President Obama does not have an easy line to walk when it comes to discussing Islamist extremism.
On the one hand, the US is at war with ISIS, an Islamist extremist group, which has murdered American citizens; it has been fighting al-Qaeda ever since it murdered thousands on September 11. Americans are understandably concerned and want to hear that their commander in chief understands the threat of Islamist extremism and takes it seriously.
On the other, Obama is clearly wary of worsening the wave of Islamophobia that ISIS has inspired in the US. Unduly emphasizing the role of religion could inspire more backlash against Muslims, of whom there are 2.6 million in the US. It could also indulge ISIS's view (also endorsed by some Americans, unfortunately) that the US is at war with Islam. Obama also surely wants to push against dangerous arguments, made by both ISIS and some prominent American voices, that ISIS represents true Islam.
Balancing these goals would be extraordinarily difficult for any president. George W. Bush struggled with it throughout his administration. But Obama is faltering. He has veered so far into downplaying Islamist extremism that he appears at times to refuse to acknowledge its existence at all, or has referred to it as violent extremism. While he has correctly identified economic and political factors that give rise to extremism, he has appeared to downplay or outright deny an awkward but important fact: religion plays an important role as well.
This is backfiring. Obama's conspicuous and often awkward attempts to sidestep the role of religion in Islamist extremism end up only drawing more attention to it. By refusing difficult questions about the role of religion in violent extremism, Obama is ceding those conversations to people like Bill O'Reilly, who has called Islam a "destructive force" and on Tuesday announced the US was in "a holy war."
If Obama wishes to guard against Islamophobia and to combat dangerous ideas like O'Reilly's, he should acknowledge that religion is indeed a factor in this violence. While ISIS's Islam is reviled and rejected by the overwhelming majority of Muslims, the group and others like it are at least in part an earnest religious phenomenon, motivated by not-wholly-inaccurate revivals of puritanical medieval Islam, as well as by more modern — but still Islamic — strains of political Islamism. It is important for Americans to see that, and to see that their president sees it.
Obama should honestly address the conversation about Islamist extremism that many Americans are already having. Ignoring this conversation will only make it worse.
Obama's awkward statements on Islam and ISIS
An honest reading of the Obama administration's policy response to ISIS makes it clear that the president understands that religion and religious devotion are playing a role in the rise of groups such as ISIS. His State Department, for example, is running a large, ambitious campaign, often in partnership with prominent Muslims, to counter ISIS's appeal. They are doing this in part by engaging Muslim communities with theological arguments against violent extremism. These policies only make sense if you see religion playing a significant role.
But that does not come through in Obama's statements. Part of the challenge is that, as president, he does not have the luxury of freely sharing his views. He has to consider the impact of his words, particularly in the context of an atmosphere in the US that is already primed for backlash against Muslims.
That background explains how Obama could give an entire speech on Islamist extremism, as he did at the White House's Wednesday summit on countering violent extremism, without once using the phrase "Islamist extremism" or any variation. Obama's only statements on Islam were to downplay its significance.
"No religion is responsible for terrorism. People are responsible for violence and terrorism," Obama said. He also mentioned, strangely, that America's first mosque was in North Dakota. "That's the story that extremists and terrorists don't want people to know."
"We have to confront squarely and honestly the twisted ideologies these people use to incite people to violence," Obama said. He then proceeded to conspicuously avoid exactly that.
Why downplaying Islamist extremism is damaging
To be clear, Obama is correct to argue, as he has repeatedly in this speech and in the past, that "we are not at war with Islam." He is correct to say that Muslims in the United States should not be punished with discrimination or profiling for ISIS's crimes. It's important for the president to say these things.
Obama is right to push against Islamophobic conflations of ISIS with all Muslims and to refute jihadist fantasies of a holy war between Islam and the West — both points Bush made repeatedly as well.
Still, it is possible to combat Islamophobia and ISIS's propaganda, while also honestly addressing religion's role in ISIS's ideology.
But Obama, by refusing to acknowledge that there is such a thing as Islamist extremism, has tied his own hands; he cannot draw a distinction between Islam and Islamist extremism if he pretends the latter does not exist. That has made it much harder for Americans to see where that line is for themselves. And it has left them to turn to hateful voices who are eager to argue that there is no line at all, or that the extremists represent far more Muslims than they actually do.
This has also opened the door to unnecessary and regrettable media controversies that end up filling the vacuum Obama's silence has left. For example, when State Department spokesperson Marie Harf said that the US could not "kill our way out of this war" and needed to address "root causes" of extremist radicalization, such as mass youth unemployment, she was making a point that was both correct and so obvious it should have been banal.
It would seem straightforward that having large numbers of unemployed, disenfranchised, angry, and confused young men would create conditions susceptible for extremist recruitment. The Bush administration had argued as much, treating democracy and prosperity in the Middle East as essential for curbing extremism's rise. But Harf's comment was treated as a "gaffe" and given a full day of media coverage, in part because the administration's refusal to acknowledge religion as a factor made it seem as if Harf were saying that unemployment and unemployment alone caused extremism.
To be fair to the Obama administration, the idea that ISIS and al-Qaeda are totally divorced from "real" Islam is one that the media — including me — have furthered as well. Motivated by a well-intentioned desire to curb Islamophobia, perhaps as well as a desire to undermine these groups' ideology, this media narrative is nonetheless analytically incomplete. Worse, it is condescending, by suggesting that readers cannot be trusted with the truth.
There is a small but telling irony that captures the awkwardness of Obama's statements. He has frequently argued, as Westerners often do, that ISIS is "un-Islamic." He is, without meaning to, indulging one of the classic tropes of jihadism: takfir, which roughly translates to excommunication, and is the practice of declaring someone a false Muslim for adhering to an improper interpretation of the faith. That Obama has adopted takfiri thinking shows the contortions he must make to avoid admitting that ISIS may in fact be driven in part by religion.
A conversation that Americans need to have
Discussing the role of Islam in the violent ideologies of ISIS and al-Qaeda is difficult. But it is still an important conversation for Americans to have: so that they can understand what the US is up against, and so that they can clearly see the distinctions that separate the terrorists from the global community of 1.6 billion overwhelmingly peaceful Muslims.
In a sign of how badly Americans want to have this conversation — and the degree to which even many of the US's best analysts have avoided the topic — a cover story in The Atlantic by Graeme Wood that finally discussed the role of Islam in ISIS has generated days of debate.
Part of the article was dedicated to countering the notion that Islam has nothing to do with ISIS. "The religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam," Wood writes.
Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn't actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it. We'll need to get acquainted with the Islamic State's intellectual genealogy if we are to react in a way that will not strengthen it, but instead help it self-immolate in its own excessive zeal.
There are many points in the article that merit debate, and it has in fact earned both praise and criticism from scholars, in no small amounts. For example, it edges dangerously close to endorsing the idea that ISIS's Islam is a truer form of Islam, when, of course, most religions have multiple contradictory interpretations, and centuries of history and literature to back each of them up. And while Wood is probably correct that Americans do not take the role of religion in ISIS's ideology seriously enough, it would likewise be dangerous to take ISIS's piety too seriously and risk giving their ideas about Islam more credence than they deserve.
Still, these are issues too complex to litigate in a single article or speech; the point is that we need to discuss them honestly, openly, and far removed from the dangerous and baseless tropes advanced by extremists and Islamophobes. That is a conversation that Obama is well positioned to, if perhaps not lead, then at least acknowledge. The longer that he refuses to, the more disservice he does to the causes of tolerance of understanding he wishes to promote.