In the Two Minute Drill, we explain complex issues in politics in 500 words or less (roughly the amount of words it takes the average adult two minutes to read on a monitor). Politics just isn’t always that complicated. Without the fluff and partisan bias, even the most complex of our political differences can be explained succinctly. This week: labelling “radical Islamic terrorism.” This is The Two Minute Drill for March 25, 2016. Buckle in. This is a longer one. But it’s important.
On March 22, two explosions, at least one caused by a suicide bomber, in the departure hall of Brussels Airport killed some 10 people just before 8 a.m. local time. About an hour later, an explosion at the Maelbeek subway station in central Brussels, not far from the European Union’s core institutions, killed about 20 people. More than 230 others were wounded.
Eight hours after the explosion a news agency affiliated with the Islamic State issued a bulletin claiming responsibility, calling Belgium “a country participating in the coalition against the Islamic State.”
London, New York and Paris were among the major cities bolstering security around their transit hubs and elsewhere. “We are at war,” the French prime minister, Manuel Valls, said. Similarly, President Obama, in Havana, offered American assistance to Belgium and said the United States would do “whatever is necessary” to bring the attackers to justice. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill reacted with shock and sadness to the terrorist attack, vowing to stand by the Belgian people.
The Republican presidential field reacted to the attacks by sticking with their familiar campaign messages. Donald Trump played up fears around Muslim immigration. Ted Cruz put to a statement that expressed empathy for the victims and faulted President Obama.
“Our hearts break for the men and women of Brussels this morning. Make no mistake – these terror attacks are not isolated incidents,” Cruz said.
“Radical Islam is at war with us. For over seven years we have had a president who refuses to acknowledge this reality. And the truth is, we can never hope to defeat this evil so long as we refuse to even name it. That ends on January 20, 2017, when I am sworn in as president. We will name our enemy – radical Islamic terrorism. And we will defeat it.”
Let’s tackle this issue: Is President Obama’s (and, for that matter, Hillary Clinton’s) unwillingness to use the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” a sign of weakness and strategic incoherence?
The Explanation (500 or Bust)
Obama has often spoken about the problems of extremism in Islam. In fact, his speech last year to the U.N. General Assembly focused significantly on the topic: “Today, it is violence within Muslim communities that has become the source of so much human misery . . . It is time for the world – especially Muslim communities – to explicitly, forcefully, and consistently reject the ideology of organizations like al-Qaeda and ISIL [the Islamic State].” Obama made similar comments in his speech after the San Bernardino, California, shootings.
However, Obama and Clinton have chosen not to describe the enemy as “radical Islam.” Pointing this out, and charging that this failure is a sign of weakness, has become somewhat of a cottage industry in conservative circles. Which is, to be frank, absolutely ridiculous.
Conservatives appear to believe that merely saying the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” – if you actually can say it – has mystical powers. And, apparently, it only works if you say it in the correct order. When conservatives levied the same arguments after the San Bernardino shootings, late-night comic Seth Meyers appropriately quipped: “So he used the words ‘radical,’ ‘Islam,’ and ‘terrorism,’ he just didn’t use them in the right order. Which would be a problem if it was a spell and he was Harry Potter, but he’s not, so it isn’t.”
It is certainly true that many of these individuals – for example, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Anwar al-Awlaki, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, Syed Rizwan Farook, and Tafsheen Malik – seek justification for their violence in the selective interpretations of the Quran and the Islamic tradition. But the same can be said of other individuals, and for other faiths. Here are but two examples. On February 25, 1994, Baruch Goldstein entered the Ibrahim Mosque during dawn prayers and murdered twenty-nine Palestinians – he derived justification for this violence in the way he read sacred Jewish texts. And on May 31, 2009, Shelly Shannon shot and killed physician Dr. George Tiller – she derived her justification in the Christian Right’s extreme anti-abortion rhetoric.
What good does it do to call an individual a “radical Islamic terrorist”? Or a “radical Jewish terrorist”? Or a “radical Christian terrorist”?
Saying “radical Islamic terrorism” has nothing to do with defeating terrorism.
Need further proof? Republicans are eager to say they’ll be tougher on terrorists than President Obama. But for all of their huffing and puffing, the most aggressive of the Republican presidential candidates proposed more bombing, no-fly zones and arming the Kurds. In other words, they have proposed modest additions to Obama’s current strategy. What they have not done, however, is articulate anything close to a realistic and effective plan.
President Obama has chosen not to describe the enemy as “radical Islam” out of deference to the many Muslim countries and leaders who feel it gives the terrorists legitimacy. To term something “radical Islamic terrorism” condemns a religion and leaves one with the erroneous impression that competing interpretations of Islam that specifically refute violence do not exist. It was for precisely this reason why George W. Bush was similarly careful in his rhetoric. And it is also the reason why France, who conservatives have discovered a newfound love for, purposely declared war not on the Islamic State but on Daesh following the Paris attacks. Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, explained: “I do not recommend using the term Islamic State because it blurs the lines between Islam, Muslims and Islamists. The Arabs call it ‘Daesh,’ and I will be calling them the ‘Daesh cutthroats.”
Imagine that last night, President Obama, sitting in the Oval Office, said: “My fellow Americans, let me be clear: We are at war with radical Islamic terrorism. Now, I know this may be uncomfortable for some. But we can never hope to defeat this evil so long as we refuse to even name it.”
How would this address the current situation in which we now find ourselves?
How would it make the war any easier?
It wouldn’t. The only thing it would do is further the rampant Islamophobia that has become a feature of mainstream American politics.
Word Count: 697 (bust)
In case you missed it, check out The Weekly Column. This past week took a look at Merrick Garland, President Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court. Read the Column for March 22, 2016 – Is the Senate Required to Consider a Supreme Court Nomination?
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