President Barack Obama called for a global effort to combat violent extremism and urged countries around the world to address the root causes that fuel groups like ISIS and al Qaeda during a speech Thursday before hundreds of foreign officials gathered for a summit on countering violent extremism.
As he recalled recent terror attacks around the world, Obama urged countries to “break the cycles of conflict, especially sectarian conflict” and called on governments to “address the grievances that terrorists exploit,” both political and economic.
“The link is undeniable. When people are oppressed and human rights are denied – particularly along sectarian lines or ethnic lines – when dissent is silenced, it feeds violent extremism. It creates an environment that is ripe for terrorists to exploit,” Obama said.
The President’s speech at the State Department Thursday morning harkened back to remarks he made at the United Nations General Assembly last fall, when he urged communities across the Islamic world to provide more opportunities for young people who may be attracted to terrorist organizations. But on Thursday Obama also pointed to new cooperative efforts with countries like the United Arab Emirates to counter online the terrorist propaganda of groups like ISIS.
And Obama, who has faced Republican criticism for refusing to label the ISIS threat as radical Islam, urged leaders on Thursday to confront the ideologies of groups like ISIS, “especially their attempt to use Islam to justify their violence.”
“These terrorists are desperate for legitimacy, and all of us have a responsibility to refute the notion that groups like ISIL somehow represent Islam.” Obama said, calling that a “falsehood.”
Obama also said Muslim clerics have a “responsibility” to push back on those “twisted interpretations of Islam” and also against the notion of a clash of civilizations.
He also urged religious, civic and political leaders to stop feeding the notion that the U.S. is the “cause of every ill in the Middle East.”
Obama had also defended his decision not to use terms like “Islamic terrorism” in speaking out against ISIS and al Qaeda on Wednesday at the White House, saying the U.S. is “not at war with Islam.”
“They are not religious leaders. They’re terrorists,” Obama said about ISIL and al Qaeda’s efforts to position themselves as warriors for the Muslim faith.
Republican Senators Ted Cruz and Lindsay Graham, and even a few Democrats, such as Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, have criticized the President’s careful language on the topic.
Tommy Vietor, a former national security spokesman for the Obama administration blamed the media for focusing on an “ancillary” debate over the president’s rhetoric.
“It’s distracting from any real policy discussion,” Vietor said. “It’s smart policy to try and use every tool at our disposal to diminish their capacity to recruit new fighters or financial supporters,” he added on the summit’s emphasis on preventing extremism.
During the summit’s sessions at the White House Wednesday, administration officials gathered with Muslim-American community and law enforcement leaders to discuss strides made in countering extremism in Boston, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis where pilot programs are in place.
Several participants from mosques in those cities complained so-called CVE (Countering Violent Extremism) programs open the door to increased surveillance in the Muslim-American communities.
Michael Downing, a deputy chief and the commanding officer of the Los Angeles Police Department, said CVE programs are aimed at turning at-risk youth away from the allure of jihadists lurking in social media online.
“This has nothing to do with intelligence. It has nothing to do with surveillance. This is about developing healthier, resilient communities,” Downing said in an interview outside of the summit.
Abdisalam Adam, a Somali immigrant and Imam from St. Paul, Minnesota, told CNN groups like ISIS and al Qaeda do not reflect the Islamic faith.
“I think there’s a problem. I mean, I’m not going to deny that people of the Muslim faith are doing the wrong things. I’m not responsible for their actions, and that should be very clear to all Americans and to everyone,” said Abdisalam Adam, an Imam from St. Paul, Minnesota.