On Islamic terror, words do matter

Yesterday, President Obama responded to years of criticism arguing that he refused to say "radical Islam" as an identity for America's enemy:

"What exactly would using this label accomplish?  What exactly would it change?  Would it make ISIL less committed to kill Americans?  Would it bring in more allies?  Is there a military strategy that is served by this?" he said.  "The answer is none of the above."

The president is convinced that the words "radical Islamist" do not matter and, in fact, continued to imply that their usage would give the terrorist what they want – which is the interpretive position of authority over more than one billion Muslims.  The president is mistaken and misguided to continue defending a refusal to use this terminology. 

It is possible to refine this term.  Radical may not as a term appropriate the authoritarian nature of this enemy.  A term such as "Islamic supremacist" might do better in conveying that there are some Muslims who seek to establish an absolute interpretive control over the second largest religion in the world by way of authoritarian violence.  An astute secular critic and former Muslim, Ayaan Hirsi Ali has suggested a distinction between "Medina Muslims" and "Mecca Muslims."  Ali is utilizing her in-depth knowledge of the Koran and Islamic teachings to highlight a key distinction in Koranic literature.  The Prophet Muhammad did offer the more benign methodologies of peace and moral suasion in the narratives bound in Mecca.  But in the Medina events, the narratives become battle stories, where violence is textually rooted and justified.  By highlighting this difference, the bold and endangered voice of Ali points to a path away from violence and toward peace while preserving the integrity of Muslim devotion to teachings of the Prophet. 

The president may feel he had to swallow a bitter bill Tuesday.  The tenor of his remarks seemed angry and retributive.  But this was indeed a necessary first step, and it must guide the other questions he asked about military strategy.  The president and FBI director Comey need to withdraw from their interpretive isolation on these questions and stop trying to reframe terrorism and acts of war as cultural failings of American citizens.

The Islamic supremacists who have attacked America again and again and again did so not because of a lack of gun control.   When the president again put his finger on the problem as he saw it Sunday – guns – he felt he was properly naming the problem.  He thought that was a first step in creating a solution: legislative limits on firearms purchases.  His ideological opponents also believe that naming the problem is a good first step.  Radical Islamist terrorism is the problem, and gun control legislation or refusing to name the enemy will not solve it.

The FBI director's statement that they were confused by the attacker's avowals about ISIS, the Boston bombing, and other Islamic supremacist attacks was disingenuous.  It makes the public nervous and angry about their leadership.  The president and his ideological comrades have concluded that the basic decency of mourning and reflecting on the value of  lives lost is not only pointless, but counterproductive.  It is now expected under the President's rhetorical example that the innocent victims of terrorism like the gay community decimated in Orlando should have their lives immediately commandeered in the service of a deliberative political agenda.  There simply is no time for moments of silence or commemoration as congressional Democrats walk out of a moment of silence for the victims of Orlando.  Prayer shaming is now a trendy neo-Jacobin concept for the 21st century. 

In one of the first presidential primary debates, Hillary Clinton was asked who her enemies were.  She paused and then laughed: "Republicans."  That was probably one of the more candid admissions we will get in this political season.  Who are your enemies, Mr. President?  Are they Republicans?  Are they the NRA?  Are they gun owners?  Is it Donald Trump?

It is understandable that Americans do not want to hear in such an outrageous act of war that is the Orlando massacre that they are the enemy.  Leading an entire nation, rather than a political party, is much more difficult than the more ideological task of a campaign.  In a world of 24-hour campaigning, even once elected, that patriotic duty may be easy to forget.  

Republicans, the NRA, gun owners, conservatives, and the American public are not the enemy.  They did not condone, encourage, or compel the murders of 49 innocent individuals at a gay night club in Orlando.  The horror of Orlando is a presidential moment, and one that should rise above partisan causes – even in an election year.  That is not what we have seen since Sunday morning from the president.  Words do matter.

Ben Voth is an associate professor of corporate communication and public affairs and director of debate at Southern Methodist University.  Voth is the author of Death as a Text:  The Rhetoric of Genocide, which analyzes the motivations and communication basis of crimes like those that happened in Orlando and around the world.

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