The Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security created quite a stir last week. Their reports on terrorism failed to make any reference to the Islamist nature of the threat. It struck Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican, as a "glaring omission." It was.
The Homeland Security report lists as "Goal 1.1" the need to "understand the threat" and to "acquire, analyze and appropriately share intelligence and other information on current and emerging threats." You'd think that what the terrorists themselves say is motivating them would be on the list of things to "understand."
Obviously, the administration omitted it to avoid the appearance that America is waging war on Islam. This is a deep-seated fear of American leaders. Even President George W. Bush went to great lengths to avoid this misperception.
But such sensitivity, particularly manifest in a refusal even to talk about Islamist-inspired terrorism, makes no difference to the terrorists. Osama bin Laden isn't interested in what Mr. Bush or President Obama say. He believes he is in a fight to the death to impose his radical version of Islamic theocracy on the rest of us.
Nor does it make much difference to public opinion in Muslim-majority nations. The view that America's actions in the world are aimed primarily at weakening and dividing the Islamic world is still widespread. A poll taken in Egypt in June, more than four months after Mr. Obama became president, found 76 percent of people agreed with that idea.
Our outreach on this subject isn't working, in part because it is based on an obvious falsehood, one that everyone — including Muslims who are supposed to be its target — recognizes but is afraid to admit.
The fallacy is enshrined in a United Nations General Assembly resolution on the "defamation of religion." The sponsors of the resolution, representing the Organization of the Islamic Conference, intended it to shield Islam from any association with terrorism. Thus, it solemnly expresses "deep concern in this respect that Islam is frequently and wrongly associated with human rights violations and terrorism."
Indeed, we all should be "deeply" concerned by the "wrong" associations of Islam and terrorism. But just who is responsible for this "wrongful" association? It's certainly not the U.S. government. It's the terrorists themselves.
The administration's failure to mention the word Islamist in its latest security reports, as well as the U.S. Army's failure to corral Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the suspect in the Fort Hood shootings, stems in part from a belief that it is entirely our fault that Islam is associated with terrorism. Otherwise, why be so fearful of offending or sending the wrong message?
The problem arises from confusion over religion and terrorist ideology. The terrorists claim they are motivated by religion, but most Americans — and millions of Muslims overseas — reject the notion that they have a legitimate religious claim. Indeed, millions of Muslims in the Middle East and Asia believe the terrorists are perverting their religion by replacing it with a violent political philosophy. That philosophy is widely understood in the Muslim world as "Islamism," to separate it from the normal practice of their religion.
These millions of Muslims deeply resent what terrorists do in the name of their religion. But it also is true that terror suspects such as Maj. Hasan and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the would-be Christmas Day bomber, process their hateful ideology as a form of religious conviction.
The question for us is: Do we accept their explanations or not? The thinking in the Obama administration appears to be that the only way to reject Islamist ideology is not to talk about it at all. This not only ignores the truth, it also unwittingly confirms the Islamist view of the world because the terrorists aim to silence us and to persuade other Muslims to believe that we — not they — are the problem. This is no less morally offensive than making its opposite and equally reprehensible claim — namely, that all Muslims are closet terrorists. They obviously are not, but neither are Islamist terrorists legitimate voices on religion. We shouldn't be shy about saying so.
We should treat Islamism not as a religion, but as a political ideology that in some cases motivates violence and war. Thinking this way should free us of the pervasive politically correct fears that surround this topic. Telling the truth should not offend Muslims. If anything, they should find it liberating because it exonerates their religion from the taint of terrorism.
But truth-telling also can liberate American policy. We must focus more on exposing the wrongheaded and hateful political ideology that motivates the terrorists. Otherwise, there is no chance whatsoever that we will understand them, much less defeat them.
• Kim R. Holmes, a former assistant secretary of state, is a vice president at the Heritage Foundation (Heritage.org) and author of "Liberty's Best Hope: American Leadership for the 21st Century."