Richter: Why Obama won’t say ‘Islamic terrorists’

Frank Richter

President Barack Obama does not refer to al-Qaida or Islamic State terrorists as “Islamic radicals.” His critics contend that the president avoids such language because of political correctness. Some say it is because he spent much of his childhood growing up in Muslim Indonesia and that he sympathizes with Islam. Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor, in discussing how the president talks about terrorism, claimed that Obama doesn’t love America.

In the language debate over the use of the word “Islamic,” there is something that the president’s critics are not telling us. Like Obama, many world leaders today are also reassessing their knee-jerk use of the term “Islamic” in referring to Islamic State or al-Qaida.

Germany’s Angela Merkel recently exclaimed that the Islamic State’s use of the term “Islamic” was blasphemy against a great religion. French president Francois Hollande, after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, said that France is at war with terrorism, not with Islam.

There is a debate going on among many world leaders over what language to use in characterizing terrorists who claim to act in the name of Islam. British Prime Minister David Cameron still uses the term “Islamic” to describe terrorists who profess to be observant Muslim yet kill innocents.

Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, never misses an opportunity to use the term Islamic terrorist to link America’s enemy, al-Qaida, with Israel’s enemies — Hamas and Hezbollah. For Netanyahu the term “Islamic” is politically correct because Israel’s Muslim citizens are excluded from cabinet positions in Israeli governments.

Both Britain’s Cameron and Israel’s Netanyahu lead conservative parties in coalition governments. Muslim populations, 20 percent in Israel and 4 percent in Britain, are considered by some to be the natural political enemies of the Tory and Likud governments. Both Netanyahu and Cameron are facing elections (Israel, March 17; and Britain, May 7). The use of the term “Islamic” by party leaders may even strengthen their partisan base.

Terrorism experts, Muslim leaders and Islamic scholars have all begun to tell these world leaders that al-Qaida and Islamic State have an existential need to be called Islamic. That kind of language used by Western leaders serves to legitimize the terrorists’ twisted version of Islam. Al-Qaida and Islamic State leaders desperately want to ignite an anti-Islamic backlash by European and Americans against the millions of Muslim minorities living as their neighbors in the West. Al-Qaida’s Zawahiri and the Islamic State’s al Baghdadi believe that such a backlash would spur recruitment of local Muslims in Western countries to become jihadist lone wolves. That is the militants’ latest strategy.

Even Russia President Vladimir Putin is now reluctant to call terrorists in Chechnya “Islamic.” Moscow alone contains as many as 4 million Muslims. Putin knows that using that kind of inflammatory language could encourage Orthodox Christian Russians to react violently against their Muslim neighbors living in Russian cities.

Western intelligence agencies must defend against lone-wolf terror attacks on the homeland by developing reliable informants within their Muslim minority communities. A relationship of trust between local Muslim leaders and police agencies is essential. Infuriating local Muslim imams by continually labeling as Islamic those terrorist acts committed by mass murderers masquerading as Muslims is not the way to establish trust.

Refusing to use the term “Islamic terrorist” is not political correctness. It’s not just being polite. It is the smart thing to do — if you want to defeat the latest terrorist strategy of both al-Qaida and Islamic State.

Frank Richter was an adviser on terrorism for the embassy of Saudi Arabia from 2003-06.