President Barack Obama and French President Francois Hollande in 2014.
Official White House photo by Pete Souza.
You can call them ISIL. You can call them ISIS. You can call them the Islamic State. Just, whatever you do, don’t call them Islamist.
President Obama and his administration have fielded plenty of criticism for refusing to name that which we are fighting everywhere from Mosul to San Bernardino. Such criticism gained substantial momentum early last year in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris at the offices of Charlie Hebdo and elsewhere. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared that France was at war with radical Islam, prompting questions from the American press a few days later about why the administration had “gone to great lengths to come up with a different formulation” in describing the attacks.
Those questions have kept coming, as Obama and his staff continue to go to great lengths to avoid saying “radical Islam” or “Islamist” in any context. Republican presidential hopefuls including Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and former candidate Marco Rubio have all criticized Obama’s avoidance of the phrase “radical Islam,” especially Cruz, who has suggested on multiple occasions that an administration that will not describe the problem cannot be expected to solve it. Yet it isn’t only partisanship at play; a handful of former security officials and liberal commentators have also spoken out about their frustration with the president’s commitment to his semantics.
The president’s preferred term – violent extremism – could apply equally to the FARC in Colombia or to some right-wing end-of-the-roader on a mountaintop in the Rockies. But these are not the threats that keep security officials on six continents up at night.
Obama’s refusal to use the word Islamist when describing the terrorism of those who claim to act in the name of what they profess to be their faith is both pointless and insulting. But it has never made the White House look quite as stupid as it did last week.
The Media Research Center reported that the audio track of a White House video cut out just as French President Francois Hollande said the words “Islamist terrorism,” with not only the English translation but the original words in French mysteriously missing. The article said that a full video had initially been available before the version with the audio gap replaced it. Later that day the White House posted a replacement video with the soundtrack restored, consistent with the written transcript of Hollande’s remarks, citing a “technical issue with the audio.”
Even if the audio glitch explanation is true – though one has to wonder about a technical glitch that so conveniently coincides with comments sure to make the administration uncomfortable – Obama’s years-long commitment to avoiding a link between terror and Islam in any way has essentially rendered him the president who cried “violent extremism.”
As Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee, observed in an opinion piece for USA Today, the incident looked terrible for the administration however it is explained. “Even the appearance of censorship took what would have been a largely unnoticed snippet of diplomatic speech and turned it into the talk of Israeli newspapers, the American blogosphere and global social media,” Reynolds wrote.
None of this is to say the president is wrong when he points out that the mayhem inflicted by the Islamic State group, al-Qaida and similar bands is neither founded in the Islamic faith nor supported by the vast majority of the world’s Muslims. But it is condescending that he believes the rest of us need his constant reminders. And his insistence on semantic niceties underscores the fecklessness of his foreign policy, which refuses to identify, let alone confront, the true nature and source of the threat it purports to oppose.