Opinion: Don’t beat up on Obama for avoiding the ‘I word’

Press Secretary Josh Earnest (shown here on Jan. 6) was asked why President Obama didn't focus on 'Islaimic extremism.'
(Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

The highlight -- or lowlight -- of Monday’s White House news briefing was the admission by Press Secretary Josh Earnest that “we should have sent someone with a higher profile” to Sunday’s anti-terrorist rally in Paris. But Earnest was also roughed up about an omission in a statement released over the weekend in which the administration announced that it would convene a “Summit on Countering Violent Extremism” next month.

“Why,” Fox News’ Ed Henry asked Earnest, “isn’t this summit on countering Islamic extremism?”

The notion that the Obama administration is unwilling to say the I word -- whether that word is “Islamic” or “Islamist” -- is an obsession on the right. Remember the complaints that the administration originally referred to the shooting rampage by a Ft. Hood psychiatrist as “workplace violence” rather than Islamic terrorism.

Earnest told Henry that the administration was using a broad definition because “it is not just Islamic violent extremism that we want to counter. There are other forms.”

Henry wasn’t satisfied. He interjected: “Paris, Australia, Canada. Isn’t that violent Islamic extremism?”


Earnest responded: “Certainly the examples you cite are individuals citing Islamic teaching -- individuals have cited it.”

Earnest ended up looking evasive, even though he conceded before Henry started pummeling him that “the most potent, and also the most graphically displayed in recent days is motivated by individuals who seek to invoke the name of Islam to carry out these attacks.”

I’m conflicted about the gingerly approach this administration takes to acknowledging that the “violent extremism” currently preoccupying policymakers in the West is Islam/Islamist extremism. Yes, the administration is sometimes excessively delicate in avoiding the I word and leaving the impression that some amorphous “violent extremism” is the threat of the hour.

But I also have some sympathy for the administration. Like George W. Bush before him, President Obama wants to repudiate the libel -- subscribed to by too many Americans -- that violence is intrinsic to Islam. One way to avoid any such implication is to avoid mentioning “Islam” or “Islamic” at all in high-profile pronouncements.

Also, when the president does try to parse the relationship between Islam and extremism he can sound silly. In an address to the nation last September, he said the self-described Islamic State wasn’t really Islamic. That prompted one critic to tweet: “I was unaware our president was a theologian with knowledge sufficient to declare that which is, and is not, Islamic. Now I know.”

Obama realizes that the “violent extremism” he deplores comes overwhelmingly from people who claim to be acting in fidelity to Islam or who say they’re avenging the prophet.


And while the I word may have been absent from the announcement of the upcoming summit, Obama’s statement announcing the broader initiative against “violent extremism” focused on “Al Qaeda and its affiliates” and described how Muslim Americans (not Irish Americans or Polish Americans) were taking steps to protect their children from the group’s “murderous ideology.”

That the president is being diplomatic doesn’t mean he’s in denial.

Follow Michael McGough on Twitter @MichaelMcGough3