President Obama on Wednesday said he doesn’t describe the United States as being at war with radical Islam because he doesn’t want to give undue credit to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
“They’re not religious leaders, they’re terrorists,” Obama said of ISIS in remarks at the White House’s summit on countering violent extremism.
“We are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam,” he said. “No religion is responsible for terrorism. People are responsible for violence and terrorism.”
He argued the U.S. and its allies must everything they can to discredit that idea because groups like ISIS and al Qaeda are “desperate for legitimacy.”
“We must never accept the premise that they put forward, because it is a lie, nor should we grant these terrorists the religious legitimacy that they seek,” Obama said.
The president’s comments were a direct response to criticism from Republicans who have argued he should say the U.S. is at war with radical Islam.
Those criticisms have become louder with this week’s summit.
“How can you talk about defeating an enemy you cannot name?” Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said Tuesday in a statement.
Obama on Wednesday said that there “is no one profile of a violent extremist or terrorist” just as there is “no way to predict who will become radicalized.”
He also opened his remarks with references not only to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, but to the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City carried out by two U.S. citizens. He also noted the shootings of three Muslims last week in Chapel Hill, N.C.
The president did said Muslim leaders needed to do more to discredit the notion that West wants to undercut Islam.
“We've got to be able to talk honestly about those issues. We've got to be much more clear about how we're rejecting certain ideas,” Obama said. “Everybody has to speak up very clearly that no matter what the grievance, violence against innocents doesn't defend Islam or Muslims, it damages Islam and Muslims.”Obama also sought to address criticism of comments by a State Department spokesman who this week argued that the U.S. couldn't "kill its way" out of the war with ISIS, and said the U.S. must also work with other countries to create jobs for young people who could otherwise become radicalized.
“Poverty alone does not cause someone to become a terrorist, any more than poverty causes someone to become a criminal,” Obama said, noting that Osama bin Laden came from a wealthy family.
At the same time, Obama defended the idea that the U.S. should work with Muslim countries to improve their economies.
“When there are no outlets where people can express their grievances, resentments fester,” he said. “Terrorist groups are all too happy to step into a void.”
Obama also said more has to be done to combat extremist’s online propaganda.
“By the way, the older people here, as wise and respected as you may be, your stuff is often boring,” he joked. “You’re not connected, and that means you’re not connecting.”
Prior to the speech the White House rolled out a series of new steps the administration would take to battle radicalism, including appointing a senior-level official at the Homeland Security Department to coordinator federal efforts to counter violent extremism.
It will also establish an office of strategic engagement in Los Angeles to facilitate information sharing at the local level. The effort could expand to the cities, like Boston, that have pilot programs in place to tackle extremism.
The White House will also seek $15 million for the Justice Department to bolster community-led efforts and award $3.5 million in National Institute of Justice grants to address domestic radicalization to violent extremism for the third year.
Obama hardly mentioned the months-long military campaign the U.S. and its allies have waged against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, saying near the end of the address that “there will also be a military component to this."
“There are savage cruelties out there that need to be stopped,” he said, but the bigger challenge would be “to eliminate the soil out of which they grew.”
His comments stood in stark contrast those made earlier on Wednesday by Jeb Bush, a likely 2016 presidential candidate, who gave a major foreign policy speech in Chicago.
When asked what kind of diplomacy he would apply to fighting the Islamic State, he replied: “No diplomacy. You mean with them directly? No, that's not -- we have to develop a strategy that's global that takes them out. “
The president is set to address the summit again on Thursday during an event at the State Department that will feature representatives from more than 60 countries.
This story was updated at 6:03 p.m.