President Obama's theophobia

On Sunday night, President Obama sought to reassure the nation that, while he was serious about the American fight against ISIS, we as citizens of the United States need to remain vigilant against excessive reactions against Muslims here at home and around the world.  This argument is part of President Obama’s longstanding preaching of a civil religion about Islamophobia.  The predictable and anemic nature of the remarks not only is ineffective, but serves to feed the forces of terrorism here at home and abroad. 

For the president’s allies in the media and intellectual culture, “right-wing terrorism” is a much greater threat than Islamic terrorism.  In fact, their so-called fact-checkers aver that there are more right-wing terror attack deaths than Islamic terror attacks and deaths.  The focus on “right-wing terrorism” and no mention of “left-wing terrorism” helps amplify Hillary Clinton's idea that today’s real enemies are Republicans and conservatives not ISIS.  Moreover, the president’s remarks and those of his partisan allies betray an essential Islamophobia and theophobia.  How many Muslims were murdered in these attacks?  Does anyone even ask or care?  Outside the U.S., they are the predominant victims.

Here in the U.S., there are supposedly somehow more deaths by right-wing terrorism than by Islamic terrorism as long as one forgets 911, which the left seems happy to do.  How many Muslim women have been murdered in the U.S. by Muslim men?  That would seem to matter.  But it does not.  A recent Justice Department report found that 23-27 Muslim women are killed each year by their supremacist relatives, but the “right wing watch” groups do not report this in their tallies.  Muslim women’s lives matter but not in the overall political calculus more interested in advancing the left than the broader cause of human justice.  The means that since 911, almost 200 Muslim women have been killed in honor killings by Muslim men here in the United States.  Presumably, making public note of these lives would inflame Islamophobia.  Why?  Why do the lives of Muslim women not matter?

It is appropriate that as we approach the anniversary of December 12, we think more carefully about this administration’s theophobia.  What happened on December 12?  Apparently nothing of note.  But on that date in 2008, barely one month after the election that brought President Obama to power, the church of Sarah Palin was burned around the entire perimeter, with women and children inside.  This Rwandan-style political hate crime was not investigated by the Justice Department.  The crime was the climax of a season of intense ridicule and personal attacks against Sarah Palin, designed to make sure she and everyone like her would be silent going forward.  President-elect Obama made no public rebuke of the crime.  Firefighters fought the blaze with temperatures more than 10 below zero outside.  When I tell students about this today, rarely do I encounter anyone who is even aware of the crime.

Our silence and that of the media signifies a gateway of political violence.  It is okay to view people like Sarah Palin as enemies.  It is okay to engage in terrorism against such women.  It is okay for the media not to comment or editorialize against such terrorizing crimes.  Internationally, Christians are not acknowledged as the victims of genocide in Iraq and Syria.  The president refuses to prioritize victims of genocide, pretending that such a priority is somehow un-American or discriminatory.  Refusing to admit these victims in greater numbers is the discriminatory act by the administration. 

In the ongoing spectatorship designed to distract from the failed strategy against ISIS is the awkward third leg of this theophobia:  anti-Semitism.  Anti-Semitic hate crimes have outnumbered Islamic hate crimes three to one for many years in the United States, according to the FBI.  Our intellectual leadership largely ignores this and pretends that the nation is seething with rage to harm Muslims.  The refusal to honestly confront anti-Semitism is a key part of the president’s failed strategy globally.  Hatred of Jews is an intrinsic part of the rhetorical anatomy of Islamic radicalism.  Where was the State Department under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton all these years when it was required by law to help connect the international dots in an annual report about anti-Semitism internationally?  Why doesn't anti-Semitism get as much media play as Islamophobia, or more?   The first victim of the Oregon campus shooting was a Jewish professor.  A Messianic Jew killed in California has been singled out in the San Bernardino shooting as being the moral equivalent of the shooters.  It is a flagrant invocation of anti-Semitism, and nothing is said. 

In his remarks, President Obama sought to reassure us of his resolve by outlining a plan of action.  He offered his first priority a willingness to confront any nation.  Does that include Saudi Arabia?  Saudi Arabia is a massive sponsor of ISIS terrorism.  Does it include NATO ally Turkey?  Turkey is also supportive of ISIS.  Will we challenge the government of Iran and its sponsorship of terrorism?  The answers seem to be a clear no.

The theophobic rhetoric of the president continues.  By refusing to confront his fears about Jews, Christians, and Muslims, he consigns our policies against terrorism to inevitable failure and inflammation of the problem.  This will create more terrorists and more genocide.  Muslims, Jews, and Christians would be wise to unite against the clever secular reactionaries who guide the president’s policies.  These allies engage in disgraceful social media displays such as “prayer shaming” while victims are pleading for prayer as they are shot to death by terrorist extremists.  All of this conveys a calculated strategy designed to nudge religion out of public relevance and into ghettos here and around the world.

Ben Voth is an associate professor of communication studies and director of debate at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.  He is author of The Rhetoric of Genocide: Death as a Text.

If you experience technical problems, please write to