Controversies swirling on cable news and on editorial pages rarely make their way into President Barack Obama’s major speeches.
An exception came this week at his summit on violent extremism: instead of ignoring the debate over using the words “Islam” or “Islamic” to describe terror threats, Obama addressed the issue head-on.
Obama told a crowd of foreign ministers Thursday at the State Department that groups like ISIS and al Qaeda are “desperate for legitimacy” – and that elected officials carry an obligation not to grant it.
“All of us have a responsibility to refute the notion that groups like ISIL somehow represent Islam, because that is a falsehood that embraces the terrorist narrative,” he said.
A day earlier he cited the “debate in the press and among pundits about the words we use to describe and frame this challenge” noting he wanted to be “very clear” why he wasn’t tying his conference directly to Islamic radicals.
“They are not religious leaders – they’re terrorists,” he said.
His line was met with loud applause from the community leaders — many of them representing mosques and Islamic centers — who were gathered in the South Court Auditorium. But beyond, skeptics were hardly swayed from their view that Obama had diverted his attention from the basis for huge swaths of global terrorism.
“I think it is a diversion from where we need to be focused,” said Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a Hawaii Democrat and Iraq war veteran. “By identifying this ideology — which is a theological one — that’s driving them, then you can look at where they’re recruiting.”
Gabbard isn’t alone among lawmakers who want Obama to specifically name Islam as a rallying cry for terrorists, though she is in the minority among Democrats. Republicans have blasted Obama daily for avoiding terms like “Islamic extremism.”
Both sides can agree that groups like ISIS and al Qaeda use Islamic propaganda to recruit fighters; the “I” in “ISIS” does, after all, stand for “Islamic.”
Advocates for naming Islamic extremism as the chief enemy say Obama is avoiding that fact by not acknowledging the problem more loudly.
“I think it’s ridiculous,” said Fran Townsend, a former homeland security adviser to former President George W. Bush and CNN national security analyst. “I think this is political correctness over accuracy. Look, these are not Buddhists or Hindu extremists. These are Islamic extremists.”
Obama and administration officials say by naming Islamic extremism as the culprit, the U.S. will play into the terror cells’ recruiting methods, providing the groups a boost. And they claim the strategy of combating extremism at home and abroad is separate from the war being waged on ISIS – which has relied on targeted airstrikes to take out Islamic State leaders.
The White House is also following precedent: in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks, former President George W. Bush said he wasn’t waging a “campaign against the Muslim faith.”
“Ours is a campaign against evil,” he said.
Obama echoed those words Wednesday when he said the U.S. is “not at war with Islam, we are at war with those who have perverted Islam.”
Supporters of Obama also point out a revealing fact culled from documents seized at Osama bin Laden’s compound after the raid that killed the al Qaeda leader in 2011.
As The Washington Post reported the next year, bin Laden expressed worry about his terror group’s ability to recruit because the White House had “largely stopped using the phrase ‘the war on terror’ in the context of not wanting to provoke Muslims.”
That, aides have said, should end the argument on whether Obama’s choice of language has been effective.
A better tack, they argue, is to identify and seek to alleviate the socioeconomic conditions that may be driving young people to join groups like ISIS.
“When people are oppressed, and human rights are denied – particularly along sectarian lines or ethnic lines – when dissent is silenced, it feeds violent extremism,” Obama said on Thursday. “It creates an environment that is ripe for terrorists to exploit. When peaceful, democratic change is impossible, it feeds into the terrorist propaganda that violence is the only answer available.”
That reasoning, however, could apply not only to places like Syria and Iraq, where ISIS has gained footholds. Stable – but totalitarian – regimes in the region like Saudi Arabia and Qatar have provided staunch support to the U.S.
“If you accept the logic of the President’s argument, there is almost no one in this region that is immune from the notion that the way to get at ISIS is to reform these totalitarian regimes – the kings, the emirs, the sheiks – into something else,” said Aaron David Miller, vice president at the Wilson Center and a former adviser to both Democratic and Republican administrations.