Since using the terms “Islamic terrorism” and even “radical Islam” to describe the operations and ideologies of groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda remains such a hot topic, here’s a quiz on the subject that has some surprising and revealing answers. But first, a little background.
President Obama and supporters of his general Middle East approach – including all three major Democratic presidential candidates – have refused to use these characterizations, and voice two main, related objections. First, they explain, the phrase falsely implies that anything in Islamic theology endorses the kind of violence these organizations have perpetrated, and that their actions are supported by anything more than the tiniest fraction of the world’s Muslims. Second, as a result, they insist that using phrases like Islamic terrorism foolishly and needlessly antagonizes that huge majority of Muslims at home and abroad whose cooperation anti-terrorism success will require.
As I see it, these positions hold little water. Other than Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump (who has proposed banning all non-citizen Muslims from entering the United States) , no significant American political figure has even suggested that all or most Muslims pose a threat to U.S. security. Nor has any such figure spoken of Islam as a fundamentally barbaric, dangerous religion.
What many major American leaders have said is that active and passive support for ISIS-style terrorism and abusive and violence-breeding intolerance and misogyny is entirely too common in the ranks of the world’s Muslims. In fact, among these leaders has been one Barack Obama, who has publicly bemoaned the lack of adequate push-back against these views and practices by Muslims theocrats, clerics, and their followers worldwide.
But let’s leave this particular debate aside for the moment, and get to that quiz.
Question 1: Who said, “The struggle against Islamic-based terrorism will be not simply a military campaign but a battle for public opinion in the Islamic world”?
Answer: Then-Senator Barack Obama. The quote is taken from his 2006 book, the Audacity of Hope. Nor was this a one-time mention. At the beginning of the volume, he blamed “Islamic militants” for the 2008 attack in Mumbai, India that claimed 195 lives.
Just as important, why else would the United States and its allies need to wage “a battle for public opinion in the Islamic world” unless a sizable portion of that world was not at least highly sympathetic to terrorism committed in that religion’s name?
Question 2: Who said, “We should pursue a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy, one that embeds our mission against ISIS within a broader struggle against radical jihadism that is bigger than any one group, whether it’s al-Qaida or ISIS or some other network.” Hint: It was the same American who said, “[O]nce and for all, the Saudis, the Qataris, and others need to stop their citizens from directly funding extremist organizations, as well as the schools and mosques around the world that have set too many young people on a path to radicalization.”
Answer: Former Secretary of State and Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton. The same Hillary Clinton who said (in the same speech!), “Islam is not our adversary. Muslims are peaceful and tolerant people and have nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism. The obsession in some quarters with a clash of civilization or repeating the specific words radical Islamic terrorism isn’t just a distraction. It gives these criminals, these murderers, more standing than they deserve. It actually plays into their hands by alienating partners we need by our side.”
Yet if Muslims “have nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism,” who are all those Saudis, and Qataris? Unitarians? Who are the “radical jihadists”? Hindus? And what’s with the mention of “schools and mosques”? Unless there are enough of them…to mention?
The “distraction” and related “alienation” points are puzzling, too. How can one on the one hand implicate mosques and Muslim schools in the “radicalization” process and on the other hand avoid naming and condemning them for preaching and teaching what can only be a form of Islam? Conversely, does Clinton believe that simply omitting the word “Islam” from the adversary’s label will fool Muslims everywhere into thinking that at least a branch of their faith isn’t being singled out? From another vantage point, what kind of Muslim would be fatally offended by American officials explicitly pointing out the obvious? One who’s genuinely recruit-able to anti-ISIS efforts? Or one looking for an excuse to sign up with or finance or otherwise support the terrorists?
Question 3: Who said, “This is a war for the soul of Islam”? Hint: It’s also the presidential candidate whose website says “ISIS is a major terrorist group currently attempting to establish an Islamic Caliphate—a group of countries under strict sharia, or Islamic, law….” Answer: Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Sanders of course has never been seen as a Muslim hate-monger. But as with President Obama’s “battle for public opinion” point, if a war is needed to win the soul of Islam for moderation, doesn’t that mean that lots of the soul is deeply – indeed, violently – opposed? And referring to the Caliphate and sharia law can easily be seen as the kind of legitimation that Clinton is warning against.
Using the term “radical Islam” by no means slanders the large numbers of Muslims inside the United States and out who lead peaceful, law-abiding lives, let alone those who have served this nation and others with honor and distinction in public life, law enforcement and first responder positions, and the armed forces. Yet if the threat posed by ISIS, Al Qaeda, and similar terrorists can indeed be neutralized by fighting a war of ideas and ideologies (and because of the Middle East’s deep dysfunctionality, I have major doubts), victory will require allies who can take straight, and perhaps even brutally honest talk. Otherwise, how can precious resources be targeted precisely – and therefore effectively?