During the presidential campaign of 2008, then candidate Obama told us words matter. He was right, especially when it comes to providing a clear picture to the American people and the world concerning the nature and objectives of war and homeland security. Now the Obama Administration is updating the National Security Strategy of the United States and in doing so is removing any so-called "offensive" terminology concerning Islam in the hope it will win hearts and minds across the Muslim world. While outreach to the Muslim world is welcome, this particular act is a mistake that displaces facts for feelings.
The Obama Administration early on declared the term "War on Terror" inadequately described the nature and focus of the current conflict. This was a fair critique of the Bush Administration's vague use of language. The new Administration replaced War on Terror with "War against al-Qaeda," which is a more definitive description of the enemy and the nature of our engagement against it. However, it's not enough, and it's the next level of definition, answering who and what is al-Qaeda and why they are fighting us that the Administration now seeks to obfuscate.
In answering such questions there are three irrefutable facts. First, every member of al-Qaeda, regardless of race, gender or ethnicity is a Muslim. Second, the religious faith of those members serves as the ideological underpinning in their war against the U.S. and its allies. A simple reading of Usama bin Laden's 1996 and 1998 fatwas shows a movement steeped in religious doctrine and history, even if it is a perversion of such doctrine and history. Indeed, the vast majority of Muslims want no part of al-Qaeda's radical interpretation of their faith and the U.S. has said from the outset that we are not at war with Islam. Third, the terms radical Islam or Islamist terrorist were hardly part of the American lexicon in the 1990's or on September 11, 2001. Nonetheless, radical Islam spread and the U.S. was attacked on numerous occasions throughout that period with thousands of Americans killed.
The Obama Administration believes such terms as "radical Islam," "Islamist terrorism," and "militant Islam," etc. should be dropped because they are offensive to many in the Muslim world, which the U.S. clearly needs in its efforts to defeat al-Qaeda, its affiliates and the broader religious ideology upon which they are built. The offending terms have, at times, been replaced with such descriptors as "man caused disasters," "violent extremism," "isolated extremists," and "overseas contingency operations" each of which is meaningless in its attempt to adequately describe the events or people they seek to depict. They are also directly at odds with the Administration's goal of more precisely describing our struggle against a defined enemy.
The current Administration is not alone in its thinking. At the end of the Bush Administration in 2008, the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties issued a January report entitled Terminology to Define the Terrorists: Recommendations from American Muslims. In March of that year, the National Counter Terrorism Center released Words that Work and Words that Don't: A Guide for Counterterrorism Communication. Each document called for, among other things, substituting words such as "Islamic terrorist" and "global caliphate" with "violent extremists" and "global totalitarian state" in an effort to disassociate al-Qaeda from mainstream Islam and avoid offending the broader Muslim community by using derogatory words of a non-Islamic nature to describe al-Qaeda. However, an August report from U.S. Central Command, entitled Freedom of Speech in Jihad Analysis: Debunking the Myth of Offensive Words, systematically refuted both the NCTC and DHS findings and rightly concluded that "we should avoid readily accepting the notion that criticism or notice of an Islamic tenet, such as jihad, by the U.S. Government is tantamount to the demonization of all Muslims or Islam."
The reason the U.S. needs the Muslim world to defeat al-Qaeda is exactly the reason that referring to al-Qaeda in the context of its self pronounced religious basis is accurate. Indeed, neither the NCTC nor DHS report refutes this fact, but instead each asserts that by ignoring it we can better win hearts and minds. Would the U.S. need the Muslim world if al-Qaeda was a "Christian Militia?" Of course, few people feared offending Christians recently when the Michigan based Hutaree Christian Militia was disrupted by the FBI for plotting to kill police officers in the militia's religious war against the U.S. Nor does anyone flinch at the term "white supremacist" when describing neo-Nazis or other such groups. Should Christians and Caucasians demand an alteration of the language used to describe these groups given the vast majority of Christians and whites are neither in a militia nor racial supremacists?
Misleading ourselves and allies by blurring the definition of who we fight will not encourage others to support our cause as that cause will become incomprehensible to all involved. Imagine telling our military, intelligence and law enforcement agencies to be on the look out for "isolated violent extremists who may seek to engage in man caused disasters." How does one even begin to counter such an amorphous threat? Al-Qaeda is as much a movement as it is an organization and Muslims cannot discredit radical Islamists if such radicals and their views cannot be identified for discrediting.
Finally, there is a serious risk to distorting reality in the aim not to offend. It creates a politically correct climate that causes people to ignore the facts for fear of being branded a racist or bigot. Such forces were on direct display in the U.S. Army's handling of Major Nidal Malik Hasan. Neither the Army nor the FBI took any action against Hasan despite overwhelming evidence he had become radical and potentially violent based on his embracing radical Islam. In the end, Hasan shot and killed thirteen people at Fort Hood last year. Major Hasan had no doubt as to what he was doing or why. Just like the Islamist terrorists on-board United Flight 93 on 9/11, Hasan screamed "Allahu Akbar" meaning "God is greatest" as he began his massacre.
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