Words matter, especially when you are a president. The presidency of George W. Bush was packed with blunders and poor word choices, many of which have remained the object of ridicule long after his term. However, while leaders must understand the consequences of their phrasing, they should not be discouraged from naming the threats that face the United States, especially when it comes to terrorism.
Labeling an act as “radical Islamic terrorism” is not an attack on Islam. President Barack Obama caused a stir in the past few months by choosing not to use the phrase “radical Islam” to describe the terrorist attacks seen in the United States, France, Germany, Iraq, Lebanon and Nigeria, among many others.
Some prominent Republicans immediately criticized him for these decisions, even claiming that he is the founder of the Islamic State group and a closeted Muslim. For these people, Islam presents a threat to society, one that the president should crush.
The fact is, though, that Obama is not Muslim, and the vast majority of Muslims have nothing to do with the terrorist attacks in Orlando or San Bernardino or Paris. The president’s decision not to put the onus of terrorism on Islam makes sense. Bruce Weinstein, in a column in Fortune magazine, argues that many people do not understand the nuanced difference between blaming Islam and blaming only its most radical faction, and such a distinction is very important.
These are the same individuals who commend Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigration. They also perceive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s use of the phrase “radical Islamism” as referring to all of Islam rather than only its radical sect.
In his column, Weinstein examines a post-9/11 incident in which a man named Frank Roque shot at a Lebanese-American clerk and an Afghan family and killed a Sikh man. None of them were in any way involved with terrorism, with the last victim not even being Muslim. Therefore, Weinstein argues that omitting the word “Islam” in conjunction with “radical” to describe radical terror attacks will be beneficial, as fewer citizens will be tempted to amalgamate terrorism and Islam.
Yet, failure to name the threat allows individuals to imagine their own enemies. When terrorists scream “Allahu Akbar” before committing their acts, Islam becomes associated with radicalism in the public conscience. When political leaders fail to even mention the word Islam in response to attack, it angers those who have already made an association between the Islam and terrorism. When demagogues put the blame on Islam as a whole, this reinforces these individuals’ association of
Islam and terrorism.
Obama’s mindset of dissociating Muslims from terrorists is laudable. The vast majority of the 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide do not support the Islamic State group, Boko Haram or the Taliban. On the contrary, a fair share of them are victims of attacks by such extremist groups. This does not mean leaders should avoid more accurate phraseology. Members of these groups identify as Muslims. They may have the most vacuous readings of the texts, but this is their identity. By denying that reality, Obama is not helping the Muslim population. In 2015, the number of hate crimes against Muslims in France tripled. Those who commit such Islamophobic attacks will still blame all Muslims, while giving credence to political leaders who unfairly condemn the entire Muslim population rather than to those who choose nuanced rhetoric.
This is why leaders should use the occasion to employ terminology that conveys a nuanced definition of terrorist groups to the public. The enemy is not Islam, but terrorist groups and their fundamentalist readings of ancient texts. Only by naming our threats can we clarify to American citizens the reality of the situation and maintain the distinction between “radical Islamic terrorists” and Muslims.
Francois Valentin is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. Fault Lines appears every other Friday.