During a recent CNN presidential town hall, President Obama again refused to use the term “Islamic terrorism,” explaining that he did not want to lump together terrorists and the vast majority of Muslims who are peaceful. Bill O’Reilly predictably pounced, saying “the enemy needs to be defined,” and that any rational Muslim would not be offended by the term “Islamic terrorism.”
The debate over how to define the enemy in wars against al-Qaeda, the Taliban, ISIL, and other such groups has plagued Americans since the days following 9/11. On September 20, 2001, President George W. Bush first used the term “war on terror” at a joint session of Congress, claiming “our war on terror begins with al-Qaeda, but it does not end there.” In doing so, he defined the enemy as all terrorist groups, a bold choice given the number of such groups at the time ranging from the secular nationalist Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka to the Marxist FARC in Colombia. President Obama stopped using the terms “war on terror,” “jihadists,” and “global war” when he reached office, later explaining in 2013 that he defined the U.S. effort as “a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists.” Since then, the term “violent extremists” has been Obama’s go-to term, much to the chagrin of his conservative critics who insist he use the term ‘radical Islam’ or more generically “Islamic terrorism.”
While President Obama has cut back on the excess of Bush’s “war on terror” terminology, his preferred phrase, “violent extremists,” is equally vague. The president’s critics, like O’Reilly, have a point—there has to be a link joining al-Qaeda, ISIL, and the Taliban together. Defining that link would not only serve a rhetorical purpose—it would also identify the ideology that needs to be combated and better differentiate the extremists we need to fight and other forces that can be worked with. The problem comes in finding a term that suits such a link.
The term “radical Islam,” which the president’s critics have adopted has three obvious deficiencies: First, as the president has said, the term connotes radicalism within Islam itself and demonizes and offends one and a half billion peaceful Muslims. King Abdullah II of Jordan agreed with President Obama’s decision not to use the term, saying that ISIL in particular has nothing to do with the tenets of Islam. Using the term “radical Islam” would not only alienate key leaders like King Abdullah needed in the fight, but also the international and domestic Muslim populations on the frontlines of the fight against groups like al-Qaeda.
Second, the term bestows a level of legitimacy on groups like ISIL by justifying their acts as “Islamic.” It also denotes that the United States is at war with Islam, both of which play into ISIL and al-Qaeda propaganda, allowing for the betrayal of good Muslims fighting off hordes of Western imperialists.
Lastly, the term “radical Islam” is broad to the point of lacking any defining use. The Quds Force, Iran’s military expeditionary wing; Hamas, an Islamist Palestinian nationalist group; and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a Filipino secessionist group, are all “radical” and “Islamic”; but share nothing else. Moreover, none of these groups have directly threatened U.S. interests militarily and thus it would be imprudent to include them in any counterterrorism conflict.
If not radical Islam then what else? Jihadist is a popular term. However, it too runs into the same problem as radical Islam with legitimizing the group and alienating Muslims. Jihad, roughly translating to “struggle,” is a normal teaching of Islam that many moderate Muslims adhere to. While it can mean holy war, the greater jihad, as the Prophet Muhammed said, is to struggle internally to live out the Muslim faith.
Newt Gingrich, a Trump surrogate and former Speaker of the House, suggested on Fox News’ Sean Hannity that people who believe in sharia law should be deported, adding “sharia is incompatible with Western civilization.” Should adherents of sharia be our defined enemy? No, as that would include virtually every Muslim. While sharia has become synonymous in popular culture with beheading and stoning, sharia is actually a series of diverse legal schools that govern a multitude of sectors of human life, not just criminal law and corporal punishment. In essence, any Muslim who keeps a halal diet, prays regularly, or wears the hijab is adhering to sharia.
Around the Middle East, and particularly in Shia communities, extremists like ISIL are often referred to as takfiri. A takfiri is one who declares another Muslim to be a infidel, or a kafir in Arabic. Many takfiris are members of a Salafi sect, or the Saudi version—Wahabi. Salafis believe in reviving Islam’s greatness by eliminating a thousand plus years of Islamic innovation and jurisprudence and reverting to the example of the earliest Muslims. This is the closest link between radical groups we’ve seen so far, al-Qaeda and ISIL for example, have roots in Salafi philosophers like Sayyid Qutb and Syed Abul A’ala Maududi. However many Salafis are non-violent and non-political and many more—while puritanical and anti-Shia in their outlook—are repulsed by terrorist tactics.
In the end, defining the enemy seems a noble goal and although common trends can be found between groups, there is no definitive terminology for what makes these radicals the radicals we need to fight. Individuals and groups need to be held accountable for their actions, not some broad class defined by ideology. Focusing on specific networks that threaten America on a case-by-case basis may not sound as sexy as a war on radical Islam, but such generalization is in fact ineffective.