President Obama has long been criticized by national security hawks and a Republican presidential field led by Donald Trump for refusing to say the words “radical Islam” to describe threats posed by terrorist groups such as the Islamic State.
That reluctance won’t be a problem for the president-elect’s national security team, which is flush with nominees who can be expected to employ the term regularly.
The shift will test two deeply opposed worldviews on how to defeat jihadi terrorist groups. Mr. Obama argued that the term “radical Islam” plays into the propaganda narrative of the Islamic State and other U.S. enemies, falsely suggesting that the West was at war with the world’s 1.7 billion Muslims. Mr. Trump, incoming National Security Adviser Michael T. Flynn and many others say the U.S. and its allies can never win the war on terrorism if they fail to honestly call out the enemy by name.
“For eight years, the Obama administration sidestepped the issue of properly defining the threat against the West and its allies and used the nebulous term ‘violent extremists’ to describe our enemies,” said Bill Roggio, an editor of the Long War Journal at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington.
“The question is whether the incoming Trump administration will go too far to the extreme and define the war as one against Islam,” Mr. Roggio said in an interview this week. “This risks alienating some of our key allies in the Middle East and beyond, whose support is critical if we are going to defeat the global jihadist threat.”
While Arab powers, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, have officially congratulated Mr. Trump on his win, it remains to be seen how they respond to policies some of his key appointees ultimately push, especially if there is a more pointed line targeting Islam-inspired violence.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican and attorney general nominee, has backed Mr. Trump’s call for a temporary ban on Muslim immigrants to the U.S., and Rep. Mike Pompeo, Kansas Republican and CIA director nominee, has co-sponsored a bill to ban the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement whose followers include ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi.
Abu Omar, the nom de guerre of a Syrian fighter with the al Qaeda breakaway group Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, said jihadis once had to point to U.S. actions in the Palestinian territories, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan to make the case to their followers that Washington was engaged in a war with Islam. “Now all we have to do it turn to Trump’s Twitter account or turn to CNN,” he told the Christian Science Monitor.
Focus on Flynn
Much of the debate over radical Islam has centered on retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, the president-elect’s pick for national security adviser. Mr. Flynn, a former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, titled his recent book “The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies.” In the text and in his statements promoting the book, Mr. Flynn has been accused of insulting Islam in general.
“We’re in a war against a messianic mass movement of evil people, most of them inspired by a totalitarian ideology: radical Islam,” the ex-general wrote. In an August speech to the Ahavath Torah Congregation in Stoughton, Massachusetts, he referred to Islamism as equivalent to Nazism and fascism, a “vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people” that has to be “excised.”
One former high-level U.S. official told The Times on the condition of anonymity that Mr. Flynn’s statements on Islam have prompted discomfort and anger among more moderate candidates for other spots in Mr. Trump’s Cabinet.
Without question, Mr. Flynn’s posture has outraged some American Muslim leaders.
“[His] past Islamophobic statements, and his association with the nation’s most venomous anti-Muslim hate group, should disqualify him from serving in any public office,” Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told ABC News. CAIR has long had a voice in the debate over the term “radical Islam” and the extent to which the U.S. government should use the term.
“I call ‘radical Islam’ non-existent because radicalism or extremism is not permissible in Islam,” CAIR’s executive director and co-founder, Nihad Awad, wrote in an op-ed posted on the council’s website in March 2015. “Islam prohibits extremism and an essential part of the faith is moderation. A more accurate term might be ‘al Qaeda ideology.’”
Mr. Obama, meanwhile, lashed out at Republican critics over his refusal to use the term in June.
“What exactly would using this label would accomplish?” Mr. Obama asked. “What exactly would it change? Would it make [the Islamic State] less committed to trying to kill Americans? Would it bring in more allies? Is there a military strategy that is served by this? The answer is ‘none of the above.’ Calling a threat by a different name does not make it go away. This is a political distraction.
“The reason I am careful about how I describe this threat has nothing to do with political correctness and everything to do with actually defeating extremism,” he said. “Groups like [the Islamic State] and al Qaeda want to make this war a war between Islam and America, or between Islam and the West. They want to claim that they are the true leaders of over a billion Muslims around the world who reject their crazy notions.”
But many say Mr. Trump’s refusal to be politically correct has sparked a useful debate over the nature of the enemy that the U.S. and its allies face. Attacking “radical Islam,” they say, actually creates political space for more moderate believers to criticize the extremists while holding on to their faith.
“For two decades I have warned about the threats of radical Islam: to women, children, innocent civilians, civilized society, and to the free speech rights of people who dare to speak up,” Raheel Raza, a Toronto-based Muslim human rights activist, wrote in an op-ed published by USA Today in August.
“Now it’s time for Mr. Trump to step up and put moderate Muslims on stage, to amplify our voices and make our issues part of the conversation,” Ms. Raza wrote. “Because we moderate Muslims are the solution to the problem of radical Islam.”
Not all North American Muslims share her assertion. A biography at the end of the op-ed noted that Ms. Raza has been featured in films made by the Clarion Project, an advocacy organization that CAIR has described as “a shadowy nonprofit group distributing anti-Muslim propaganda films.”
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael T. McCaul, Texas Republican, argues that the next president “has got to start from square one by calling the threat what it is.”
“We cannot defeat an enemy we refuse to define, so the next commander in chief must make clear what this one didn’t: that we are at war with Islamist terrorists,” Mr. McCaul told The Washington Times before the election. He said the Obama administration made a mistake by saying the U.S. was fighting only a discrete group, al Qaeda, but the “reality is that we’re facing a global movement based on a hateful ideology.”