Part of the rolling fallout from the terrorist attacks in France, aside from the desperately important matter of who attended a unity rally in Paris this weekend, is the newly-emerging narrative that the Obama administration "refuses" to refer to the motives for such attacks as "radical Islam." At Monday's White House daily briefing, Press Secretary Josh Earnest answered questions about the just-announced rescheduling of the White House Summit On Countering Violent Extremism, which, he explained, would include "all forms of violent extremism," but added that "the threat that we see from violent extremism in which individuals invoke the name of Islam" would be a "priority."
Fox News' Ed Henry was ready to pounce, asking Earnest "why wouldn’t you use the phrase right there, that we are going to take on Islamist extremism," and hitting him with several followups. Even after Earnest explained that there are other kinds of violent extremism in the world, and allowed that terrorist attacks in the name of Islam are still the horriblest, Henry still wanted to know why we couldn't just call all terrorism Islamic:
Earnest: She asked me what the summit would discuss, and all forms of violent extremism would be discussed, and obviously the most potent and certainly the most graphic display that we’ve seen in recent days is, again, motivated by those individuals that seek to invoke the name of Islam to carry out these violent attacks. And that’s certainly something that we want to work very hard to counter and mitigate, and we’ve got a strategy that we’ve been discussing for some time to exactly do that.
Henry: So if it’s the most potent form, according to you, of extremism, why isn’t the summit on countering Islamic extremism?
It was a bit bizarre, even for a Fox News reporter, to make such a self-evidently nonsensical demand, but it began to make a little more sense when I saw how they used the clip on Fox News' The Kelly File.
The clip was used to reinforce the theory of nameless "critics" who say that "the Obama administration refuses to recognize the real enemy, and call it what it is: radical Islam," and to lead into an interview with State Department Spokesperson Marie Harf, who, like Earnest, explained that yes, terrorists who use Islam are way, way worse than other kinds (that's the "recognizing" part), but that there are other kinds of terrorists. The objection isn't to a lack of recognition, but clearly to the precise word choice.
It might surprise Ed Henry and Martha MacCallum to know that someone pretty high up in the Obama administration actually hasused that exact phrase, as reported in a remarkably familiar setting:
"What you have seen in terms of radical Islam is an approach that says that any efforts to modernize, any efforts to provide basic human rights, any efforts to democratize are somehow anti-Islam. And I think that is absolutely wrong."
So, this isn't some kind of Arthur Fonzarelli-style affliction whereby the president is physically incapable of saying certain phrases, it's just a matter of preference. At Tuesday's briefing, Henry and NPR's Mara Liasson revisited the subject, and Earnest explained that preference a little more fully. First, though, he gave Henry several examples of violent extremism that weren't claimed in the name of Islam, again made the point that terrorists who do claim Islam are the worst, biggest problem, pointed out that they mostly kill Muslims, and pointed out how the Obama administration kills lots of terrorists who claim Islam:
"Right now, over the skies of Syria, there are military pilots representing Muslim-majority countries flying alongside American military pilots as they drop bombs on ISIL targets. And that is an indication that these violent extremists, who have sought to incite a religious war against Islam, have utterly failed."
Then, for some reason, Liasson went at Earnest for about five minutes, trying to get him to call it "radical Islam" like the "President of France" did, and Earnest fleshed out the reasons for the word choice a little bit more:
The short answer is, the White House is trying to use accurate, granular language in order to be accurate, and also to draw a clear line of separation between the religion of Islam and those who commit violence in the name of Islam. In every other respect but this one, the White House agrees with Fox News and NPR that those kinds of terrorists are the worst problem right now, so I would like to know what actual, practical, "strategic" difference it makes? This is not about strategy, it is about offense at the very notion that an effort would be made to avoid smearing the religion of Islam. That effort actually would be offensive if it were somehow inaccurate or injurious to the fight, but no one has made a convincing case that it is.
Not even the French president, who didn't say we were at war with "radical Islam." It was French Prime Minister Manuel Valls who was widely misquoted as having used that phrase, but that's not actually what he said. You don't need Rosetta Stone to hear the difference:
Oui, la France est en guerre contre le terrorisme, le djihadisme et l'islamisme radical.
That's "radical Islamism," not "radical Islam," and it refers to political Islam, not the personal religious practice of Islam. So, to review, Fox News and NPR have busted the Obama administration for not saying something they don't refuse to say, and for not going along with something that the president and/or prime minister of France didn't say, and which would not have been accurate to say in the first place. In the process, though, they revealed plenty about themselves.