President Obama said Wednesday that using the term “Islamic extremism” only grants terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State “the legitimacy they seek” as he called for a broader effort to prevent alienated young people from taking up violent causes.
In his most direct response to date of critics of his rhetorical choices, Obama said the Islamic State and Al Qaeda had been successful in recruiting disaffected Muslims by portraying themselves as “holy warriors in defense of Islam,” a notion he called “a lie.”
“They are not religious leaders; they are terrorists. And we are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam,” Obama said.
The president’s remarks ended the second day of the White House’s Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, which is bringing together dozens of local-level law enforcement groups, community leaders and academics as well as representatives from 60 countries on a long-simmering issue recently thrust to the forefront.
The White House has sought to craft a message that will prevent young people from flocking to become fighters for Islamic State, and to prevent homegrown attacks like those that have hit Europe in recent weeks.
Obama administration officials said the summit was about tackling root causes, such as economic opportunity and education, with no immediate responses or quick fixes. While the White House announced some new policies and commitments from participating countries, including the appointment of a new senior-level coordinator on violent extremism at the Department of Homeland Security, the summit was primarily aimed at having a conversation.
In his remarks, Obama also talked up programs in Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Boston as models for reaching what officials describe as “vulnerable communities” in the U.S.
“These are partnerships that bring people together in the spirit of mutual respect,” he said.
For weeks before the summit convened Tuesday, Obama has been criticized for not explicitly labeling the problem “Islamic” extremism, relying on the phrase “violent extremism.”
Republicans accused the president of tiptoeing around the issue out of an apparent reluctance to offend Muslims. Some seized on Obama’s use of the word “randomly” in describing the attack last month on a kosher deli in Paris as evidence of the president’s refusal to acknowledge the anti-Semitic motivations in the killings. When Obama spoke of the threat of violence in the name of religion without specifically citing Islam, critics saw him dodging.
“They won't even call the threat what it is. How can you talk about defeating an enemy you cannot name?” said House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican.
Meanwhile, Muslim groups in the U.S. worried that the conference would target their communities and their beliefs as the source of the problem.
The White House has said it is not limiting its discussion to groups that identify as Muslim. Still, administration officials acknowledged that the current spate of attacks had been by perpetrators promoting a “warped” interpretation of Islam.
“We're very mindful of the fact that a particularly virulent strain of extremist ideology has tried to insert itself in the Muslim community,” spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters. “At the same time, we also recognize that there are other forms of extremism that have prompted others to carry out acts of violence even on American soil.”