Is Barack Hussein Obama wrong to avoid appending “Islamic,” “Muslim,” “Islamist,” or even “jihadist” to the terrorism that has struck the West with increasing ferocity since the 1990s? This question has at least two parts: Is the president historically correct to do this? And is he politically smart to do it?
The president could be a historical ignoramus and yet be strategically right to use the linguistic dodge. If Islam really is a faith that lends itself to hideous violence, does it do any good for a Christian American president, especially one with Muslim forebears, to censure Muslims for their failings? The American right is chock-full of folks who show Christian hubris when they highlight the Islamic world’s manifest problems. Intentionally or not, a presidential bully pulpit could egg them on. Michael Gerson, George W. Bush’s lead speechwriter, recently wrote in the Washington Post a defense of Obama’s and Bush’s appeals for an irenic interpretation of the Islamic faith. In Gerson’s view, an American president just can’t say unkind things about a religion with a billion-plus believers. Gerson may have overlooked Bush’s brief flirtation with—and sincere intellectual curiosity about using—“Islamofascist” to refer to jihadists, but his point is well taken: Bush finally decided not to use provocative, religiously laden language in public to refer to Muslim radicals.
Obama is doubtless well aware that the Islamic world has a particular problem with “violent extremism,” as are counterterrorist officials and analysts elsewhere in the government. Obama may personally be afflicted with a bad case of Edward Said Syndrome, a malady brought on by reading the late Columbia professor’s Orientalism at an impressionable age, which renders liberals incapable of seriously criticizing Muslims for fear of being seen as racist, imperialist, or inauthentic. But he nonetheless understands enough—as do lower-level officials in the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Central Intelligence Agency, who still target militant Muslims at home and abroad more assiduously than they target potentially violent Marxists and neo-Nazis. The president’s linguistic gymnastics probably don’t much affect the way the U.S. government operates; we haven’t returned to the Clinton years, when the FBI really did rein in its surveillance for fear of violating the civil liberties of even visiting Muslims.
To be sure, political correctness can intrude into how cops do their work. The massacre at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009 certainly suggested that the U.S. Army had allowed political correctness to deter a thorough assessment of Major Nidal Malik Hasan before he killed. Even so, domestic counterterrorism since 9/11 has remained a politically incorrect profession in the United States and Europe. The rise of the Islamic State, with its thousands of Western Muslims flocking to the cause, has guaranteed that disposition will continue.
The primary danger is that the president’s sensitivities about Islam may have prevented a more effective strategy for dealing with Muslim holy warriors overseas. Having the history wrong seldom conduces to sound foreign policy. Disconnecting rhetoric from history can easily lead to sloppy thinking and baleful action. As Bernard Lewis pointed out 25 years ago in the Atlantic Monthly, the roots of Muslim rage against the West are deep. What if being provocative were actually a good thing strategically? What if provocative rhetoric from Western officials could actually help bring into focus the all-critical internal discussion among faithful Muslims about “violent extremism”?
No one in his right mind would want an American president to encourage a clash of civilizations—to do an American version of the vituperations hurled at us by Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. If the Muslim Middle East is going to progress, democratic space will need to be made for people of faith to participate in politics. American words and actions that encourage the region’s secular generalissimos to pummel the politically religious, which is what Obama and his secretary of state have done in Egypt, can only intensify the anger that religious Muslims feel toward the United States without any lasting strategic gain for the West. We certainly don’t want Western officials on anti-Islam rants suggesting to Muslims that they must accept the latest Western values before they have any right to self-government.