Fewer than 24 hours after President Donald Trump condemned a recent wave of anti-Semitic attacks and spoke of allying with Muslim nations, a top White House aide returned to the administration's unfounded claims that some of the anti-Semitic incidents may have been faked and declined to explicitly say whether the president believes Islam is a religion.
NPR’s interview with Sebastian Gorka, a White House aide known for strong positions on Islam, highlighted the Trump administration's continued inability to get on the same page about tolerance and bigotry — and the way that the president and his aides have brought a type of once-extremist rhetoric into general conversation.
The back and forth went like this. Buried in a conversation on the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” and the word “jihad,” host Steve Inskeep pivoted and asked Gorka, a deputy assistant to the president, a broader and more jarring question: “Does the president believe Islam is a religion?”
Gorka responded circuitously.
This is not a theological seminary. This is the White House. We aren’t going to get into theological debates — if the president has a certain attitude to a certain religion you can ask him … we are talking about national security … and totalitarian ideologies that drive the threats.
Inskeep pressed on. “Is Islam itself the enemy?”
“Well, of course it isn't,” Gorka said. “That would be asinine. As I've written in my book, this isn't a war with Islam, this is a war in Islam. As the king of Jordan, King Abdullah, as the president of the most populous Arab nation in the world, President Sisi, has stated, this is a war for the heart of Islam.”
He added, “It's not a war with Islam. That would be absurd. It is a war inside Islam. And we want to see our friends win that war.”
Now on the one hand, Gorka — author of a book called Defeating Jihad: The Winnable War — wasn't explicitly denying Islam’s place at the theistic table. But nor has he firmly said, “this is a ridiculous question. Islam is one of the world’s three largest monotheistic faiths. Of course it is a religion.”
The fact that he tried to dodge the question is itself an answer of sorts about his worldview. The question is whether the president he serves shares that worldview, as well.
A Trump aide wouldn’t definitively say Islam was a religion
Inskeep wasn’t asking Gorka about Trump’s views of Islam in a vacuum. The president has faced persistent questions about his attitude toward the religion because of the controversial statements made by current and former campaign aides — former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn referred to Islam as a “cancer” — and because of his recent move, later blocked by a federal judge, to ban all immigrants and visa holders from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US for 90 days.
Nor was Gorka a random choice for the interview. A former national security editor for Breitbart News, Gorka has long held positions on Islam and terrorism that appear to have helped shaped administration thinking and policy.
This morning was Gorka’s second chance at this question on NPR, and his second time skirting around the answer.
On February 3, on the same program, Inskeep told Gorka that he wanted to ask about Trump’s view of Islam given Flynn’s controversial comments about the religion. (Flynn was forced out in mid-February for lying to other administration officials about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the US.)
“Does President Trump,” Inskeep asked in the February 3 interview, “believe that Islam is a religion?”
Gorka meandered for a moment and then said:
It's not a discussion about Islam as a religion or not a religion. It's about radical Islamic terrorism. We are prepared to be honest about the threat. We're not going to white it out, delete it as the Obama administration did. We understand that groups like ISIS have a religious verbiage.
Inskeep tried again. “I understand what you're saying, but does the president believe Islam is a religion?”
Gorka replied, “I think you should ask him that question. I'm not a spokesperson for the president.”
That’s of course nonsense; Gorka may not be a formal White House spokesperson, but the administration sent him to NPR specifically to speak on behalf of Trump and the administration.
Refusing to answer a question about the validity of Islam is itself an answer
Questioning whether Islam is a religion is not, in and of itself, a new idea. Dr. Hussein Rashid, a professor of religion at Barnard College, told me that it was a dynamic that began in Europe and has a “centuries-long pedigree.”
“We are seeing a particularly American manifestation of it now,” he added.
He continued, “This administration is playing into all of these themes very clearly: They are trying to say that Muslims are not human and that they are not American.”
Take the comments of Jody Hice, a former talk-show host and current GOP Congress member from Georgia. In 2011, while still a private citizen, Hice said:
Most people think Islam is a religion, It’s not. It’s a totalitarian way of life with a religious component. But it’s much larger. It’s a geo-political system that has governmental, financial, military, legal and religious components. And it’s a totalitarian system that encompasses every aspect of life and it should not be protected (under U.S. law).
In a 2011 essay in the New English Review, a right leaning literary/political magazine, Rebecca Bynum penned an entire article under the headline “Why Islam is not a religion.” In it she writes, “If it is a religion it is not a religion only. Islam is a total system of life and contains within itself a particular social system, judicial system, and political system which includes geo-political aspirations — the conquest and administration of territory.” (She also wrote a book on the same subject.) Bynum’s bio lists her as a former assistant to “Dr. Walid Phares, Foreign Policy Advisor to Presidential Candidate Donald J, Trump, 2016.”
The fact that Inskeep feels the need to keep asking about Trump’s view of Islam is in and of itself a form of normalizing rhetoric that has only recently come into the mainstream.
Trump officials are spreading conspiracy theories about recent anti-Semitic attacks
In the same interview this morning, Inskeep asked Gorka about the president’s opening statements to Congress Tuesday night. During the high-profile address, Trump said:
Recent threats targeting Jewish community centers and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries as well as last week's shooting in Kansas City remind us that while we may be a nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all of its very ugly forms.
Inskeep played the clip of the president’s speech, but then noted an apparent discrepancy in the president’s thinking on the matter.
Earlier on Monday, the NPR host pointed out, the president had appeared to question the veracity of the threats to the Jewish community, using a meeting with state attorneys general to hint that the wave of anti-Semitic attacks across the country might not be exactly what it seemed. Instead, Trump said they could be a means of making “others look bad.”
Are these threats against the Jewish community, Inskeep asked Gorka, actually a “false flag operation?”
“Of course not,” Gorka said dryly, “otherwise they wouldn’t have been the opening comments of the president’s speech.”
But, he continued, “if you deny the fact that we have found individuals red-handed across college campuses and elsewhere manufacturing fake graffiti attacks or threats of attacks have been found out to be simply doing so because they don't like President Trump and his administration. Both things can exist at the same time, Steve. And that's the reality.”
Inskeep did not press Gorka to provide him with a single example of a false-flag operation that had been identified as such. In this wave of anti-Semitic threats to 90 Jewish Community Centers and Jewish day schools across the country, there is no credible evidence that such a false claim exists.
Much like with the question of Islam’s place in the theological discourse, Inskeep allowed the idea of a faked threat to stand, normalizing what was once a fringe idea in American society.