Column

'Islamic' extremism or 'violent' extremism? The president is mincing words and there's a reason for that

Islamic State is very Islamic, but that doesn't mean the U.S. is in a war against Islam

For weeks, Republicans have lambasted President Obama for what they claim is a major foreign policy failure: His refusal to use the term “Islamic” to describe the terrorists of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

“The president and his administration dogmatically refuse to utter the words ‘radical Islamic terrorism,'” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said on Fox News. “You cannot defeat an enemy if you refuse to acknowledge what it is.”

So I hope Cruz and his colleagues noticed what Obama actually said at last week's White House meeting on — OK, here comes the bland official term — “violent extremism.”

“Al Qaeda and ISIL [Islamic State] and groups like it are desperate for legitimacy. They try to portray themselves as religious leaders — holy warriors in defense of Islam,” Obama said. “[They] do draw, selectively, from the Islamic texts. They do depend upon the misperception around the world that they speak in some fashion for people of the Muslim faith.”

His main point: “We are not at war with Islam.”

The president uttered the words “Islam,” “Islamic” or “Muslim” 49 times in 34 minutes, and the words “terrorism” or “terrorist” 30 times. Anyone who thinks he's ignoring the Islamic part of the problem isn't paying attention — or else just trying to score political points. (Cruz, who may seek the Republican presidential nomination, also called the president “an apologist for radical Islamic terrorism.” He's not big on nuance.)

It's true that Obama and his aides have walked on semantic eggshells to avoid the word “Islamic” when they denounce Islamic State. But there are good reasons for that.

The most important people in the struggle against Islamic State are other Muslims. To win this war, the United States needs help from Muslim-led governments in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and from ordinary Muslims in Iraq and Syria.

“You do not want to offend your allies,” noted Juan Carlos Zarate, who was a counter-terrorism advisor to President George W. Bush. “You certainly do not want to describe the threat in terms of a war on Islam.”

Zarate said he had some sympathy for the Obama administration's verbal tangles. “We struggled mightily [in the Bush administration] about how you describe the ideology,” he said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

But nobody is pretending that Islamic State and its predecessor, Al Qaeda, aren't founded on extreme versions of Muslim theology.

“The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic — very Islamic,” journalist Graeme Wood writes in a remarkable article in the Atlantic based on interviews with Islamic State sympathizers.

The group calls itself “the” Islamic State because it claims that its literal reading of the Koran is the only legitimate way for Muslims to live.

That's another reason Obama and his aides wanted to stay away from the word “Islamic”; granting the group that title might inadvertently reinforce its propaganda. Egypt's top Sunni Muslim authority, the mufti of Al Azhar mosque, made that point last year, warning that it is “an error” to refer to the group as an “Islamic state.”

Obama's presentation of the case against Islamic State hasn't been free of stumbles, of course. It sounds odd to hear an American president offer judgments on the religious legitimacy of a Muslim sect's beliefs; that's better left to theologians. It was a dumb idea to compare its depredations in 2015 to the massacres of the Crusades 900 years before; that's better left to historians. And even Obama acknowledged that he erred when he said Jewish shoppers in Paris had been attacked “randomly.”

But none of that merits the slams his critics have delivered, many with a recurring, distinctly unhelpful theme of enmity between Christianity and Islam.

“Everything he does is against what Christians stand for, and he's against the Jews in Israel,” former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said recently. “The one group of people that can know they have his undying, unfailing support would be the Muslim community.”

“This is a president and an administration that has turned a hard heart to the persecution and suffering of Christians abroad, to the persecution and suffering of Jews abroad,” Cruz said.

In fact, Obama has repeatedly denounced violence against Christians and Jews overseas, including an Islamic State offshoot's murder of 21 Egyptian Christians in Libya.

But although Islamic State has killed Christians, it has also killed Yazidis, Shiite Muslims and Sunni Muslims who don't agree with it — all in far greater numbers. If we suggest that our main reason for fighting it is to defend Christians, we're going to lose.

“We are in a religious war with radical Islamists,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said on Fox News last month. “When I hear the president of the United States and his chief spokesperson failing to admit that we're in a religious war, it really bothers me.”

It shouldn't. Turning the conflict into a religious war, with Muslims on one side and non-Muslims on the other, is exactly what Islamic State wants to do. If there's any term an American politician should steer clear of, it's that one.

doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com

Twitter: @DoyleMcManus

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