European Communism, united by a common ideology and acting with a fervor that means that they will not back down unless we force them down.

We are surely not in a war against Islam per se, one of the world's great religions. But it is plain that we are in a war against Islamic religious zealots. They may not have won the war already, but they have won one battle after another during the 2009 holidays.

Marci Hamilton, a FindLaw columnist, is the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and author of Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children (Cambridge 2008). A review of Justice Denied appeared on this site on June 25, 2008. Her previous book is God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law (Cambridge University Press 2005), now available in paperback. Her email is

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