For several weeks now, I’ve been reporting on the growing narrative around the Obama administration’s strong preference not to use the term “radical Islam” in discussing terrorism (although the president has used the term himself). The president and his team have used every other combination of words to describe ISIS in exactly the same way that their critics do, with the exception of that phrase, which is a bridge too far for many. It has to be that phrase, or we are all going to die.
On my way into the White House on Wednesday, I heard perhaps the best explanation of the administration’s reasoning behind this, as Fox News White house correspondent Kevin Corke was doing a live hit from the North Lawn on the subject. His short but sweet reporting said it all (emphasis mine):
“Whether they say or not, or admit it or not, violent Islamic extremism really is at the crux of the issue here. I think it’s fair to say that the White House knows that, and we know they know that because they keep bending over backwards not to say it…
“I have been told by several White House officials it’s not that they’re unaware of what’s happening, it’s that they want to be careful not to create this us versus them narrative. All throughout the Middle East, and you probably know this, Bill, there is a false narrative that the Americans, that the U.S. is at war with Islam, and that is not the case and so the White House doesn’t want to give that more leg, so they will bend over backwards to avoid using that expression.”
Corke’s explanation is as succinct and convincing as any I’ve heard from the administration, and significant because he reported the false narrative of a war with Islam as fact, and not simply as one side of the story.
Later that day, \Obama would deliver his own version of that explanation, telling the crowd at the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism that we must never confer the legitimacy of religious leadership on terrorists. At Wednesday’s White House daily briefing, Press Secretary Josh Earnest told me that accomplishing those aims was well worth the flak and the noise over the term “radical Islam.”
After the summit Wednesday, I caught up with comedian Dean Obeidallah, a frequent cable news guest and columnist for The Daily Beast. Dean and I have been social media pals for a few years now, but this was our first IRL meeting. Aside from some joking around about the Secret Service taking his bag, what really stood out to me was the gratitude with which Dean spoke about the president’s remarks:
“President Obama’s comments were really especially helpful, because of the fact that Muslim Americans feel, right now, a sense of fear in America, that they feel a little bit under siege, they feel alone, and the President’s comments go a long way on that.
“I thought he was also very honest about the Muslim community, not so much in America but internationally, has to play a bigger role.”
You can see the rest of my interview with Dean in Monday’s Members Only column.
As frightening as ISIS is to us, Muslim Americans are keenly aware of how actions such as theirs can foment the kind of backlash that the President is trying to avoid, while also, as Obeidallah pointed out, giving the exact kind of “real talk” that real talkers like Bill Maher say is necessary. Too many people have been hurt already in the name of religious hatred, so if keeping the nuanced talk slightly louder than the real talk can help avoid any more, then it is worth it.