Obama's Nuanced Words on Islam: Timidity or Discretion?

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After eight years of Texas-style swagger in the White House—George W. Bush famously quipped that back home his strut was simply called “walking”—the American people chose as his replacement a cosmopolitan Democrat who rose to prominence for eschewing war and whose formative professional years were spent as a community organizer.

Much was made of Barack Obama’s pedigree, which includes mixed-race parentage and a stint in a Muslim school as a boy in Indonesia, but his ethnicity and cultural background only begins to explain how different a choice Americans made in 2008. The man inaugurated as the 44th president and commander-in-chief had no management experience, the detached temperament of an outsider, and little familiarity with the U.S. military.

Yet, he inherited a war in Iraq that he’d opposed and one in Afghanistan that was stalemated. Not to mention a violent, worldwide movement to expand the most austere form of Sunni Islam at the point of a gun or a sword. This movement hates Jews, Shia Muslims, the House of Saud, Western education, Russia, and the United States of America, not necessarily in that order. And President Obama doesn’t even want to talk about it—at least that’s the rap against him.

“This is a president,” notes conservative commentator Bernard Goldberg, “who won’t even acknowledge that the Islamic state is … Islamic.”

This criticism is literally true: The president has said that ISIS, which kills in the name of Mohammed, “is not Islamic.” That doesn’t mean he doesn’t know what the first “I” in ISIS stands for. It means he’s appealing to the rest of the Muslim world not to follow ISIS, but instead to listen to what Abraham Lincoln called their “better angels.” In this regard Obama is echoing his predecessor.

“We are not at war with Islam,” Obama said at a White House conference on combating “violent extremism.” “We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.” After 9/11, Bush put it this way: “The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself."

Whether effective or not, there is a rationale behind such talk. So why does Obama get so much more grief than Bush? Part of the answer is partisanship. The bigger part is that Obama’s rhetoric veers from diplomacy into farce.

After Nidal Hasan, a radicalized Muslim U.S. Army officer who was in communication with al-Qaeda militants, murdered 13 fellow soldiers while yelling “God is Great!” in Arabic, the Obama administration classified the attack as “workplace violence” instead of terrorism. (This distinction matters to the victims and their families—those shot weren’t even awarded Purple Hearts. “Betrayed is a good word,” said policewoman Kimberly Munley, one of those who stopped Hasan.)

In response to last month’s Charlie Hebdo attacks, neither Obama nor Vice President Joe Biden linked arms with 44 world leaders who marched in solidarity for the freedom of expression. This reluctance cast in a new light Obama’s 2012 speech to the United Nations in which he paired condemnation of Holocaust denial with anti-Islamic blasphemy. The future, Obama said then, does “not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam.”

In recent remarks at a National Prayer breakfast, Obama irritated many Americans by equating 21st century Islamic terrorism with Christian aggression during the Crusades, but even then he pulled his punches went it came to Islam. As writer David Frum noted, the fuss over Obama’s observation that those in the Middle Ages “committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ” obscured something even more remarkable in the speech, which is that there was no bookend reference to “terrible deeds in the name of Islam.”

“Instead,” Frum wrote, “in every place where the word ‘Islam’ might have been expected, the word ‘religion’ was substituted.” 

In a recent interview with a friendly journalist, Obama also characterized the attack on a kosher deli in Paris by a co-conspirator of the Charlie Hebdo murderers as a crime in which zealots “randomly shoot a bunch of folks at a deli in Paris.”

Actually, there was nothing random about it, as the terrorist himself told journalists. “I have 16 hostages and I have killed four,” he said before French police stormed the store. “I targeted them because they were Jewish.”

Perhaps the most absurd example of this refusal to accurately characterize the motivations of the jihadists or the identifies of their victims came last week when White House press secretary Josh Earnest, reading from an approved script, termed the 21 Coptic Christians beheaded by ISIS in Libya “Egyptian citizens.”

This was true, but odd. Asked to explain such stubbornness on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” former Bush 43 communications chief Nicole Wallace shrugged and said she didn’t know. She noted that liberal media outlets and politicians had no trouble identifying the victims properly, adding that the administration was “more politically correct” than the New York Times and European socialists.

Yet the Bush administration was also chary in describing Islamic terrorism. George W. Bush repeatedly termed Islam “a religion of peace,” which many Americans hope is true but wondered about in the days after 9/11. It was also Bush who named the conflict after a tactic, terming it the “War on Terror,” which is akin to calling World War II the “War on Panzers” or the “War on Kamikazes.”

Characterizing who Americans are fighting, and why, has always been a key part of the commander-in-chief’s job description. The nation’s first president, whose generalship helped create a country, understood that the words used to rally a country to war are important. Lacking speechwriters, General Washington relied on the words of others to inspire his soldiers and countrymen.

On July 9, 1776, Washington had Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence read to Continental Army troops who’d come from Boston to New York to defend the city. Six months later, as his men prepared to cross the Delaware River, Washington had Thomas Paine’s rousing new essay read aloud to them: “These are the times that try men’s souls,” it began.

The toughest such test came when the nation went to war with itself. Providentially, Americans had a president, perhaps the only one, who was up to the task. At his first and second inaugurations, Lincoln reminded the combatants that they were all Americans. “We are not enemies,” he said in the first inaugural address, “but friends.” Lincoln was looking into the future, and he proved prescient on this point, as have subsequent presidents.


“We have no quarrel with the German people,” Woodrow Wilson said in 1917. It’s a sentiment many of his successors—including both presidents named Bush—have repeated, nearly word for word whether the enemies were Germans, Japanese, Iraqis. This is the attitude our current president is going for, and Americans will follow him there. The problem is that if Obama is too careful, too worried about giving offense, too timid in confronting evil, both his countrymen and our enemies will conclude that he doesn’t fully understand the nature of the threat that engulfs the world—and is therefore unprepared to meet it. 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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