Because it’s easy, everyone’s favorite sport is often second-guessing US foreign policy and the Obama administration. These days, it’s over semantics. How do we label ISIS (or ISIL)? Are they “Islamic terrorists”? Are they “Islamists”? Or are they just violent extremists?
This labeling dilemma is causing much anguish, mostly among pundits of Western origin and/or leanings. In much of the Arabic speaking world, where people are most impacted by ISIS thuggery and violence, it was settled: piss off ISIS and use the pejorative Daesh.
But here, in the West, the removal of Islam from labels used by the Obama White House and the Department of State has turned into a political and journalistic crisis (see this article by Thomas Friedman, "Say It Like it Is"). After all, what would a news report look like without an adjective or a label to qualify this or that group? How else would “experts” be able to simplify matters to an audience they believe should be dumbed down and told to perceive things in binary fashion?
The Obama administration decided early on to deny violent groups that butcher in the name of religion any religious legitimacy. These groups may get it from their “warped” religious interpretations, but they ain’t getting it from this White House. So they have been relegated to the realm of “violent extremist” fringe groups that do not represent an otherwise “peaceful” religion.
Some disagree. They would rather see a connection made to Islam. Anything else is “denial”.
But this president has declared, as many presidents before him, including George W. Bush, that his beef is not with Islam. While Bush initially had allowed himself to use labels such as “Islamo-fascism”, Obama built on the progression of the later years of the Bush foreign policy and took religion completely out of it.
To understand this position, read this 2008 paper by Rashad Hussain, the new head of the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications.
First, rather than characterizing counterterrorism efforts as “freedom and democracy versus terrorist ideology,” policymakers should instead frame the battle of ideas as a conflict between terrorist elements in the Muslim world and Islam.
Second, policymakers should reject the use of language that provides a religious legitimization of terrorism such as “Islamic terrorism” and “Islamic extremist.” They should replace such terminology with more specific and descriptive terms such as “Al-Qaeda terrorism.”
Third, the United States should seek to build a broad and diverse coalition of partners, not limited to those who advocate Western-style democracy, and avoid creating a dichotomy between freedom and Islamic society. Such a coalition should incorporate those who may have political differences, so long as they reject terrorism.
This is much more than the “denial” that some accuse the administration of perpetrating against the world. It’s a communication strategy. Or strategic communications. It does not necessarily signify that the president does not understand the depth of the problem. But that there is more at stake in the counterterrorism effort than “naming” things.
Is ISIS connected to Islam? Sure. It’s a violent takfiri jihadist offshoot that blends several flavors of Salafism, Wahhabism and Islamism. Does this make them “Islamic extremism”?
That is not the point.
If your aim is to counter the ISIS narrative, what benefit do you gain by lumping murderers with all their estranged relatives? If your aim is to counter recruiting, you cannot prejudge and predict the actions of a person based on the predicted future path of his/her beliefs. But most importantly, you cannot label violent groups with the adjective they most cherish. You will lose the communication battle before you start dropping leaflets and bombs.
People in government and outside often whine about ISIS allegedly dominating the social media landscape. The communication strategy here is to reduce those killers to their essence: not Muslims who have strayed the path, but criminals who kill more Muslims than help any. This is not a bad strategy. After all, you are not only going up against ISIS, but also millions of opinions held by “peaceful” Muslims that ISIS is part of a US-Israeli led conspiracy against Islam. Taking Islam out of the “battle of ideas” might not restore sanity to Arab and Islamic discourse or “reform” the religion, but it at least won’t play by the rules of the maniacal extremists.
US “partners” in the region are seemingly doing the same, by openly calling ISIS Daesh and trying, through their state-funded religious scholars, to delegitimize the self-appointed caliph. Is there a degree of denial and incompetence there? Are they partly to blame for this mess? Of course. But their problem is a deep rooted one and an issue that we here in the US can certainly decry, but that is ultimately outside the scope of Obama’s counterterrorism strategy.
Obama has always sought to not go it alone. This has not always worked, of course, because interests do not always align and not all countries share the same sense of urgency. In this case, where the US role is great, the administration likely views it as foolish to pitch the battle against a movement of Islam that has roots in many of the same countries that the US needs to count on as war allies. Soon, we might have soldiers on the ground. These soldiers will have to work and rely on Arab soldiers, many are Muslim, and might even have Islamist or Salafist leanings. This may be why ISIS can never be completely uprooted. A long lasting “victory” is not a goal that can be achieved without serious political and religious reform undertaken by people in the region. The US jumping ahead of everyone else and launching their own simplistic labeling initiative certainly won’t help.
Some pundits tend to perceive what does not agree with their line of thinking as misguided or uninformed. In some cases they are right. In this case, I would caution against the hubris that is eating up the discussion.
Take Maajid Nawaz, someone whose opinions and experience I respect. His position is that we should distinguish between “Islam” and “Islamism”. He defines the latter as the “desire to impose” the former.
Nawaz called on Obama to make that distinction in public. Anything less, he argued, would amount to obfuscation and people continuing to confuse the religion with the extremist “Islamist” elements.
I don’t think things are quite as clear cut as Nawaz wants Obama to state them, and for that, adopting them as US public policy is problematic on many levels.
First, to lump all Islamists into one category, and not counting other currents that influence violent extremism such as Salafism, Wahhabism and their offshoots, is simplistic and dangerous. Nawaz is proposing an oversimplification that will paint a large number of people with one brush, and —if adopted as a communication policy— will alienate more people and potentially curtail reform within those very Islamist movements.
While I personally would not want to live under any kind of religion-based rule, it would be awfully presumptuous of me to impose my secular preferences upon people that might not want it.
That said, I think Nawaz, as a former Islamist, should continue with his campaign to bring awareness to people in his country of origin and other parts of the world about the dangers of extremism. But, and as I postulated above, I think it would be very misguided for the US president, in this current campaign, to follow this advice. I don’t think Obama’s alleged failure of naming Islamism is contributing to most people (in the West) confusing the extremist ideology with Islam. The last thing this president needs is gaining more enemies, or giving the non- violent Islamists more reasons to take up arms against the US.
But let's say Obama issued a statement identifying the enemy as "Islamic extremism" or as Nawaz says, “Islamism”.
You have many Arab partner nations and religious authorities saying that ISIS is “un-Islamic”. Why would the US feel the need to contradict its allies and issue a determination that ISIS is indeed, Islamic in nature? Religious labeling is a dangerous game, and it can cause more division abroad and at home, not to mention ignore facts about the religion itself that very few understand. Labels will not help you win a war that is partly fought through news reports and social media.
Similarly, if we simply identify them as Islamists, I really doubt that this administration will be able to explain this indefensible distinction. Islamism is not an all-inclusive term, and you cannot lump all extremists or heterodox elements under that label. It is not equivalent to Salafism, Wahhabism and the takfiri-jihadists types. As I mentioned above, ISIS is not a purely Islamist group, though some of its genealogy can be traced to Islamism. If you must define it, it is al-Qaeda on steroids, which itself is a blend of Abdallah Azzam's Salafism, Bin Laden’s Wahhabism, and al-Zawahiri’s Islamism. As AUB Professor Ahmad Moussalli wrote about al-Qaeda in 2009:
They represent the transformation of rather different contradictory Islamic trends into radical takfiri jihadism. Al-Qaida could only partially be understood as a production of the failure of moderate Islamism, official Wahhabism, and conservative Salafism in their established forms today along with Islamic traditionalism to bring about serious positive changes in the Muslim world’s political systems and way of life. Furthermore, takfiri jihadism has created a new front in the Muslim world’s encounters with the West. However, part of this front lies within the Muslim world itself, namely, the current political regimes, both religious and secular.
Many things are easier said than done, and this is one case where the issue is far too complex to be reduced into a labeling or naming problem. We are living in treacherous times, and who knows, this might lead to the awakening that the region needs. In the meantime, we do ourselves a great favor by not saying and doing “stupid stuff” that can backfire on us all. After all, what works in London or Washington, DC, does not work in Amman or Riyadh.