Calling enemies "Islamic" won't win the war

Opinion: President Obama has good reasons to avoid the word "Islamic" when he talks about terrorists

My column last Sunday, which argued that President Obama has good reasons for avoiding the word “Islamic” when he talks about the conflict in Iraq and Syria, provoked a torrent of responses from readers -- most of them negative.

Some argued that the world’s Muslims really are at war with the West, and that Obama is wrong when he argues that the extremists of Islamic State are “people who perverted Islam.” But there are more than 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, and only about 30,000 -- roughly two one-thousandths of 1% -- have joined Islamic State. The vast majority of Muslims aren’t at war with us; it seems foolish to insist that they ought to be.

Others charged that Obama is confused. “He is the only man on the planet who does not believe it is Islamic terrorists who are our enemy,” complained Robert Segal of Burke, Va. But Obama did call them “terrorists,” and he did note that they “draw selectively from the Islamic texts.” That doesn’t sound confused to me.

Still others took exception to the argument that calling the extremists “Islamic” might somehow legitimize them. “You actually believe that correctly identifying the group will empower them?” asked Joe Stevens of El Segundo. It’s not just me; officials in Jordan and Egypt have objected to calling the group “Islamic,” because it risks ceding them a measure of religious authenticity.

But my favorite comment came from Bill Whittinghill of Thousand Oaks, because it got closest to the heart of the debate. “Remember how we defeated the Nazis in World War II by never referring to them as Nazis, but instead [as] ‘violent German extremists’? Me neither,” Whittinghill wrote.

Actually, we defeated the Nazis by making an alliance with Josef Stalin, building an arsenal of weapons and invading Europe. The words Franklin D. Roosevelt used for the enemy had nothing to do with it.

The struggle with Islamic State is different, of course, because we and (especially) our allies are competing with the extremists for support in the Muslim world. That’s the main reason for Obama’s semantic delicacy.

It’s perfectly legitimate to debate whether the president has a clear strategy and whether more U.S. force, including ground troops, could do the job faster. But the notion that using the word “Islamic” more often will somehow help win the war is simply wrong.

Follow Doyle McManus on Twitter @doylemcmanus and Google+

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