That phrase isn't "particularly helpful" to America's efforts to reach out to Muslim countries, said Hillary Clinton, who used the word "jihadists" instead. "I don't think the term is what's important," said Bernie Sanders. "I believe calling it what it is, which is to say, radical jihadis," said Martin O'Malley.
Afterward, their Republican rivals professed incredulity. "I don’t understand it," Marco Rubio said Sunday. "That would be like saying we weren't at war with Nazis because we were afraid to offend some Germans who may have been members of the Nazi party, but weren't violent." And Donald Trump chimed in in a tweet: "When will President Obama issue the words RADICAL ISLAMIC TERRORISM? He can't say it, and unless he will, the problem will not be solved!"
To many, both the GOP's apparent obsession with repeating this phrase like a mantra and the Democrats' apparent willingness to tie themselves into knots to avoid ever saying it might seem silly. It sure seems like a lot of fuss over language that seem unlikely to have much impact on the US's broader counterterrorism efforts and operations abroad.
But this is a serious strategic debate about how the US should communicate and define its objectives in the "war on terror," both internally and externally, that dates back more than a decade.
And it's not purely a partisan controversy — because throughout most of his presidency, George W. Bush was also reluctant to define the conflict in terms that emphasized religion.
How the controversy over Obama not saying "radical Islam" beganThe controversy over Obama's refusal to use the term "radical Islam" kicked off in January of this year after the Charlie Hebdo shootings. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls had said in a speech that the country was at war "against radical Islam." So at a White House press briefing days later, NPR's Mara Liasson asked why President Obama and his administration spokespeople had seemingly "bent over backward to not ever say that."
In a lengthy back-and-forth, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest confirmed that the administration was deliberately avoiding the term. He repeatedly made two main points — that the attackers' view of Islam was "distorted" and "deviant," and that most Muslims around the world condemn such attacks. Therefore, he said, the administration avoided using the term "because it does not accurately describe what happened."
Many conservatives found this exchange infuriating and bizarre — a borderline-Orwellian attempt to erase the religious element of the attackers' motivations that revealed a lack of understanding of why they are so dangerous. Ted Cruz called it "bizarre, politically correct doublespeak" that was "not befitting a commander in chief."
Since then, it's become common for Republican presidential candidates to criticize Obama for having "refused to mention radical Islam" (as Rubio put it in April). "As long as we have a Commander-in-Chief unwilling even to utter the words 'radical Islamic terrorism,' we will not have a concerted effort to defeat these radicals," Cruz said the morning after the latest Paris attacks.
But the criticism hasn't all been along partisan lines. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii criticized the White House for its apparent rhetorical dance, saying she was "upset" that the Obama wouldn't identify radical Islam as the threat. And Vox's Max Fisher argued in February that while Obama "has correctly identified economic and political factors that give rise to extremism, he has appeared to downplay or outright deny an awkward but important fact: Religion plays an important role as well."
Obama thinks declaring a war against "radical Islam" could backfire and alienate potential Muslim alliesBut Obama's refusal to mention "radical Islam" isn't just, or even primarily, about political correctness. Instead, it's about strategy and the war of ideas — to effectively fight terrorism, Obama wants to win, or at least not fully alienate, "hearts and minds" in the Muslim world. And he thinks framing the conflict in religious terms would hurt that effort — a belief his predecessor George W. Bush had shared.
Obama explained this when CNN's Fareed Zakaria asked him about his word choice back in February. First, he reiterated that he thinks the extremist "element growing out of Muslim communities in certain parts of the world" has "perverted the religion." And he insisted again that "the overwhelming of majority of Muslims" in the world "don't even recognize" the extremists' views "as being Islam."
But he then pivoted to a different kind of argument.
I think that for us to be successful in fighting this scourge, it's very important for us to align ourselves with the 99.9 percent of Muslims who are looking for the same thing we're looking for — order, peace, prosperity. ... The Middle East and South Asia are sort of ground zero for us needing to win back hearts and minds, particularly when it comes to young people.
Not taking this into account, he said, would be doing ourselves "a disservice in this fight."
Translation: Obama thinks a presidential declaration of a war on "radical Islam" will just make the US more enemies, and will hurt its effort to discredit terrorist ideologies. Hillary Clinton made a similar point in this weekend's debate, saying that framing the conflict as a war on radical Islam is "not particularly helpful to make the case" to "Muslim countries."
Other commentators are even more explicit, pointing out that there are a whole lot of Muslims out there in the world who could conceivably be characterized as "radical Islamists" — the term is not exactly rigorously defined — but who are uninterested in attacking the West, and could in fact be valuable allies against terrorists. These include ordinary citizens as well as more organized Islamist groups and governments in countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
"The long war against radical Islamic terrorists requires at least the tacit support of many radical Muslims," Eli Lake, a Bloomberg View reporter popular among the hawkish right, wrote earlier this year. "Sadly, large pluralities of Muslims in countries allied with the U.S. in the war on terror disavow the tactics of terrorism but endorse the aims of radical Islam." So, Lake wrote, a presidential declaration of war on "radical Islam" would likely lead to "a world in which the U.S. stopped waging a global war on terror," due to loss of support from these Muslim allies.
This argument dates to the George W. Bush administrationThe bipartisan roots of this controversy date back to shortly after the 9/11 attacks — when the George W. Bush administration decided to declare a "global war on terror" and not a war against Islamic extremism or radicalism. The administration later rebranded it the "global struggle against violent extremism," again avoiding any words linked to Islam.
Indeed, Bush worked hard to avoid framing the conflict in religious terms, arguing that the attackers weren't true Muslims, just like Obama has been doing. "The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace," Bush said just days after 9/11.
Yet many conservative commentators back then thought the "war on terror" terminology left out an important element. They thought the conflict should be framed in more ideological terms. One blogger, Stephen Schwartz, popularized a new term, "Islamofascism," which soon spread on the right. In a later essay, Schwartz lumped together "the Wahhabis and their Pakistani and Egyptian counterparts," Hezbollah, and Iran as the true "Islamofascist" enemies of the US.
And some high-level members of the Bush administration agreed with the commentators.
"Saying we were in a war on terrorism was like saying we were in a war against bombers or we were waging a war on tanks," Bush's first defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, later griped in his memoir. "From the beginning, members of the administration worked gingerly around the obvious truth that our main enemies were Islamic extremists. I didn't think we could fight the crucial ideological aspect of the war if we were too wedded to political correctness to acknowledge the facts honestly."
After five years of the war on terror, Bush — perhaps feeling a need to address these criticisms from conservatives — responded to a failed plot to bomb airplanes in 2006 by declaring that "this nation is at war with Islamic fascists."
Unsurprisingly, there was an intense backlash. The term "offends the vast majority of moderate Muslims," Ahmed Younis of the Muslim Public Affairs Council told the BBC shortly after. "The use of the term casts a shadow upon Islam and bolsters the argument that there is a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West."
But the backlash wasn't only from Muslims. Even Karen Hughes, then in charge of Bush's State Department's outreach to the Muslim world, said she preferred not to "use religious terms" because of how they were likely to be interpreted abroad.
Bush avoided the term afterward. It seemed that the problems caused by a US president using the word "Islamic" negatively — even when it was paired with the term "fascists" — didn't outweigh whatever gains it brought.
The real debate: Is the US at war with an Islamic ideology or not?There's certainly a political aspect to the GOP presidential candidates' loud and proud insistence that we're at war with "radical Islam" and that, unlike the feckless President Obama, they aren't afraid to say it. They could well care more about appealing to their party's primary voters — including some who are suspicious and fearful of Muslims — than about winning Muslim hearts and minds abroad.
But lurking beneath all this is an even broader debate: Is the US, in fact, at war with an ideology that is inherently linked to Islam — something that could be called "radical Islam" or "Islamofacism?" Put another way, are groups like ISIS intrinsically Islamic in a way that makes it both correct and necessary to label them as such?
Scholars who study ISIS generally say the group is indeed, in at least some ways, linked to Islam. But they are also quick to point out that this does not mean that Islam itself, much less all Muslims, are in any way to blame for the group, nor that this makes Muslims — who are by and large ISIS's most numerous victims — a threat.
But that sort of nuance is not easy to convey in politics, and politicians understandably worry that it is easier to overstate the links to Islam in a way that would backfire strategically and exacerbate Islamophobia in the US.
It also risks exacerbating very real fears in the Middle East and other Muslim communities that the US is at war with Islam. Obama thus fears that denouncing "radical Islam" risks playing into the terrorists' hands by making the conflict seem more like a holy war, to no apparent gain. "Those of us outside Muslim communities need to reject the terrorist narrative that the West and Islam are in conflict, or modern life and Islam are in conflict," he said in February.
Yet many conservatives see an effort to downplay ISIS's ideology as disingenuous or naive, an affirmation of their concern that the Obama administration does not understand its enemy or take it seriously enough. Many also see the conflict in more ideological or even apocalyptic terms. Sen. Lindsey Graham, for instance, argues that "Radical Islam is motivated by a religious doctrine that requires them to purify their religion. They can’t be accommodated or appeased."
And then there's Marco Rubio, who's now viewed by some savvy commentators as the likely GOP nominee. After the Paris attacks, Rubio released a video in which he argued that "what we're in now is a civilizational conflict with radical Islam." It is, he said a "clash of civilizations." Whether this is just campaign trail rhetoric, or Rubio's genuine belief, we don't yet know.