Bill Gertz has a lengthy and fascinating piece in the Washington Free Beacon about what he calls the Obama administration’s failure “to wage ideological war against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) terrorists.” Gertz attributes the failure to “fears that attacking [ISIS’s] religious philosophy will violate the constitutional divide between church and state.”
It seems difficult to believe that the First Amendment explains Obama’s unwillingness to acknowledge, for example, that the Islamic State is Islamic. Gertz cites James Glassman, former undersecretary of state for public diplomacy. Glassman seems to rely mainly on what he hears coming out of the State Department.
Counterterrorism specialist Sebastian Gorka offers a different explanation. Gorka says that the major barrier to countering ISIL ideology is that most senior officials hold “post-modern” and “secular” views. “As a result, they have almost no ability to understand the drivers of violent terrorists which are religious.”
There may be some in the administration who see the First Amendment as a barrier to waging a “war of ideas” against Islamists. But I think Gorka’s explanation is closer to the mark. Those who invoke the First Amendment are probably using it as an excuse.
For the record, the First Amendment does not bar President Obama and other officials from asserting a link between ISIS and Islam or from countering the religious views expressed by ISIS. The First Amendment states, in relevant part, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Presidents remain free to opine about matters pertaining to religion, as they do every time one of them says “May God bless the United States of America.”
Did President Bush violate the First Amendment when he declared Islam “the religion of peace”? Does President Obama violate the First Amendment when he praises Islam and attempts to distinguish it from the views of ISIS?
Of course not. By the same token, a president would not violate the First Amendment if he opined that Islam is not a religion of peace or that the views of ISIS have a connection to Islam.
Whether a president praises or criticizes Islam (or some branch of it), he is not “establishing” it or any competing religion. Whether a president praises or criticizes Islam (or some branch of it), he is not interfering with the free exercise of religion.
Obama does, of course, criticize ISIS. Does anyone seriously think that by denying its religious nature he could evade a genuine First Amendment problem? As a teacher of constitutional law, Obama surely understands that the First Amendment wouldn’t count for much if the government were free to attack an avowedly religious group as long as it denies that the group is truly religious.
But there is no First Amendment problem to evade when it comes to talking freely about ISIS.