In his first speech before Congress, President Donald Trump defied his new National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster when he said the United States government is “taking strong measures to protect our nation from radical Islamic terrorism.”
McMaster believes, as does former president Barack Obama, that the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” alienates America’s Muslim allies and therefore complicates our efforts against Al Qaeda and ISIS. He implored the president to refrain from using those words, but Trump did it anyway.
Of course he did. Last year, he blasted Hillary Clinton for refusing to say “Islamic terrorism.” She proved him wrong at once by saying “Islamic terrorism,” but Trump’s real target was her former boss Barack Obama, who spent eight years eschewing that and similar phrases.
I spent more than a decade on and off in the Middle East and never heard so much as a whisper about this while I was over there. I used the more precise word “Islamist” to describe Al Qaeda and ISIS hundreds of times in conversations and interviews with all kinds of people, from cab drivers to heads of state, and not a single person ever admonished me for it.
Perhaps no one admonished me because I was precise enough. And it’s certainly possible that some of McMaster’s counterparts in Baghdad grumbled about the words Trump thinks are so crucial. If so, I frankly doubt the sentiment is a common one. If you preface the word “Islamic” with “radical,” you’re effectively saying the same thing as “Islamist.”
In any case, everybody in the Middle East knows perfectly well that the likes of Al Qaeda and ISIS are Islamic as well as Islamist. Not even conspiracy theorists believe otherwise. The region’s secularists, liberals, moderates and even everyday conservatives fear and loathe the Islamists. Referring to them as Salafists, radical Islamists, Islamic extremists, Islamists, or just plain radicals or extremists is fair game. Middle Easterners themselves use those words to describe Al Qaeda and ISIS, so why shouldn’t we?
What one should not do is lump the entire Islamic world into a single sinister category.
Trump’s previous National Security Advisor Mike Flynn did that repeatedly before the president fired him. “Islam is a political ideology,” he said in a speech last August. “It hides behind this notion of it being a religion…It’s like a malignant cancer.” He didn’t say Islamism or radical Islam is a malignant cancer. He said Islam is a malignant cancer, which suggest anyone and everyone who practices that religion is potentially deadly. It ought to go without saying that this kind of inflammatory language alienates nearly all our allies in the Middle East from Kurdistan to Morocco.
Much of the American far-right talks about Islam and terrorism the way Mike Flynn does. (Just read the comment sections on Breitbart). These people have convinced themselves, against all evidence and reason, that moderate Muslims don’t exist, that every Muslim in the entire world is either a genocidal totalitarian or a Muslim-in-name-only.
So on this question at least, Donald Trump is a moderate.
“After 8 years of obfuscation and disastrous Counterterrorism policies those 3 words are key to Victory against Global Jihadism,” Trump’s Deputy Assistant Sebastian Gorka tweeted this week. The president himself made the same point last year. “Unless you're going to say that, you're never going to solve it.”
Words matter to writers, scholars, diplomats, lawyers and therapists, but they aren’t everything, and they certainly don’t have any magical powers. The United States and its allies could have beaten Adolf Hitler just as easily if nobody on our side even once uttered “National Socialist German Worker’s Party.” In fact, that’s pretty much what happened. Calling our enemies “Nazis” and leaving it at that was perfectly sufficient when coupled with Allied air, sea and land power. I’d be willing to bet that a large majority of Americans aren’t even aware anymore that the National Socialist German Worker’s Party was the longform name of the Nazi Party. If anyone in the Roosevelt administration said, “we can’t just call them Nazis, we have to make it clear that we’re fighting the National Socialist German Worker’s Party,” they’d have been laughed out of the room.
“Not once has an advisor of mine said, man, if we use that phrase, we’re going to turn this whole thing around,” Obama said last year. “If someone seriously thinks we don’t know who we’re fighting, if there’s anyone out there who thinks we’re confused about who our enemies are, that would come as a surprise to the thousands of terrorists who we’ve taken off the battlefield.”
Even so, he acknowledges that there is a vast gulf between Trump’s rhetoric and Flynn’s. “Do I think that if somebody uses the phrase ‘Islamic terrorism’ that it’s a huge deal?” he said. “No. There is no doubt that [ISIS and Al Qaeda] think and claim that they’re speaking for Islam, but I don’t want to validate what they do.”
Islamic civilization is vast and complex. It includes liberal reformers, moderates, conservatives and hardliners, and some of the hardliners are violent. We can’t evict ISIS from Islam any more than ISIS can evict liberal Muslims like King Mohammed VI of Morocco.
Obama’s and McMaster aversion to offending our allies is almost certainly harmless. But honestly, Trump’s use of the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” most likely is too.