President Obama steps off Air Force One after arriving at Palm Spring International airport, on Feb. 14, 2015.

President Obama steps off Air Force One after arriving at Palm Spring International airport, on Feb. 14, 2015. Evan Vucci/AP

Why Obama Won't Talk About Islamic Terrorism

The refusal to acknowledge the aims of Islamic terrorism is central to the Obama administration’s fight against terrorism and violent extremism.

The Copenhagen gunman who took two lives this weekend knew exactly whom he wanted to kill. The free speech conference at a cafe in Copenhagen featured Lars Vilks, a Swedish cartoonist who has faced repeated attacks and threats on his life since he drew a satirical cartoon of Muhammad in 2007. The gunman fired perhaps 40 shots into the cafe, killing one person and wounding two police officers. Had he not been prevented from entering, he could have massacred dozens of people. The gunman then walked to a different part of town, 30 minutes away, where he attacked a synagogue in which a bat mitzvah was being held. Fifty children were moved into the synagogue basement; a volunteer guard was killed.

The attack mimicked the Charlie Hebdo atrocity in Paris in January—and has thereby revived a controversy over President Obama’s comments on that prior incident. Obama told Vox that Americans should be concerned about violent, vicious zealots who “randomly shoot a bunch of folks at a deli in Paris.”

Shooting up a kosher market does not seem a very random act, especially not when the killer himself told journalists: “"I have 16 hostages and I have killed four. I targeted them because they were Jewish.” Yet for almost a full day, spokespersons first for the White House and then the State Department defended the president’s choice of words:

MATT LEE, AP: Does the administration really believe that these—that the victims of this attack were—were not singled out because they were of a particular faith?

JEN PSAKI: Well, as you know, I believe if I remember the victims specifically, they were not all victims of one background or one nationality. So I think what they mean by that is, I don't know that they spoke to the targeting of the grocery store or that specifically, but the individuals who were impacted.

Journalists sympathetic to President Obama have ridiculed the controversy over those words as “Randomgate”—a contrived uproar with no larger meaning. Yes, they concede, the president chose his words poorly. Yes, spokespeople for the White House and State Department made things worse by defending the poor choice rather than straightforwardly confessing a pardonable verbal slip. But so what? As Jonathan Chait observed:

What makes this so bizarre is that it is not—or at least, was not—administration policy to deny the anti-Semitic character of the obviously anti-Semitic attack on Hyper Cache. In the wake of the attack, the State Department called it a “cowardly anti-Semitic assault.” A few weeks ago, an administration statement denounced “anti-Semitic attacks like the recent terrorist attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris.” Chief of Staff Denis McDonough called the attacks “the latest in a series of very troubling incidents in Europe and around the world that reflect a rising tide of anti-Semitism.” And the administration has spoken forcefully on the general trend of rising anti-Semitism in Europe.

Chait might have added that some of the most forceful condemnations of anti-Semitism have come from the president personally. President Obama has empathized with the traumas of Jewish history eloquently and often, not least in his 2011 address to the United Nations General Assembly: "The Jewish people carry the burden of centuries of exile and persecution, and fresh memories of knowing that six million people were killed simply because of who they are. Those are facts. They cannot be denied."

Matt Yglesias, the Vox journalist who elicited the “random” quotation, complains that by paying so much attention to a mere slip of the tongue, the Washington media punishes politicians for trifling errors—and denies itself access to more important news in the future:

This is the problem with gaffe-coverage: it's sound and fury, signifying nothing and leaving nothing behind. Worse, it distracts from more consequential, but complicated, debates. … Long-term, the problem here isn't just news consumers find themselves listening to bullshit gaffe stories. It's that politicians learn the same lessons over and over again: unscripted moments are dangerous and generally to be avoided. Don't give interviews and don't stray from talking points.

The media will bemoan lack of access and robotic, scripted answers. But it will also punish deviations from the script. And it will do so in the most trivial ways. No minds were changed during Randomgate, and nobody learned anything. A couple of spokespeople had a bad afternoon. Some websites (including this one) got some extra pageviews. And every politician learned to be that much more boring in the future.

I think all this is very wrong. President Obama’s choice of words in his Vox interview in no way constituted a gaffe. He spoke about the Charlie Hebdo attack in a way consistent with the way he has spoken in the past – and for reasons integral to his administration’s distinctive approach to terrorism. President Obama described the Paris attack as random not in order to conceal the Jewishness of the victims. He described the attack as random because, for deeply considered reasons, he did not wish to acknowledge the anti-Jewish ideology of the assailants.  

The Obama people, not being idiots, understand very well that international terrorism possesses an overwhelmingly Muslim character. In Europe, where attention is so focused now, the great majority of the most lethal terrorist incidents of the past 15 years have been carried out by people professing to act from Islamist motives. The huge effort made to deny this truth is its most ironic confirmation.

In dealing with this threat, the Obama administration has confronted a pair of difficult questions: What exactly is the nature of the threat? What are we trying to contain? This is a surprisingly difficult and contentious issue, and governments across the Western world have wrangled over it since 9/11.

One possible answer is that we are threatened by antidemocratic extremism, including religiously-motivated antidemocratic extremism. British Prime Minister David Cameron forcefully presented this view in a speech to the Munich security conference in 2011:

We have got to get to the root of the problem, and we need to be absolutely clear on where the origins of where these terrorist attacks lie.  That is the existence of an ideology, Islamist extremism.  We should be equally clear what we mean by this term, and we must distinguish it from Islam.  Islam is a religion observed peacefully and devoutly by over a billion people.  Islamist extremism is a political ideology supported by a minority.  At the furthest end are those who back terrorism to promote their ultimate goal: an entire Islamist realm, governed by an interpretation of Sharia.  Move along the spectrum, and you find people who may reject violence, but who accept various parts of the extremist worldview, including real hostility towards Western democracy and liberal values.

In Cameron’s view, violence is a symptom of a problem, but is not itself the problem.  The problem is the rejection of liberal values by a substantial number of recent immigrants to liberal societies, and by their children and grandchildren. Terrorism manifests that rejection, but even when terrorism is contained by effective police work, the challenge remains intact.

The Obama administration repudiates this view. The Obama administration believes the problem is violent extremism. Of course it’s wrong, in this view, to kill cartoonists who caricature Muhammad. But wishing such cartoons suppressed by non-violent means does not present a similarly-urgent threat. Indeed, those who wish such cartoons suppressed by means short of violence may be our best allies in the struggle against violence, precisely because they have the most credibility with the people who might otherwise turn to violence.   

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, who was then serving as deputy national security adviser, presented this point of view in a March 2011 speech to a gathering described by the New York Times as “interfaith but mostly Muslim":

We must resolve not to label someone as an extremist simply because of their opposition to the policies of the U.S. government or their strong religious beliefs. … Let’s resolve that efforts to protect communities against violent extremists must be led by those communities.

Indeed, warned McDonough, in order to empower Muslim communities to take the lead against violence, the government and the larger society must refrain from actions that alienate or offend community leaders.

Just as our words and deeds can either fuel or undermine violent extremism abroad, so too can they here at home.

We have a choice. We can choose to send a message to certain Americans that they are somehow “less American” because of their faith or how they look; that we see their entire community as a potential threat. … Or, we can make another choice. We can send the message that we’re all Americans.  That’s the message that the President conveyed last summer when he was discussing Muslim Americans serving in our military and the need to honor their service.  "Part of honoring their service, he said, “is making sure that they understand that we don’t differentiate between them and us.  It’s just us.”

McDonough’s words have led the way toward a new policy. The Obama administration has established an office within the FBI whose mission is “Countering Violent Extremism”—indeed, CVE has become a familiar acronym to all in the law-enforcement community. Last year, Lisa Monaco—the White House official who oversees the CVE effort—delivered a progress report in Boston.

We’ve built partnerships and expanded our engagement with communities across the nation, especially those that may be targeted by extremist groups.  We are working to improve our understanding of how and why people are drawn to violence.  And we have made it a priority to uphold and defend the qualities from which we draw strength—our openness, our diversity, and our respect for the equal rights of all Americans.

As part of the partnership-building, the Obama administration has opened its doors to foreign and domestic individuals and groups who might have been unwelcome in the prior administration, including supporters of the overthrown Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt. Tom Wolfe anatomized this line of thinking in his classic essay, Mau-Mauing the Flack Catchers:

The idea that the real leadership in the ghetto might be the gangs hung on with the poverty-youth-welfare establishment. It was considered a very sophisticated insight. The youth gangs weren't petty criminals ... there were "social bandits," primitive revolutionaries ... Of course, they were hidden from public view. That was why the true nature of ghetto leadership had eluded everyone for so long ... So the poverty professionals were always on the lookout for the bad-acting dudes who were the "real leaders," the "natural leaders," the "charismatic figures" in the ghetto jungle. These were the kind of people the social-welfare professionals in the Kennedy Administration had in mind when they planned the poverty program in the first place. It was a truly adventurous and experimental approach they had. Instead of handing out alms, which never seemed to change anything, they would encourage the people in the ghettos to organize. They would help them become powerful enough to force the Establishment to give them what they needed.

What began as a farcical element of the antipoverty programs of the 1960s, has ended in the tragedy of American national security policy in the 2010s.

Take a closer look for example at another much-discussed recent statement by President Obama about terrorism, his remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast. The president’s claim that “people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ” ignited a major ruckus. The fuss obscured something more remarkable in the speech, which is that there was no bookend reference to “terrible deeds in the name of Islam.” Instead, in every place where the word “Islam” might have been expected, the word “religion” was substituted. Thus, “we see a rising tide of anti-Semitism and hate crimes in Europe, so often perpetrated in the name of religion.” Thus, "we are summoned to push back against those who try to distort our religion—any religion—for their own nihilistic ends.” Thus, most strikingly, the insurgent group ISIL, referred to by its acronym alone, is condemned as a "a brutal, vicious death cult” that "carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism,” and does so “in the name of religion.”

When mention of the Islamic inspirations of terrorists becomes truly inescapable, administration spokespersons will emphatically insist that their actions do not represent the true Islam. At times, the president has baldly claimed that “ISIL is not Islamic.”  That locution soon collapsed of its own ludicrousness. As Graeme Wood details in his new cover story for The Atlantic, ISIL is nothing if not Islamic:

In fact, much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse.

President Obama has accordingly reformulated his denial that ISIL is Islamic to argue instead that it has somehow up-ended Islam, that ISIL’s terrorist have “perverted one of the world’s great”—and of course unnamed—“religions.”  Perhaps indeed they have done so. Yet it seems a strange use of authority for an American president to take it upon himself to determine which interpretations of Islam are orthodox and which are heretical. President Obama would be unlikely to venture an opinion as to whether Mormons are Christians or whether Lubavitcher Hasidim are correct to revere Menachem Mendel Schneerson as the Messiah.

In the mouths of less nimble speakers than the president, such as Attorney General Eric Holder, the refusal to accept any Islamic content to Islamic terrorism can collapse into comedy.

Michael Doran of the Brookings Institution reminds us of a revealing line from a profile of the Obama administration’s foreign policy decision making: “The thing we spent the most time on” was also the thing “we talked least about in public.” In that case, the “thing” was the project to achieve détente with Iran. But other projects also signal their importance by going undiscussed, and near the top of that list is the Obama administration’s distinctive counter-terrorism policy.

You see the impress of this policy in the Obama administration’s distance from, and discomfort with, the mourning for the slaughtered Charlie Hebdo satirists in France. You see it in Obama's twinned condemnations of anti-Islamic blasphemy and Holocaust denial at the United Nations in 2012, and in his declaration in that same speech that the future will “not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam.” It is this impress that we see again, so very clearly, in the otherwise-baffling claim that the post-Charlie Hebdo attack on the Hyper Cacher kosher market was “random.”

The dictionary tells us that a random event is one without definite aim, direction, rule or method. The refusal to acknowledge the aims and direction of Islamic terrorism is central to the Obama administration’s counter-terrorism policy. They don’t often defend that refusal, but they systematically and self-consciously practice it. They generally conceal its purposes and consequences in phrases that sound unexceptionable to those who, like most of us, listen only casually. And then, Obama's stray phrase in his Vox interview thrust the policy into the spotlight in a way that nobody could miss.

The interviewers at Vox didn’t fully appreciate what the president had said, when he said it. By their own telling, they still didn’t understand it even days after the event. But that’s no reason for the rest of us to emulate their unawareness. “Randomgate” is a real story that brings to light a central, urgently important, and massively under-discussed element of this administration’s national-security policy. It’s not receiving too much air-time, but rather, entirely too little.