On Monday, three discrete acts of international violence captured media attention: the assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey in Ankara, a truck plowing through a Christmas market in Berlin and (with far less notoriety) a shooting at a mosque in Zurich. We still don’t know much about who committed these acts and why, but President-elect Donald Trump has a theory that links all three together. Per Trump, they’re all part of a war on the “civilized world” that is only worsening.
At the risk of challenging this holistic theory about why these incidents took place, let’s step back a moment to review the available information.
Russian ambassador Andrey Karlov was murdered by a Turkish police officer who shouted statements about the Syrian civil war and the siege of Aleppo, which is being conducted by the (Russian-backed) regime of Bashar al-Assad.
In Berlin 12 people were killed and many more were wounded after a large truck drove through a public market. German police quickly detained an asylum seeker who was “probably from Pakistan” in connection with the attack but have since released him for lack of evidence and are still looking for suspects.
In Zurich, a man walked into a mosque and opened fire, wounding three worshippers before committing suicide, according to news reports. Swiss authorities initially withheld information about the suspect, but today police said he was “a 24-year-old Swiss man with Ghanaian roots and no apparent links to Islamist radicalism.”
That’s not a lot to go on — and not nearly enough to lump all three incidents together into one easily digestible package. But Trump has it all figured out, even going so far as to link the Berlin attack to the Islamic State (something authorities in Berlin have not done, since the one person they had detained has been released and the perpetrator appears to be unknown).
Trump even has a remedy: “The civilized world must change thinking!” Presumably this means that the “civilized world,” however he defines it, has to come around to the Trumpian position that adherence to the Muslim faith makes a person a possible terrorist.
Once again, we are thrown into the “clash of civilizations” rhetoric. As a presidential candidate, Trump was a big believer in framing the “War on Terror” as a struggle between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds, even going so far as to say “I think Islam hates us.”
Now that rhetoric is about to become official policy: Trump’s incoming chief strategist, Steve Bannon, said in 2014, “We’re now, I believe, at the beginning stages of a global war against Islamic fascism.” Michael Flynn, the retired general whom Trump tapped as his national security adviser, has described the Islamic faith as “a malignant cancer.”
All this talk about a global conflict between Islam and “the West” sounds terribly serious and frightfully tough. But it actually does an enormous favors for extremist groups like the Islamic State who base their propaganda on the idea that the terrorist “caliphate” is the only true expression of the Muslim faith. One of the Islamic State’s core messages is that an apocalyptic showdown is coming between Islam and the West. “References to the End Times fill Islamic State propaganda," wrote Brookings scholar William McCants in “The ISIS Apocalypse.” He added, "It’s a big selling point with foreign fighters, who want to travel to the lands where the final battles of the apocalypse will take place.”
Getting back to Monday’s acts of violence and the information vacuum in which they currently exist, the only way one can possibly tie them all together is to do what Trump did: Cast all three acts as part of a broader, vaguely Muslim attack on the “civilized world.” The president-elect sees no need to wait for facts to come out or information to be verified. He would rather capitalize on fear and uncertainty, while shoehorning these seemingly unconnected events into his preferred narrative.