Why We Fear “Radical Islam,” Not China

At the Atlantic Peter Beinart predicts that someday historians will wonder why hawkish American politicians were so slow to come to grips with China’s challenge to U.S. interests and instead spent so much time and energy freaking out over “radical Islam.” After all, to cite the two “threats” that have GOP pols so agitated, IS is a pariah surrounded by enemies, and even if Iran gets The Bomb, it will be in a nuclear neighborhood with much stronger rivals. And for that matter, IS and Iran are perpetually at each other’s throats, which ought to make us feel a tad more secure.

But no: “radical Islam”–and you have to say “Islam” as many times as possible–is the threat.

Like me, Beinart thinks the visualization of the threat is a big deal:

[T[he Chinese threat isn’t visually spectacular. What made ISIS a household name in the United States last year, even more than the group’s territorial gains, were its gruesome murders, especially of Westerners. The horrific images of those killings, broadcast endlessly on television, bred a primal fear that Washington politicians were quick to exploit. Those politicians pressured the Obama administration to begin its bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria, which gave the story even more juice because the United States was now at war.

Via the catchall of “radical Islam,” American politicians have transferred some of the anxiety sparked by ISIS to Iran: Today they have butcher’s knives; tomorrow, nukes! By contrast, China’s incremental moves to build islands in the South China Sea or even ram the occasional Filipino fishing boat produce far less drama. No matter how serious a challenge they pose to America’s role in the Pacific, they don’t appear to threaten American lives. And they won’t—until a confrontation between the Chinese and American militaries, in disputed ocean or airspace, raises the prospect of war. Until that happens, China’s challenge will remain on Page A17 of the newspaper.

Beinart goes on to note that the forces of “radical Islam” don’t have natural and enthusiastic lobbyists in the U.S. business community quite like China has. And for the moment, there’s no sense of “Yellow Peril” or incipient evil. And that matters, too:

For the American right, it’s very important that U.S. adversaries be “evil.” From Whittaker Chambers, William F. Buckley, and Barry Goldwater in the first decades of the Cold War to Jerry Falwell, Jesse Helms, and Ronald Reagan in the 1970s and 1980s, conservatives insisted that the Soviet Union was both a geopolitical threat and a demonic force. On the right, the U.S.S.R. was often portrayed as not merely an ideological foe but a quasi-theological one. It’s no coincidence that Reagan called the Soviet Union an “evil empire” in a speech to the National Association of Evangelicals.

Today, “radical Islam” plays that same role. Its evil underscores America’s virtue, and its brutality toward Christians proves that, once again, the United States is fighting a religious war. It’s harder to portray China in that role. While still a dictatorship, it’s no longer a particularly ideological one. It’s not trying to spread an anti-democratic or anti-Christian creed across the globe. It’s simply trying to enrich its people and spread its power.

If the Chinese leaders are smart, and they almost certainly are, they won’t conform themselves to U.S. stereotypes of a dire threat to American lives or morals. If Republicans win the White House next year, Beijing can probably relax, with high-level White House adviser Sheldon Adelson ever-ready to keep the focus on “radical Islam” rather than his good friends way out east.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.