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Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Obama's Avoidance of Term 'Radical Islam' Draws Praise and Scorn

U.S. president takes on critics who say his careful parsing is a sign of over-caution

By Mark Gollom, CBC News 

U.S. President Barack Obama has dismissed criticism over his avoidance of the phrase 'radical Islam' as a 'political talking point' and Republican 'yapping.'
U.S. President Barack Obama has dismissed criticism over his avoidance of the phrase 'radical Islam' as a 'political talking point' and Republican 'yapping.' (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)

I'm leaving aside the issue that many people think that Obama is a closet Muslim for another day. That subject deserves its own article.

U.S. President Barack Obama is being hailed by some for his spirited determination to avoid using the term "radical Islam" to describe the enemy in the ongoing battle against ISIS. But he's being criticized by others who believe the phrase does carry significance.

"Words do matter. And I think it's an apt definition," said Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, a Washington, D.C.-based national security think-tank. "It's a radical aspect of a religion."

Precisely! So why try to hide the fact that religion is involved?

"Is it inaccurate? We have to define it as something. To call it violent extremism, what does that mean to anyone? To me, our political leadership has dodged that issue that Islam plays within this conflict."

Republicans have repeatedly said that Obama's careful parsing to avoid using the term is a sign of over-caution and political correctness that demonstrates denial about the groups responsible for the extremist view.

'Ridiculous' position

Elliott Abrams, the former deputy national security adviser to former president George W. Bush, said that Obama's position on this issue is "ridiculous" —  as is the president's view that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam.

"You can call it a corrupted or extreme version of Islam, but to suggest that there is no link at all between such groups and Islam is absurd," Abrams said.

On Tuesday, Obama addressed the debate, specifically taking on presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump's charge that the president's policies have been hampered by his refusal to use the phrase "radical Islam."

Following the Orlando club shooting early Sunday, Trump released a statement saying Obama had "disgracefully refused" to use the term and "for that reason alone, he should step down."

The president has dismissed the criticism as a "political talking point" and Republican "yapping," saying "there is no magic to the phrase 'radical Islam.' "

"What exactly would it change?" he said. "Would it make [ISIS] less committed to trying to kill Americans? Would it bring in more allies? Is there a military strategy that is served by this? The answer is none of the above."

GOP 2016 Trump
Republican presumptive presidential candidate Donald Trump says that the president's policies have been hampered by his refusal to use the phrase 'radical Islam.' (Chuck Burton/Associated Press)

And that, according to American University associate professor Jordan Tama, is exactly right, and all this talk about the phrase is just a way for Republicans to accuse Obama of not doing enough to protect the U.S. or fight against terrorism.

"Saying 'radical Islam' is not going to make U.S. counterterrorism policy more effective or somehow enable us to eliminate more terrorist leaders or defeat ISIS more quickly," Tama said.

But it does feed a narrative that there's a religious clash going on and it can alienate some Muslims needed in this battle against ISIS, he said.

Trump's call to use the term "radical Islamic terrorism" is particularly problematic, Tama said, because the term could imply that terrorism is somehow Islamic by nature.

Excuse me! What! Are you suggesting that terrorism is not Islamic by nature, or that Islam is not at all responsible for terrorism? What planet are you from? More than 90% of all terrorist acts committed on Earth are committed by Muslims. Most of them are done by people committed either to a literal interpretation of the Quran and Mohammed's teachings, or they are committed to a group that is and are motivated to form a global caliphate under Sharia Law. 

Literal interpretation of the Quran and Mohammed's teachings mean reading them just as Mohammed and others wrote them. Such has been the motivation for well over 500 wars in the last 1400 years and billions of deaths. How do you not see that terrorism and Islam are symbiotic.

Instead, the phrase "violent Jihadism" would be more accurate and avoid suggesting that Islam is equated with terrorist attacks, he said.

Well we can't have Islam equated with terrorism, except that if we did equate Islam with terrorism, maybe they would take some ownership for the violence that is spawned by the Quran and Mohammed. To not implicate Islam leaves them off the hook with no real compulsion to do anything about it.

This is not a small band of radicals we are talking about here. There may be few who have the courage or commitment to get physically involved with terrorists, but there are many, many more who sympathize with what they are doing. The money to support these terrorists comes from countries that are in agreement with the terrorist's goals, but present themselves as 'moderate'. 

"This debate about whether to use the term radical Islam or Islamic terrorism really distracts attention from what we're actually doing, what are our policies," Tama said, "because our actions are much more important than what words we use."

Colin Clarke, an associate political scientist specializing in insurgency and transnational terrorism at the Rand Corporation, a California-based global policy think-tank, said he can see both sides of the debate.

Technically, as it pertains to ISIS, this is an issue about a specific form of terrorism, salafist jihadism, a term which is likely too confusing and opaque for Americans, Clarke said

"But I think it's important to the extent that we're all on the same page, Americans and the West, in knowing exactly what we're fighting against. And that's where I think terminology would be important."

'A lot of nuance'

And he agreed with Tama that Obama likely refrains from using the term because he is mindful of not alienating the broader Muslim community whose help is needed in identifying people who are undergoing the radicalization process.

"I think he's right in that respect. There's a lot of nuance that goes into this stuff."

However, Clarke was of a similar mind as Obama, asking what purpose does calling it "radical Islamic terrorism" serve in the battle being waged.

"Does it get us any closer to defeating it? I have yet to hear a cogent explanation that we need to call it this because that will get us closer to defeating it."

With files from The Associated Press