Obama got it right on countering violent extremism

Obama, Fiduciary Rules
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A week after the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, pundits are still hammering away at President Obama for his choice of words in describing the threats we face from extremist groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and al Qaeda. Calling this particular threat by an Islamic name might gratify those who believe we are engaged in a clash of civilizations, but doing so would undermine our efforts to defeat these groups.

Sitting in the audience last Wednesday, I appreciated how the president articulated this conflict, what we need to do and what his administration is actually capable of accomplishing. This speech was not an exercise in political correctness or a head-in-the-sand example of naivete. It was an accurate assessment of the complex challenge that we face. The president strategically identified that there are specific roles government can and cannot play in this war with ISIS and al Qaeda.

{mosads}Obama does not want to refer to ISIS or al Qaeda in religious terms because he believes that would grant recognition to their claims of representing Islam. He explained, “They are not religious leaders — they are terrorists. And we are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.”

In no way, though, did the president shy away from this threat’s religious claims and origins, nor did he absolve the individuals most threatened by ISIS and al Qaeda of their responsibility to join in this shared struggle. The president called on Muslim leaders — in the room, across America and around the world — to confront extremists and their ideas. Selectively quoted texts from the Koran may not be representative of the religion, but, as Obama asserted, it is the role of religious leaders to “push back on this twisted interpretation of their faith.”

Obama also called on leaders within Muslim communities to debunk the broader narrative that “suggests the West is at odds with Islam in some fashion.” That theory, which regrettably is a widely held position among the secular and religious alike, contributes to an environment of radicalization where a natural target for violence becomes the representatives of that so-called war against Islam.

So, on a practical level, the president invited to the White House a leading group of civil-society representatives who are working to counter extremism in the United States and throughout the Muslim world; gave a public speech in which he explained the complexities of this challenge; and called for an adherence to democratic principles worldwide, including in the United States, as we face this challenge. Then he told this group of civil-society leaders (many from Muslim communities) that they have to confront the deviants within their own faith community and the conspiracy theorists within their midst. What’s not to like here?

It is hard to believe that critics of the president’s language actually want for him or other administration officials to immerse themselves into the issues of religious commentary and interpretation. If Islam is the problem — and not extremist behavior of a disaffected few in the name of Islam — than a war with Islam is inevitable, and the U.S. government will have put itself into the business of assessing, and then reforming, religions.

A war with Islam would mean adding an asterisk to the Bill of Rights. Freedom of religion would be for all Americans, but not for millions of Muslim-Americans unless they passed some sort of litmus test. Atheists, Christians, Sikhs and others could assemble and bear arms, but not Muslim-Americans, because the higher authority of the U.S. government had found fault with their belief system.

Pointing fingers at the beliefs of a specific religion as the cause for this extremist behavior not only deconstructs America, but also offers a narrow and simplistic approach to the many factors — and there is no exact recipe — which contribute to the process of radicalization. Undoubtedly, manipulation of religious beliefs are a part of that mix, but that is just one component and it is the component that the U.S. government is certainly unable to deal with successfully.

The U.S. government can defeat extremist groups militarily; offer development assistance that creates political, economic and educational opportunities; and hold authoritarian governments accountable for abuses of human rights and corruption. It cannot, however, lead a religious reformation. Putting Islam in the headline, and making ISIS or al Qaeda the representatives of Islam in some way — even if that way is perverse — sets us down a false path that will not inspire the kind of action that President Obama called for and that instead could lead to government-led, religious-based discrimination.

Words matter. The “with us or against us” years a decade ago were an abject failure in rallying people around the world — not just in the Muslim world — to our side. The president’s speech and the terminology he has used to explain this problem offer the best chance so far to support changing the environments in which young disaffected Muslims are growing up — in Tunisia and Jordan, but also in Belgium and the United States.

Orbach is director of the America’s Unofficial Ambassadors project at Creative Learning and the author of Live from Jordan: Letters Home from My Journey through the Middle East.

Tags al Qaeda ISIS Islam Islamic State in Iraq and Syria Islamic terrorism Radicalization Summit on Countering Violent Extremism

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