The Problem With Right-Wing Media Outrage Over Obama Not Saying “Islamic Extremism”

Right-wing media are scandalizing President Obama's refusal to conflate terrorism with all of Islam, attacking the president for not focusing on “Islamic extremism” in the three-day White House summit to combat violent extremism. But the conservative outrage ignores the fact that conflating terrorism with an entire religion would harm U.S. national security and foreign policy interests by alienating allied Muslim nations and play into the hands of terrorists who claim the U.S. is at war with Islam.

At White House Summit, Obama Says The U.S. Is “At War With People Who Have Perverted Islam”

In Three-Day Summit, White House Urges Nations To Join Fight Against Violent Extremism. The White House hosted a three-day summit this week aimed at combating violent extremism and “the ideology of the Islamic State and other groups making increasingly sophisticated appeals to young people around the world,” as The New York Times reported. Obama “called on Americans and more than 60 nations ... to join the fight against violent extremism” promoted by terrorist groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL). Obama made clear, “We are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.” [The New York Times2/18/15]

Right-Wing Media Attack Obama For Distinguishing Between Terrorism And Islam

Fox's Keith Ablow: Obama Sees America As “Bigger Threat Than Terrorism.” On the February 17 edition of Fox News' Outnumbered, Fox News contributor Dr. Keith Ablow agreed that Obama is clinically unwilling to identify terrorist threats and claimed that Obama believes the U.S. is a “bigger threat” than terrorism. [Fox News, Outnumbered2/17/15]

Fox & Friends: Obama Refuses To Identify Terror Threat As Islamic To Avoid Dealing With It. On the February 18 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends, co-host Steve Doocy diminished the Obama administration's efforts to combat terrorism by claiming that despite the White House summit on extremism, Obama still refuses to identify the threat as “Islamic extremism” and instead is “trying to tip-toe around the very central motivation for groups like Al Qaeda and also ISIS.” Co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck asked, “Why won't the administration call it what it is?” She went on to suggest that the White House is avoiding identifying the threat as Islamic extremism in order to avoid dealing with it “in a big way.” [Fox News, Fox & Friends2/18/15]

Wash. Times: “Obama Avoids Islam Focus In 'Extremism' Summit.” The Washington Times reported that despite the fact that the White House summit “is aimed at combating the root causes of terrorism,” the White House is “determined not to portray extremists as motivated by radical Islam.” [The Washington Times2/17/15]

Daily Caller: “Obama Alone In Ignoring Roots Of Islamist Terror.” The Daily Caller wrote that in contrast to the White House's summit on “Countering Violent Extremism,” the White House's “most recent statement insisted that ISIS' violence is 'unconstrained by faith, sect, or ethnicity'” and claimed that Obama is reluctant to frame terrorist threats facing the U.S. as Islamic extremism. [The Daily Caller, 2/17/15]

Fox Host Suggests Summit Will Not Be Productive Without Discussing “Islamic Extremism.” Fox News host Martha MacCallum suggested that the White House summit would not be productive because the president will not discuss “Islamic Extremism”:

[, 2/17/15]

But Distinguishing Between Terrorism And Islam Is Part Of U.S. Strategy To Rally Allies, Avoid Dignifying Terrorists

Labeling Terrorism As “Islamic” Plays Into Hands Of Terrorists. The New York Times reported February 18 that the White House believes labeling acts of terror as “Islamic” would “play right into the hands of terrorists who claim that the United States is at war with Islam itself.” The Times added that Obama aides say “the last thing the president should do ... is imply that the United States lumps the world's 1.5 billion Muslims with vicious terrorist groups.” [The New York Times2/18/15]

Former State Dept. Counterterrorism Official: Trumpeting “Islamic Radicalism” Would Damage Ally Relationships And Do More Harm Than Good. Daniel Benjamin, the State Department's top counterterrorism official from 2009-2012, said that throwing around the phrase “Islamic radicalism” would damage to efforts to combat terror by undermining relationships with allies:

“Our allies against ISIS in the region are out there every day saying, 'This is not Islam,' ” said Mr. Benjamin, now at Dartmouth. “We don't want to undermine them. Any good it would do to trumpet 'Islamic radicalism' would be overwhelmed by the damage it would do to those relationships.” [The New York Times2/18/15]

Foreign Policy: Efforts To Address Terrorism By Focusing On Islam Have Backfired. Foreign Policy explained that programs that have attempted to combat terrorism by focusing exclusively on Islamic extremism have failed. Britain launched “an Islamic-centric counter-extremism effort” in 2005 called the “Prevent Program” that, according to Foreign Policy, “backfired by alienating Muslims and making cooperation with law enforcement officials even more difficult.” [Foreign Policy2/17/15]

The Week: Describing Terrorism As Islamic Alienates Allies And Dignifies Terrorists. In a February 18 post for The Week, Marc Ambinder wrote, “Calling terrorism Islamic terrorism ... doesn't serve the purposes of a president who has to work with countries that have a studiously complicated relationship with the purveyors of terror,” meaning it could backfire by offending and alienating countries the president needs cooperation from in order to fight terrorism. Ambinder also noted that Obama's strategy behind not using the term “Islamic terrorism” is to avoid “dignify[ing] that movement by calling it what it calls itself.” Ambinder added that “Osama bin Laden himself said that Obama's refusal to join the language fight made it more difficult to generate recruits.” [The Week2/18/15]

The Atlantic: Obama Cannot Adequately Combat Violent Extremism If He Alienates Muslim Communities. David Frum explained in a February 16 post for The Atlantic that by refusing to conflate terrorism with all Muslims, Obama is not ignoring the threat, but rather working not to alienate Muslim leaders who “may be our best allies in the struggle against violence, precisely because they have the most credibility with the people who might otherwise turn to violence.” Frum went on to sum up a statement by former White House chief of staff Denis McDonough: "[I]n order to empower Muslim communities to take the lead against violence, the government and the larger society must refrain from actions that alienate or offend community leaders." [The Atlantic2/16/15]