This post was written last December amid the heated contest to be the Republican presidential nominee. Its original headline was "The Republican obsession with 'radical Islam' is a smokescreen for something else." We're resurfacing it now in light of Donald Trump's remarks in the aftermath of the mass shooting in Orlando. Trump, the GOP's presumptive nominee, has used the incident to point to the White House's supposed fecklessness and argued that Democrats, including President Obama, must invoke the phrase "radical Islamic terror." As a number of counter-terrorism experts explain below, this is not a particularly helpful or edifying exercise.
It has become a sort of mantra in the U.S. election cycle. When faced with questions of national security, Republican presidential candidates consistently harp on the importance of calling out "radical Islam" — something they believe the Obama administration and their Democratic opponents don't do.
"It sounds to me that the president is more interested in protecting the reputation of Islam than he is in protecting the American people from our very clear threat," Mike Huckabee said in response to President Obama's Oval Office speech on Sunday.
Obama had used the occasion to signal his determination to destroy the Islamic State militant group, but he also took pains to stress that this would not come at the expense of the country's Muslim communities, which have been placed under considerable scrutiny. Rights groups complain of a growing climate of Islamophobia.
"Let’s make sure we never forget what makes us exceptional," Obama said. "Let’s not forget that freedom is more powerful than fear."
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) seemed unmoved. "It is time for a dramatic shift in both foreign and national security policy," he said. “The recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino have further confirmed that radical Islamic terrorists are at war with the West.”
That line, in various forms, has been aired by virtually all the main GOP candidates. Last month, Sen. Marco Rubio likened Muslims to members of the Nazi Party and went on to frame the security threat as one linked directly to a whole religion.
"This is a clash of civilizations.... There is no middle ground on this. Either they win or we win. And we need to begin to take this seriously. These are individuals motivated by their faith," he said.
Language like this perplexes many experts who study the origins and tactics of the Islamic State, as well as the means to combat the extremist threat.
There are many valid, important debates to be had about the strategy to both safeguard the United States as well as counter the extremists. Critics of the Obama administration justifiably argue that it didn't take the danger posed by the Islamic State seriously enough in the early stages of the group's rise.
But that need not devolve into a debate over semantics.
"You don’t have to call it 'radical Islamic terrorism' to take it seriously," Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told WorldViews.
Officials in the White House, State Department and elsewhere are all undoubtedly aware of the complexity of Islamist movements and the fringes of the ideological spectrum that these extremists occupy.
"I’ve struggled to understand the fixation among some Republican candidates regarding this particular phrase," Hamid said. "It seems it should be relatively low on the list of things to focus on in the overall fight" against the Islamic State.
Part of the rhetorical move involves an attempt to cast Obama and rival Democrats as too soft and politically correct. The reticence of liberals and some Democrats to grandstand on the Islamist threat is a convenient wedge issue in an election year, aimed at harnessing widespread fears over jihadist infiltration and violence.
"I am willing to guess that political correctness is part of the reason some politicians have been so reluctant to use the phrase," writes Steven Cook, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "At the same time, given the stomach-turning Islamophobia that has become a feature of mainstream American politics, it is probably prudent not to abet a divisive discourse that pits citizens against each other."
Like clockwork, just a day after calling for a blanket ban on all Muslim arrivals in the country, Donald Trump defended his position by trotting out a very similar line on "radical Islamic terrorism" — ascribing to a population of about 1.6 billion people the actions of a radical few.
Our country is facing a major threat from radical Islamic terrorism. We better get very smart, and very tough, FAST, before it is too late!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 9, 2015
"The political right wants to make the argument that Islamist terrorism is connected in some meaningful way with the religion of Islam," said Will McCants, a scholar of militant Islam at Brookings and author of a recent, acclaimed book on the Islamic State.
But painting with such a broad brush — and embracing the phrase "radical Islamic terror" — delivers no real value in terms of practical policy. "Every bit of that phrase is analytically unhelpful," said McCants, who argues that it would be more productive to focus on the strains within Islam that gave rise to this form of radicalism.
"Is this the wine-drinking Islam of the poets? The court Islam of the caliph? What kind of Islam are you even talking about?" McCants asks. To be sure, it seems unlikely that any of the GOP candidates will be expounding on the specific effects of Wahhabism in the Middle East and elsewhere anytime soon.
Instead, the debate has led to a crude xenophobia becoming more mainstream. This has been promoted by figures such as Trump, but also more supposedly sober politicians, such as Jeb Bush, who proposed religion-based tests for Syrian refugees seeking haven in the United States.
"I can’t imagine it could be any more toxic, but then another week progresses, and it gets worse," said McCants, referring to the present state of discourse around Islam and Islamism.
The Republican fixation on semantics, said Michael Hanna, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, is less a bid to "express a precise articulation of the threat" than it is a means to "exaggerate and collectivize it." This has been borne out by Trump's demagoguery this week. His demonization of all Muslims has led to widespread domestic and international condemnation but doesn't appear to have harmed him in the polls.
"It’s not even dog whistle at this point," Hanna said. "They have moved past the need to conceal certain kinds of bigotry."
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