President Obama on Tuesday offered one of his longest public explanations yet for why he doesn’t use the phrase “radical Islam” to describe the motivations of acts or perpetrators of terrorism—and a lengthy rebuke of the Republicans who argue he should.
“When exactly would using this label accomplish? What exactly would it change? Would it make ISIL less committed to trying to kill Americans? Would it bring in more allies? Is there a military strategy that is served by this?” Obama said in a speech from the Treasury Department, after a meeting with his national-security advisers. “The answer is none of the above.”
He added: “Not once has an adviser of mine said, ‘Man, if we really use that phrase, we’re going to turn this whole thing around.’”
The lecture was aimed at one Republican in particular, who Obama has also avoided referring to by name: Donald Trump.
Obama said he understands well the threat of extremists, regardless of what he calls them, and “so do the intelligence and law enforcement officers who spent countless hours disrupting plots and protecting all Americans, including politicians who tweet and appear on cable-news shows.”
Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has spent the last few days bashing Obama’s response to the rampage in Orlando that left 49 people dead, the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history. Trump criticized Obama for saying the suspected killer, Omar Mateen, was driven by “extremist ideology” and “perversions of Islam,” and not, as Trump and other Republicans call it, by radical Islam. If the United States can’t name its enemy, the conservative argument goes, it can’t defeat it. “We can’t afford to be politically correct anymore,” Trump said Sunday.
Obama has previously made thinly veiled digs at Trump, but he rarely speaks his name in public, referring to him instead as “the Republican nominee. “You know he seems to do a good job mentioning his own name,” Obama told PBS News earlier this month. “So, I figure, you know, I’ll let him do his advertising for him."
Obama’s critics say his unwillingness to use the phrase “radical Islam" is a sign the president does not understand the nature of the threat of ISIS. (Recall his description of ISIS as a “JV team” in January 2014, days after the group overran in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, which it still controls today.) But the president has sought to make a clear distinction between Islam, a religion of 1.6 billion people, and acts of terrorism carried about by a small group of extremists who follow radical interpretations of it. So did George W. Bush before him, who in 2002, just months before the Iraq invasion, said “ours is a war not against a religion, not against the Muslim faith. But ours is a war against individuals who absolutely hate what America stands for.” Obama argues that to place the actions of the Islamic State and other religious extremist groups in the context of Islam would provide those groups with legitimacy. He says the use of “radical Islam” frames the fight against ISIS as a war between the West and Islam, and risks alienating both Muslim Americans and Muslim nations considered allies. Obama doesn’t call ISIS by the name it prefers, instead using the acronym ISIL. “ISIL is not Islamic, and ISIL is certainly not a state,” he said in 2014.
Obama reiterated this rationale in his speech Tuesday. Groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda “want us to validate them by implying that they speak for those billion-plus people, that that they speak for Islam,” he said. “If we fall into the trap of painting all Muslims with a broad brush and imply that we are at war with an entire religion, then we are doing the terrorists’ work for them.”
Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, had largely echoed the White House’s rhetoric during her campaign—until this week. “Radical jihadist, radical Islamism, I think they mean the same thing,” Clinton said on NBC’s “Today” show Monday. “I’m happy to say either, but that’s not the point. All this talk and demagoguery and, you know, rhetoric is not going to solve the problem.”
Trump took credit for Clinton’s new terminology in a tweet Monday. At the time of this writing, Trump had not tweeted about Obama’s comments Tuesday.
For his part, Trump has delivered multiple responses to the Orlando shooting. In a Monday morning interview with Fox News, he appeared to suggest Obama was complicit in the mass shooting or may sympathize with Islamic extremists. “Look, we’re led by a man that either is not tough, not smart, or he’s got something else in mind … There’s something going on,” he said. Later that day, in a speech in New Hampshire Monday, he reiterated his call for an indefinite ban on Muslim immigration to the U.S. He encouraged law enforcement to form partnerships with American Muslim communities and accused them of sheltering terrorists—“they know what’s going on”—in almost the same breath. And he spoke of the LGBT individuals in a manner largely unheard of for Republican politicians, acknowledging their rights to “love who they want and express their identity.”
Obama has found some surprising allies in his latest rebuke of Trump: Republicans on Capitol Hill. Top Republicans, including U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, have reiterated their beliefs that barring Muslims from entering the U.S. is not a reasonable policy proposal. Republican lawmakers have condemned Trump’s reaction to the Orlando shooting, many of whom had hoped the nominee would use this time to comfort a reeling public rather than rile it—or at least give lawmakers a break from having to answer to their constituents for Trump’s inflammatory remarks.