The White House found itself on the defensive Wednesday over the administration’s downplaying of Jewish and Christian victims of Islamist terrorism, as President Obama hosted a summit seeking to gloss over Muslim connections to violent extremism.
Mr. Obama told the conference that the U.S. is not at war with the Muslim world but it needs to counter the religious ideology that groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State are using to recruit young fighters. And he defended his avoidance of the term “radical Islam” to describe terrorists.
“They try to portray themselves as religious leaders, holy warriors in defense of Islam,” Mr. Obama said. “We must never accept the premise that they put forward, because it is a lie. They are not religious leaders, they’re terrorists. And we are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.”
He also said terrorist groups recruit by exploiting economic and political “grievances” in the Muslim world, including what he called historic grievances that are “sometimes accurate.”
“We do have to address the grievances that terrorists exploit,” Mr. Obama said. “When there are no outlets by which people can express their concerns, resentments fester. The international community has to offer something better. When governments oppress their people … it sows the seeds of extremism and violence.”
Although the attendees at the summit predominantly represented Muslim groups, administration officials stuck to their story line that the conference was aimed at generic “violent extremism” not associated with any one religion.
When a reporter for CNN accused the White House of “tiptoeing through the tulips” by avoiding references to radical Islamist terrorists, White House press secretary Josh Earnest acknowledged that most recent terrorist attacks have their roots in Muslim ideology.
“I don’t think I’m tiptoeing anywhere,” Mr. Earnest said. “We’ve been pretty clear about exactly what we’re trying to fight here. This is the summit on countering violent extremism. And there is no question that radical ideologues around the globe have sought and in some cases succeeded in infiltrating some elements of the Muslim world to propagate their ideology and to try to distort that religion to justify their terrible acts of violence.”
But accusations persist that the administration is bending over backwards to sympathize with Muslim victims of violence, such as the three young Muslims killed by a gunman in a parking lot in North Carolina earlier this month, while downplaying the religion of victims in other attacks.
For example, Mr. Obama said people killed by a terrorist in a kosher deli in Paris last month were killed “randomly,” implying they were not targeted for their Jewish faith. And in its statement about the beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians this week by Islamic State terrorists, the White House referred to the victims as “citizens” rather than Christians, implying there was no religious motivation for the attack.
Mr. Earnest tried to correct those impressions Wednesday.
“There is no doubt about the motivation of the individual who carried out this attack against a kosher market in Paris,” he said. “He was motivated by anti-Semitism. He was targeting them because they were Jewish.”
Mr. Earnest said he “can’t account” for why his initial statement on the Egyptian victims omitted their religion, but he added, “The ISIL extremists who carried out this attack indicated that they were killing them wasn’t just because they were Egyptian, but also because they were Christian.”
Robert Trestan, a representative of the Anti-Defamation League who attended the summit said anti-Semitism “remains at the core of extremist ideology making the Jewish community here and abroad an ongoing target.”
But even as the White House was downplaying suggestions that it was ignoring the Islamist motivations for terrorism, a House Democrat who is Muslim told the conference that prosecuting the murders of the three young Muslims in North Carolina as a hate crime would help to counter terrorists’ recruiting efforts in America.
Rep. Keith Ellison, Minnesota Democrat and the first Muslim ever elected to Congress, dismissed comments by police in Chapel Hill that the three victims were killed in a dispute over a parking space. The lawmaker said that explanation “defies our sense of logic and common sense.”
“It’s important that we at least admit that what happened in Chapel Hill probably was not only about a parking space,” Mr. Ellison said to applause from the audience at the summit. “The three victims were living, walking, breathing examples of countering violent extremism until their lives were taken away. Let us not slip into the mistaken idea that terrorism is somehow a Muslim thing — it’s not. Muslims are the victims of it.”
The three-day summit includes community leaders in the U.S. and foreign ministers from about 60 nations in an attempt to discourage recruitment of young people by terrorist groups. The administration announced several new initiatives Wednesday, including the creation of a full-time post at the Department of Homeland Security devoted to countering violent extremism; establishing Homeland Security offices in Los Angeles, Boston and other cities to work with law enforcement and build community partnerships and a $15 million appropriation request to support community-led efforts to counter extremism.