How do you approach the problem of Islamic militancy in the West and in the Middle East? President Obama, who has had innumerable briefings on the threats posed by al-Qaeda and other radical Islamic groups, has chosen to dial down American rhetoric (it was actually pretty tame under President George W. Bush) in the hope that average Muslims, wherever they may be, will view the United States as more friend than foe, and help Washington combat "violent extremism."
This friendly approach is probably, unfortunately, counterproductive. So far, it's unlikely that Muslim self-criticism -- our ultimate salvation from Islamic holy warriors -- has improved under Obama. Judging by the satellite channel Al-Jazeera, a vibrant hodgepodge of all things Arab, the opposite current, fed by Western self-doubt, appears to be gaining force. By being nice, we suggest that nothing within "Islam" -- by which I mean the 1,400-year-old evolving marriage of faith, culture and politics -- is terribly wrong. By being kind, we fail to provoke controversy among Muslims about why so many Muslims from so many lands have called suicide bombers against Western targets "martyrs" and not monsters. Worst of all, by being considerate we fail to echo the great Muslim dissidents, deeply religious men such as the Iranians Abdolkarim Soroush and Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari, who see that something has gone very wrong within their country and their civilization. The president would do well to be more nuanced in his outreach to the Muslim world, giving more sustenance to those who see its systemic problems.
I think there are several problems with this. First, I think there should be an inherent aversion to the President -- a government actor -- criticizing an entire religion as flawed or diseased (if only on Establishment Clause grounds). Criticize horrible acts done by or in the name of a religion? Yes, of course. But blurring together all of Islam -- Sunni and Shi'ite and Sufi, North African and Middle Eastern and South Asian -- and proclaiming it infected is the sort of sweeping judgment about religious faith that as a constitutional matter we should tread lightly over. Imagine if the President had issued a statement demanding Christianity reform itself after the George Tiller murderer? After all, when it comes to murdering doctors in the US, that's a problem primarily associated with Christian extremists. Putting aside the legal questions, I honestly don't think Islamic terrorism in the United States has manifested so gravely so as to warrant sweeping chastisement of an entire billion-plus-person religious faith.
Second, Gerecht's claim that "some Westerners are having a more vivid debate about Islam's travails than most Muslims are having," is vague to the extreme and gives no guidance about what the statement even means, much less whether it is a positive development. Obviously, it's simply wrong that the Muslim community doesn't have an internal debate going on about what Islam means (maybe they aren't having the debate in Gerecht's living room, but that's what makes it "internal"). And while perhaps the American "debate" is more "vivid", in the sense that it indulges in lurid fantasies about whether Islam is a religion at all or a massive Dr. Evil-esque conspiracy to dominate the world, but it's hardly the case that this is a salutary development.
But most importantly, I think Mr. Gerecht doesn't really get how this sort of criticism works, or what the likely reaction to it will be. Criticism is unlikely to be taken seriously as a genuine, good-faith attempt for mutual improvement when the criticizer has credibility with his or her target. But there is no reason to think that US officials, including the President, possess that sort of credibility in the Muslim world. President Obama isn't a Muslim, much less a Muslim reformer. He is the leader of a country which many Muslims believe is at war with them, personally. More to the point, while Gerecht is correct that the US government has thus far been reasonably consistent in being "nice" regarding Islam qua Islam, that's no longer the case with respect to all American leaders. Folks like Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin have had no such qualms regarding the permissibility of attacking Muslims qua Muslims -- Obama would likely be viewed as bowing to pressure from that segment of America, which (needless to say) would be credibility shredding. Pop quiz: Do you think the Goldstone Report helped or hurt the cause of Israeli critics of the occupation? How about the BDS movement? The answer is "obviously not", because neither the UN nor the BDS leadership possesses credibility with the community they are putatively trying to influence.
Mr. Gerecht doesn't explain why President Obama siding with Islamic reformers is likely to be considered credibility-enhancing in that community -- he seems to simply assume that if the US says something, everyone will have an epiphany about how right it is. In the "friend or foe" debate, we can just fiat the "friend" position, with no work on our part whatsoever. This is little more than intellectual Green Lanternism (ironically, a term created to counter an entirely different Gerecht argument).
This isn't to say that the US shouldn't make common cause with Islamic reformers, anymore than the US shouldn't make common cause with elements of any religious tradition (Jewish, Christian) seeking to undermine radical, violent, and/or fundamentalist elements inside its community. There are lots of organizations doing great work on the subject (the Quilliam Foundation out of the UK being a prominent one). But there's no reason to cast such groups as positive exceptions to the infected rule. Why make the concession that such views are exceptional or aberrational within Islam? That's fighting on the extremist's turf.