clock menu more-arrow no yes

I worked in the CIA under Bush. Obama is right to not say "radical Islam."

Avoiding the phrase isn't "politically correct." It's strategic.

Rudolph Giuliani speaks at the Republican National Convention, in July.
Rudolph Giuliani speaks at the Republican National Convention, in July.
Joe Raedle/Getty

The verbal attacks by the Republican nominee Donald Trump and his supporters on President Barack Obama for avoiding the phrase "radical Islam" in his public pronouncements are simplistic, racially inflammatory — and flatly misinformed.

The latest to level the charge is Rudolph Giuliani. Obama and Hillary Clinton, wrote the former New York mayor in USA Today, "ignore the reality that a worldwide terror campaign is being deliberately executed by the very people they refuse to define: radical Islamic terrorists." He termed this failure to name the enemy "a dereliction of duty." The piece appeared five days after a bomb injured 29 people in New York City, and the day after Ahmad Rahami was charged with deploying weapons of mass destruction in New York and New Jersey.

Settling upon accurate and strategically nuanced terms to describe the post-9/11 enemy is not the product of "a tyranny of political correctness" (as Giuliani put it) or a failure to understand the enemy's ideology and history (contra a much-discussed Atlantic cover story). Nor are objections to using overly broad terms like "Islamic radicalism" limited to Democrats. The Bush administration understood the power of words, too. It concluded that distinctions that may seem small to Christian-American ears make a big difference to the mainstream Muslims we need on our side.

When I directed the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the CIA in the early 2000s, I frequently interacted with senior Bush administration policymakers about how to engage Muslim communities and, when doing so, which words and phrases to use to best describe the radical ideology preached by al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. Always, the aim 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.

Like the Obama administration, the Bush administration correctly judged that the term "radical Islam" was divisive and adversarial, and would alienate the very people we wanted to communicate with.

Trump and those who echo his views must realize there is no such thing as one Islamic world or one Islamic ideology — or even one form of radicalism in the Muslim world. Many diverse ideological narratives characterize Muslim-majority and Muslim-minority countries and the 1.6 billion Muslims across the globe. To paint them all with the same broad brush of radicalism and extremism is absurd, dangerous, and politically self-serving.

Trump and those who share his views on this question may truly believe, as they insist when pressed, that "Islamic radicalism" describes only a subset of Muslims. But to Muslims, or for anyone familiar with the many strands of Islam, the phrase connotes a direct link between the mainstream of the Muslim faith and the violent acts of a few. What’s more, Trump appears to be recklessly pandering to the uninformed part of the American electorate that does believe in such a connection between the mainstream and the fringe.

Like the Obama administration, the Bush administration knew words matter

The project of choosing words carefully must begin with knowledge. Al-Qaeda, and more recently ISIS, have mostly drawn on the radical Sunni Wahhabi-Salafi ideology, which primarily emanates from Saudi Arabia. How to describe that narrow ideology to a broader audience was the focus of many conversations and briefings I attended after 9/11.

Many in the West, including some senior policymakers, have had only a scant knowledge of this type of ideology, which has wreaked deadly violence against Muslims and non-Muslims alike. I recall a conversation I had with a senior policymaker in which he asked me to explain "Wahhabism." Since he had very limited time, I told him, "Wahhabists are akin to Southern Baptists." That is: They read the holy text literally and are intolerant of other religious views. Wahhabists, like some Baptists, also abhor reasoning or "ijtihad" that would encourage them to question their religious brand. (Further complicating matters, Saudi Arabian officials, who generally embrace Wahhabi Salafism, describe those who use this ideology to justify their attacks on Saudi Arabia and other Muslim states as "deviants" from the faith.)

The roots of this radicalism go back to the Hanbali School of Jurisprudence, one of the four Schools in Sunni Islam, dating to the ninth century. Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, an 18th century Saudi theologian, adopted the teachings of the Hanbali School as the authentic teachings of Islam. This Saudi strain of Islam has been further radicalized by Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other Sunni terrorist groups. The other three, generally more liberal, schools are the Shafi’i, the Maliki, and the Hanafi — also named after their founders in the eighth and ninth centuries. Adherents of these more tolerant schools live across the wider Muslim world, from Morocco to Indonesia, from Turkey to South Asia.

Any terminology that the commander in chief of the United States settles on ought to reflect that we are speaking of Sunni-based radicalism — a strain that takes a particularly intolerant, exclusive, narrow-minded view of Islam and its relations with other Muslims and the non-Muslim world.

But there are at least two reasons why speaking of Wahhabism, while accurate, won’t fly in most public pronouncements: The word means little to the US domestic audience, and it could alienate Saudi Arabia, a complicated partner (to say the least) in anti-terror efforts. This is the one area in which the charge of "political correctness" carries some weight (although "political realism" may be a more reasonable way of describing the phenomenon).

Beyond ruling out "radical Islam" as overly broad, policymakers and advisors under both the Bush and Obama administrations have been careful not to accept the characterizations that violent extremists give to themselves, which inflate their role within their faith. That is why we don’t call them "jihadists" or, more obviously, "martyrs."

The decision to avoid "radical Islam" is a strategic one

In short, both the Bush and Obama administration officials have refrained from using "Islamic radicalism" and its variants not because of "political correctness" but because of their nuanced knowledge of the diversity of Islamic ideologies. The term doesn’t enhance anyone’s knowledge of the perpetrators of terrorism or of the societies that spawn them, and it might hurt us in the global war of ideas. Policymakers refer to members of al-Qaeda and ISIS as "hijackers" of their faith in order to signal their support for mainstream Islamic leaders in an alliance against minor radical offshoots, not because they are unaware that some members of al-Qaeda and ISIS are theologically "sophisticated" (or "very Islamic," as the Atlantic provocatively put it).

As our interest in Saudi Arabia’s oil wanes, some expect future administrations to take a tougher approach toward Saudi Arabia on the question of radical religious ideology. We may yet begin to hear talk of Wahhabi Salafism from a future White House.

But more likely, the next administration — I expect it will be the Clinton administration — will continue the policy the Bush administration began of referring to terrorists by the names of their organizations: Hezbollah, Ahl al-Bayt, the (Iranian) Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Quds Force, ISIS, and so on.

Using such terms avoids demonizing majorities of Sunni Muslims who just want to follow their faith, devoid of politics or activism. Simple terms like "terrorists," "killers," and "criminals" are also quite effective.

Emile Nakhleh, a retired senior intelligence service officer and former director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the CIA, is research professor at the University of New Mexico, and the author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World.


The Big Idea is Vox’s home for smart, scholarly excursions into the most important issues and ideas in politics, science, and culture — often written by outside contributors. If you have an idea for a piece, pitch us at thebigidea@vox.com.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.