Amidst criticism of his refusal to use a term like “Islamist extremism” to describe the terrorist threat, President Obama today made an important step in that direction as he described an attitude within Muslim communities that is abetting the radicalism that breeds terrorists.
Speaking Wednesday to a White House conference on “violent extremism,” Obama suggested that a failure by some Muslim leaders to clearly reject the terrorists’ ideology and a “sometimes widespread” outlook among Muslims in some areas that perceives problems they face as flowing from the West are helping lay the groundwork for terror.
Obama of course didn’t use anything like the phrase “Muslim extremism.” But he did get to the root of the problem with not using the phrase: a recognition that the enemy we face is rooted within Islam – however perverted the interpretation – and that changes are needed from within the Muslim community.
Obama sought to explain his refusal to add any mention of Islam to the description of the terrorists, saying it would lend them “religious legitimacy” they crave and seek to use as a recruiting tool.
That at least gives a rationale for not calling them Islamists that isn’t rooted in ignorance of the problem or political correctness. But I would argue that they aren’t looking to us for legitimacy, and using the term is the only way to help us understand what we’re fighting and get Muslims to recognize that the problem is from within.
Nevertheless, at a conference that has been ridiculed for its “all-inclusive” approach to the origins of terrorism, Obama highlighted the problem emanating from the Muslim world:
Now, just as those of us outside Muslim communities need to reject the terrorist narrative that the West and Islam are in conflict, or modern life and Islam are in conflict, I also believe that Muslim communities have a responsibility as well. Al Qaeda and ISIL do draw, selectively, from the Islamic texts. They do depend upon the misperception around the world that they speak in some fashion for people of the Muslim faith, that Islam is somehow inherently violent, that there is some sort of clash of civilizations.
He was careful, of course, to offer caveats:
Of course, the terrorists do not speak for over a billion Muslims who reject their hateful ideology. They no more represent Islam than any madman who kills innocents in the name of God represents Christianity or Judaism or Buddhism or Hinduism. No religion is responsible for terrorism. People are responsible for violence and terrorism. (Applause.)
And to their credit, there are respected Muslim clerics and scholars not just here in the United States but around the world who push back on this twisted interpretation of their faith. They want to make very clear what Islam stands for. And we’re joined by some of these leaders today.
But he was also specific that the responsibility for the violence is shared by attitudes in the Muslim world, and that this has to change:
But if we are going to effectively isolate terrorists, if we’re going to address the challenge of their efforts to recruit our young people, if we’re going to lift up the voices of tolerance and pluralism within the Muslim community, then we’ve got to acknowledge that their job is made harder by a broader narrative that does exist in many Muslim communities around the world that suggests the West is at odds with Islam in some fashion.
The reality — which, again, many Muslim leaders have spoken to — is that there’s a strain of thought that doesn’t embrace ISIL’s tactics, doesn’t embrace violence, but does buy into the notion that the Muslim world has suffered historical grievances — sometimes that’s accurate — does buy into the belief that so many of the ills in the Middle East flow from a history of colonialism or conspiracy; does buy into the idea that Islam is incompatible with modernity or tolerance, or that it’s been polluted by Western values.
So those beliefs exist. In some communities around the world they are widespread. And so it makes individuals — especially young people who already may be disaffected or alienated — more ripe for radicalization. And so we’ve got to be able to talk honestly about those issues.
Not only must beliefs change, but Muslims need to speak up.
We’ve got to be much more clear about how we’re rejecting certain ideas. So just as leaders like myself reject the notion that terrorists like ISIL genuinely represent Islam, Muslim leaders need to do more to discredit the notion that our nations are determined to suppress Islam, that there’s an inherent clash in civilizations. 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. (Applause.)
And when all of us, together, are doing our part to reject the narratives of violent extremists, when all of us are doing our part to be very clear about the fact that there are certain universal precepts and values that need to be respected in this interconnected world, that’s the beginnings of a partnership.
Universal principles? Obama?
This rare abandonment of moral relativism is to be welcomed. It’s a courageous and significant statement by Obama indicating that he understands the issue and gets that terrorism isn’t simply a quirk of human nature for which we are all responsible.
When he said, “no religion is responsible for terrorism,” the applause was strong. When he spoke about the responsibility of Muslim leaders, the applause was more tepid.
So be it. Message received. I’m surprised and pleased that it was delivered. May this newly serious approach to the issue now elevate the seriousness of the president’s actions.