Why has the Obama administration tied itself in knots over what to call Islamic terrorism? We know the president has rejected the term in favor of “violent extremism,” ordering his administration not to refer to Islamic terrorists like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria as Islamic. “No religion is responsible for terrorism,” Obama declared at the recent White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism.
And yet in the same speech, Obama uttered the word “Christianity” once, “Judaism” once, “Buddhism” once — and “Islam” or “Muslim” 52 times. If a listener did not know better, he might think there was something Islamic about the extremism that was the subject of the White House conference.
Obama’s semantic preferences have left his spokesmen struggling to find words to describe one of the United States’ top national security concerns. It’s a particular troubling problem now, with the rise of the Islamic State, but it has deep roots; the president has long appeared conflicted on how to refer to Islamic terrorism.
In his 2006 book “The Audacity of Hope,” Obama referred to “Islamic-based terrorism” and “Islamic militants” and “militant Islamic organizations.” But at other times, Obama was deeply reluctant to connect the words “Islamic” and “terrorism.”
In April 2007, for example, Obama outlined his vision of a post-Bush, post-Iraq world during an address at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. The speech was missing something. “Remarkably, he doesn’t mention Islam, much less Islamic extremism,” a Washington Post editorial noted.
That was nearly eight years ago. Now, the president’s aversion to the phrases “Islamic terrorism” and “Islamic extremism” has made it difficult for top U.S. government officials to discuss world affairs without becoming caught in word games. When is it OK to mention Islam? When is it not? What about Christianity and other religions?
White House spokesman Josh Earnest fell into a variety of holes recently as he tried to navigate the president’s vocabulary requirements. For example, a reporter noted that Obama and top administration officials “have gone to great lengths to not say that it’s a summit about Islamic extremism … but if you look at the groups that are participating, most of them … are related in one way or another to the Muslim community. How do you square the message with the participants?”
“We’re very mindful of the fact that a particularly virulent strain of extremist ideology has tried to insert itself in the Muslim community,” Earnest said. Weaving back and forth, Earnest noted that extremism can take other forms, such as in the 2012 shootings at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, although on the other hand “that does not diminish in any way the concern that we have that some extremists have made some inroads into some Muslim communities.”
Earnest’s contortions left some listeners baffled. “You just won’t call it militant Islam or anything like that?” asked a reporter. “Well, I think we’ve been very clear about what we call it,” Earnest replied.
Later, another reporter asked about a statement Earnest released a few days earlier condemning the Islamic State’s beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians. The statement referred to the victims as “Egyptian citizens,” rather than “Egyptian Christians.” Why was that?
Earnest quickly conceded the victims were killed not just because they were Egyptian, “but also because they were Christian.” When asked why he didn’t just say that last weekend, Earnest answered, “I can’t account for that specific line in the statement.” The statement, of course, was his own.
Still later, yet another reporter asked about a comment from State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf, who during a TV interview discussed the Lord’s Resistance Army in Africa. “That’s a Christian militant group,” Harf said, correctly. The question for Earnest was: Why does the administration refer to a Christian militant group as Christian when it won’t refer to an Islamic militant group as Islamic?
“Well, I did not see my colleague’s comments on this topic,” Earnest said, “so I don’t want to sort of weigh in and try to explain what she meant.”
At that moment, the administration’s self-created confusion became total. The men and women who face reporters each day, trying to explain the president’s policies, simply don’t know what to say when it comes to the terrorist attacks that so often dominate the news.
At the summit, Obama said Americans “can’t shy away” from discussing the true nature of terrorism. And yet that is what his White House is doing every day, to the utter confusion of those whose job it is to deliver the president’s message.
Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.