White House deputy assistant Sebastian Gorka went on NPR Wednesday morning, where he declined to unequivocally answer a direct, pertinent, seemingly easy question: Does Donald Trump (and by extension, the Trump Administration) view Islam as a religion?
Gorka, born in Britain to Hungarian parents, is the former national security editor at Breitbart and a self-styled Islamic terrorism expert. He’s recently come in for a round of very unflattering profiles: the Washington Post noted that he doesn’t speak Arabic and has never lived in a Muslim-majority country, and the Forward found that when he lived in Hungary he spent a lot of time in the same circles as far-right anti-Semites and nationalists. (On Twitter and in YouTube videos, Gorka has vigorously denied having any Nazi sympathies). In a piece that was published on Fusion, I noted that Gorka talks often about being an “expert witness” for the Boston bombing trial, while never quite specifying that he was not actually asked to testify. (Gorka was a vocal critic of the case that the government ultimately presented.) Also, he recently called someone who criticized him on Twitter and threatened him with the White House’s legal counsel.
Gorka’s wife Katharine is also a self-styled Islamic terror expert and former Breitbart contributor, who once wrote that the Muslim Brotherhood may have “influence operations” within the U.S. That is a conspiracy theory peddled by Michele Bachmann, one of a group of Republican politicians who claimed without evidence that Clinton advisor Huma Abedin had ties with what they believe to be a terrorist group. (Whether the Muslim Brotherhood is a terrorist group, and whether they have any influence in the United States whatsoever, is extremely debatable.)
Sebastian Gorka tried and failed to establish a right-wing political party of his own in Hungary. But since moving to the United States he and his wife have been much more successful establishing themselves as a joint political force. In July 2016, Sebastian said that Trump had been reaching out to him privately for advice on national security issues.
Now Gorka is installed in the Trump administration, where he’s been able to promote his core belief, which is that “radical Islamic terrorism” was ignored by the Obama administration and is composed of a wide variety of Islamic groups, what he refers to as “global jihadism” and which he says is derived directly from verses in the Quran. The Council on American Islamic Relations has called both him and Katharine “Islamophobes,” while counterterrorism experts interviewed by the Post called his ideas, in the paper’s words, “dangerously oversimplified.”
All of this background means that it’s pertinent, relevant and indeed urgent to know whether Gorka, Trump and the administration are able to view Islam as a religion. In a conversation on NPR’s Morning Edition, Gorka would not respond to the question. It’s the second time he’s declined to do so in an NPR interview.
“On February 3 when you were on the program, we asked if you felt the president believes Islam is a religion,” NPR’s Steve Inskeep began. “The reason we had to ask that is the previous national security advisor Michael Flynn made some statements suggesting he didn’t believe it was a religion. You weren’t aware then what the president’s view was. Have you learned since, does the president believe Islam is a religion?”
“It would be nice if you actually reported things accurately,” Gorka responded, a little peevishly. “I didn’t say I refused to do anything of the sort. This is not a theological seminary. This is the White House. We’re not going to get into theological debates. If the president has a certain attitude to a certain religion that’s something you can ask him. But we’re talking about national security and the totalitarian ideologies that drive the groups that threaten America.”
“The bottom line question, of course, is Islam itself is the enemy here?” Inskeep responded.
“Of course it isn’t, that would be asinine,” Gorka responded. “As I’ve written in my book, this isn’t a war with Islam, this is a war in Islam.” He added again, a few moments later, that the war is “for the heart of Islam, which version is going to win: an atavistic 7th century blood-curdled version such as propagated by Al Qaeda and ISIS, or whether it’s going to be the one that is our allies’ version, the Jordanian, Egyptian, the Emirati. 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.”
For context, here’s audio of that previous February 3 exchange, in which Gorka also wouldn’t clearly specify that the Trump administration knows Islam is a religion. “It’s not a discussion about Islam as a religion or not a religion, it’s about radical Islamic terrorism.”
This seems like a clear question. Yet somehow it does not ever generate a clear and unequivocal answer from Gorka.
Update: This article has been updated to more accurately describe the Muslim Brotherhood. Analysts at the CIA have advised against designating it a terrorist group, as has the British government.