Sometimes we overlook the obvious. For weeks now, pundits and politicians have been raging over President Obama’s insistence that America is fighting “violent extremism” rather than “radical Islam.” Rudy Giuliani calls the president’s refusal to utter the ‘I’ word “cowardice.” The president’s backers defend it as a savvy refusal to give ISIS the religious war it desperately wants. But, for the most part, both sides agree that when Obama says “violent extremists” he actually means “violent Muslim extremists.” After all, my Atlantic colleague David Frum argues, “The Obama people, not being idiots, understand very well that international terrorism possesses an overwhelmingly Muslim character.”
But what if they don’t? What if Obama is using the term “violent extremism” rather than “radical Islam” not only because he doesn’t want to offend moderate Muslims, but because he’s also worried about violent extremists who aren’t Muslim? It sounds crazy, but it shouldn’t.
In his Wednesday speech to the Summit on Countering (you guessed it) Violent Extremism, Obama listed a series of terrorist attacks in the United States over the last two decades. Of the six he mentioned, only three (9/11, the 2009 murders at Fort Hood, and the Boston Marathon bombing) were committed by Muslims. The other three (the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the 2012 attack on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, and the 2014 shooting at a Kansas City-area Jewish Community Center) were not. (Obama also mentioned this month’s killing of three young Muslims in Chapel Hill, which may or may not have been terrorism.)
For Obama’s critics, and even some of his defenders, this is the president being “politically correct,” straining to prove that terrorists, and their victims, hail from every group and creed in order to avoid stigmatizing Muslims. But the president’s survey is fairly representative. Peruse the FBI’s database of terrorist attacks in the United States between 1980 and 2005 and you’ll see that radical Muslims account for a small percentage of them. Many more were committed by radical environmentalists, right-wing extremists, and Puerto Rican nationalists. To be sure, Muslims account for some of the most deadly incidents: the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, Egyptian immigrant Hesham Mohamed Ali Hedayat’s shooting spree at the El Al counter at LAX in 2002, and of course 9/11. But non-Muslims account (or at least appear to account) for some biggies too: the Unabomber, the Oklahoma City bombing, the explosions at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and the 2001 anthrax attacks.
If you look more recently, the story is much the same. Between 2006 and 2013, the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database (GTD) logged 14 terrorist incidents in the United States in which at least one person died. Of these, Muslims committed four: a 2006 attack on the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, a 2009 assault on a Little Rock recruiting station, the 2009 Fort Hood shooting, and the 2013 Boston Marathon attack (which the GTD counts as four separate incidents but I count as only one). Non-Muslims committed 10, including an attack on a Unitarian church in Knoxville in 2008, the murder of abortion doctor George Tiller in Wichita in 2009, the flying of a private plane into an IRS building in Austin in 2010, and the attack on the Sikh temple that same year.
Not all European terrorists are Muslim either. According to the Center for American Progress’s analysis of data from Europol, the European Union’s equivalent of the FBI, less than 2 percent of terrorist attacks in the EU between 2009 and 2013 were religiously inspired. Separatist or ultra-nationalist groups committed the majority of the violent acts. Of course, jihadists have perpetrated some of the most horrific attacks in Europe in recent memory: the 2004 Madrid train bombings, the 2005 attacks in the London subway, and, of course, last month’s murders at Charlie Hebdo and Hypercacher. But there have been gruesome attacks by non-Muslims too. Right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik’s 2011 assault on a summer camp near Oslo, for instance, killed far more people than the recent, awful attacks in France.
It’s likely true that in Europe, which boasts a larger and less integrated Muslim population than does the United States, jihadists comprise a growing share of the terrorist threat. But even there, “violent extremism” and “radical Islamic terrorism” are not synonyms. And they certainly aren’t in the United States, where there are fewer radicalized Muslims and no clear evidence that their terrorism is eclipsing other varieties. It’s true that when Americans picture terrorism on American soil they tend to picture violence by Muslims rather than by neo-Nazis, luddites, anti-IRS fanatics, or people who hate Sikhs. But that says as much about the American media as it does about American terrorism itself.
Why does this matter? Because the U.S. government has finite resources. If you assume, as conservatives tend to, that the only significant terrorist threat America faces comes from people with names like Mohammed and Ibrahim, then that’s where you’ll devote your time and money. If, on the other hand, you recognize that environmental lunatics and right-wing militia types kill Americans for political reasons too, you’ll spread the money around.
We’ve already seen the consequences of a disproportionate focus on jihadist terrorism. After 9/11, the Bush administration so dramatically shifted homeland-security resources toward stopping al-Qaeda that it left FEMA hideously unprepared to deal with an attack from Mother Nature, in the form of Hurricane Katrina. The Obama administration is wise to avoid that kind of overly narrow focus today. Of course it’s important to stop the next Nidal Malik Hasan or Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. But it’s also important to stop the next Timothy McVeigh or Wade Michael Page. And by calling the threat “violent extremism” rather than “radical Islam,” Obama tells the bureaucracy to work on that too.
Obama, after all, faces two overlapping but distinct challenges. One is an ideology: the totalitarian, even genocidal, vision espoused by ISIS. The second is a tactic: terrorism, which is available to people of all ideological stripes and which grows more dangerous as technology empowers individuals or groups to kill far more people far more quickly than they could have in ages past.
Instead of assuming that these threats are the same, we should be debating the relative danger of each. By using “violent extremism” rather than “radical Islam,” Obama is staking out a position in that argument. It’s a position with which reasonable people can disagree. But cowardice has nothing to do with it.