Shadow Government

What’s In a Name?

President Obama does not want to be seen as fighting a war against Islam. But he needn’t worry.


There is a new acronym in official Washington: CVE. It stands for “countering violent extremism.” The latter two words comprise the term that President Obama, and his spokespeople in the executive branch, insist on employing in place of Islamist terrorism, which accurately describes the plague that has been inflicted on Christians, Jews, Shia Muslims, and “insufficiently religious” Sunnis worldwide. Perhaps the administration feels that using the abbreviation will lead people away from a description that the president sees as pejorative. The term has already been picked up by European leaders, those brave souls who would prefer to avert their eyes as Vladimir Putin’s accomplices eviscerate Ukraine; as the Islamic State (IS) cleanses Iraq of Christians, Yazidis and Shias, and brutalizes Copts in Libya; as Boko Haram kidnaps, enslaves, and murders Christians in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa; or as Islamist sympathizers and copycats vandalize Jewish graves and assault and kill Jews in western Europe.

None of these developments have anything to do with Islam, according to President Obama. That IS, that most brutal of all extremists, insists on drawing upon the religion of its minions does not register with the White House. Nor is the president prepared to acknowledge that al Nusra, al Qaeda, al Shabab, Boko Haram, and, for that matter, the Taliban, all claim to be the true interpreters of Islam. Indeed, he deems them all un-Islamic, despite their assertions. It is difficult to understand whence he, a non-Muslim, derives the religious credentials that would allow him to render such a judgment.

The administration asserts that to call Islamist terrorism by its real name would give its various movements some sort of credibility with the vast majority of Muslims who do not share its beliefs, goals, or practices. It offers no basis for this assertion. On the contrary: it is conceivable that labeling these groups as Islamic extremists and terrorists will compel the silent Muslim majority — notably, the majority of Muslims have thus far remained silent, despite the brave voices of many of their leaders — to react against them.

The administration asserts that any linking of these animals to Islam will undermine the coalition that has been organized to fight them, because key members of the coalition are Muslim. Yet it is doubtful that President Sisi of Egypt, who ordered air strikes against the Libyan Islamists and has encouraged Egypt’s religious leaders to speak out against them, would grow more reticent because these groups were called Islamist. On the contrary, Sisi has confronted them on their own religious turf, as no non-Muslim could do, by mobilizing Egypt’s most prominent religious leaders to condemn IS, al Qaeda, and the rest, for violating Islam’s most basic precepts. Saudi Arabia, the cradle of Islam, has done much the same. King Abdullah of Jordan, a direct descendant of the prophet Muhammad, has not hesitated to strike at Islamist terrorists, regardless of how they are described, while the UAE, like Egypt, has resumed its own airstrikes against IS. Would they really stop because these “extremists” are called Islamists?

The administration asserts that it makes no difference what the terrorists are called. But if it makes no difference, why not call them what they are? If ever there was a lame attempt to cover up what is nothing less than pusillanimity, this is it.

One can only conclude that the president and his administration consider the predations of the Islamists as no worse than outrages committed by Christian or Jewish or Hindu or Buddhist extremists. In fact, the president has virtually said as much, both in the recent prayer breakfast and again at the current conference dedicated to fighting — what else? — violent extremism. The extremists of all these religions combined are fewer in number than the aggregate of all Islamist terrorists worldwide, however. None have created a state. None go about enslaving, kidnapping, or systematically beheading as a matter of policy. The comparison falls flat.

The president desperately does not want to be seen as fighting a war against Islam. He needn’t worry. The west is indeed at war, but with terrorists who hide behind the cover of Islam. The administration would do far better by calling them out for what they are, and to redouble its support for those Muslims who alone can tear away that cover, reveal these people as nothing more than murderous thugs, and employ their religious teachings to dissuade young people from swelling the ranks of those who would purvey terror in the name of the religion they have so viciously hijacked.

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images News

Dov Zakheim is the former Under Secretary of Defense.

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