Weiss’s concerns did not imply the need for any great progressive concession—merely describing people like Sam Harris accurately would suffice to address them.
Yet they were met with anger and mockery.
Among the many dismissive retorts:
- “Anyone who moves further right bc they’re called alt-right was headed there anyway.”
- “I remember when conservatives called themselves the party of personal reaponsibilty. Now they’re the party of ‘Its your fault somehow that I choose to be human garbage.’”
- “‘If the left would just stop being so left, then the right wouldn’t feel the need to be so right’ is a SWELTERING take”
- “I get that logic. Someone once insulted me in grade school by saying I waddle like a penguin. Now I’ve spent the last 15 years of my life naked in the Antarctic, plunging into the icy depths to catch fish, and warming eggs underneath my crotch everyday.”
An observer could be forgiven for supposing that the progressive left has always rejected the notion that promiscuous labeling can push people toward extremism. Yet progressives have long championed a variation on that same position.
Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, most progressives have argued that it is counterproductive to label violent extremism by groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS as “Muslim” or “Islamic” or “Islamist” terrorism, despite the professed beliefs of its perpetrators, in part because doing so would make it easier for terror groups to gain converts and harder for us to win over moderate Muslims.
The Atlantic’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, summarized President Obama’s thinking on the matter after interviewing him. Obama took “a view opposite to that of Donald Trump: Bringing Islam itself to the forefront of the conversation about terrorism would create a backlash in the Muslim world that would do real harm to the armed anti-terrorism campaigns he was then leading.” Obama told him, “I do not persuade peaceful, tolerant Muslims to engage in that debate if I’m not sensitive to their concern that they are being tagged with a broad brush.” Obama’s supporters did not scoff.
After the San Bernardino attack, Obama said, “We cannot turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam. If we’re to succeed in defeating terrorism, we must enlist Muslim communities as some of our strongest allies, rather than push them away through suspicion and hate.” Progressives did not dismissively retort, Let’s be real, Obama, if the phrase ‘Islamic terrorism’ pushes them toward hate, they were already headed that way.
When New York magazine wrote about Obama’s approach and its critics, it cast those who believed that careful rhetoric could help reduce extremism at the margins as operating within an expert consensus, unlike their Republican detractors:
Presidents Obama and George W. Bush sought to keep terrorism and Islam separate in their rhetoric. Their assumption, which reflects the thinking of most counterterrorism experts, was that allowing the War on Terror to become confused with a war on Islam would hamper U.S. counterterrorism, both because such rhetoric would echo and aid the propaganda and recruitment efforts of jihadist groups and because U.S. counterterrorism efforts so often rely on alliances with Muslims and Muslim-led governments around the world.
On the other side, Republicans have argued that disconnecting terrorism and Islam signals an unwillingness to recognize the real threat of terrorism, though it’s never been totally clear how the alternative rhetoric would actually improve U.S. counterterrorism efforts.
Vox published a lengthy article by Emile Nakhleh, a former director of the CIA’s Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program, who explained that the aim of his colleagues was “to distinguish between radicals and extremists and the vast majority of mainstream Muslims, and to make sure the latter understood that we were not lumping them in with the former.” Bush and Obama both “correctly judged that the term ‘radical Islam’ was divisive and adversarial,” he wrote, “and would alienate the very people we wanted to communicate with.”