Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday that to counter the ideology of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and its claim of a "religious foundation" for its actions, part of the strategy of the international coalition he is attempting to assemble must be to "begin to put real Islam out there." Kerry, in Paris for talks with various world leaders to build that coalition, further said that all of the Arab leaders he had spoken with earlier concurred about their focus on "real Islam and how important the Friday sermons are." The secretary of state recently said that ISIL's ideology "has nothing to do with Islam" and President Obama echoed these words, saying that "ISIL is not 'Islamic.'"
Kerry's remarks about "real Islam" came during a "roundtable discussion" with the press after the secretary met with representatives from twenty-six countries to discuss how to confront the threat posed by ISIL. In recent days Kerry has alternated between calling the action against ISIL "war" and "counter-terrorism," but in any case he downplayed the military aspect of the operation. The military piece, he said, is a "critical component", but "probably far more important" will be the effort to "start drying up this pool of jihadis who get seduced into believing there’s some virtue in crossing into Syria to fight or to join ISIL."
Here are Kerry's "real Islam" remarks in context [emphasis added]:
Now, as I said today – you guys weren’t in there, but I said it in this meeting – the military piece is one piece. It’s one component of this. It’s a critical component, but it’s only one component. And the truth is, equally – probably far more important than the military in the end is going to be what countries are able to do to help Iraq to be able to step up and other places, by the way, to step up and start drying up this pool of jihadis who get seduced into believing there’s some virtue in crossing into Syria to fight or to join ISIL. And a young nine-year-old kid who goes with his father and his mother and holds up the severed head of someone. I mean, that’s just beyond imagination. And what this effort has to do is literally dry up the money, dry up the foreign fighters, prevent the foreign fighters from going home back to various places to do harm. It has to start major efforts to delegitimize ISIS’s claim to some religious foundation for what it’s doing and begin to put real Islam out there and draw lines throughout the region.
And I think this is a wake-up call with respect to that because every Arab leader there today was talking about this, about real Islam and how important the Friday sermons are and where they need to go. Those are critical components of this strategy. Getting logistics, airlift, putting humanitarian assistance in, flying it in, ammunition, equipment, training, advisers – all of these roles are the totality and you have to be able to describe this in a logistic way – in a holistic way.
Kerry's words are in keeping with the spirit of President Obama's Cairo speech from 2009 where he famously said, "I consider it part of my responsibility as president of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear... America is not -- and never will be -- at war with Islam... Islam is not part of the problem in combating violent extremism -- it is an important part of promoting peace."
Five years out from his Cairo speech and conflict bubbling up through the Middle East and the world, the reality on the ground may be far from what the president hoped or anticipated, but the rhetoric is unchanged: Islamic extremism is not real Islam. Given the rise of ISIL, the Boko Haram, and the continued tenacity of al Qaeda, President Obama may find this message to be an increasingly hard sell.