The unspeakable: Who is brave enough to name the enemy?

Published December 21st, 2015 - 05:29 GMT
Republicans and Democrats alike have decided that Obama’s and Clinton’s unwillingness to use the phrase "radical Islam" is a sign of weakness and strategic incoherence. (AFP/File)
Republicans and Democrats alike have decided that Obama’s and Clinton’s unwillingness to use the phrase "radical Islam" is a sign of weakness and strategic incoherence. (AFP/File)

Radical Islamic terrorism. Apparently, the phrase – if you can actually say it – has mystical powers. At Tuesday’s Republican debate, the candidates once more took pains to point out that they would speak the dreaded words that President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton dare not. “We have a president who is unwilling to utter its name,” declared Ted Cruz in his opening statement. As it turns out, the first time I described the enemy as “radical Islam” was in a column I wrote days after 9/11. I used the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” in another column later that month. So, having established my credentials, I can honestly say it gives one absolutely nothing in the way of an answer or strategy to deal with terror attacks.

It’s not just Republicans who have decided that Obama’s and Clinton’s unwillingness to use this phrase is a sign of weakness and strategic incoherence. There is now a cottage industry of writers who boast routinely that they are brave enough to name the enemy.

Obama has often spoken about the problems of extremism in Islam. His 2014 speech to the United Nations General Assembly focused significantly on that topic, saying, “Today, it is violence within Muslim communities that has become the source of so much human misery ... It is time for the world – especially Muslim communities – to explicitly, forcefully, and consistently reject the ideology of organizations like Al-Qaeda and ISIL [Daesh].”

In his speech after the San Bernardino shootings, Obama again made some of these points, leading late-night comic Seth Meyers to quip, “So he used the words “radical,” “Islam,” and “terrorism,” he just didn’t use them in the right order. Which would be a problem if it was a spell and he was Harry Potter, but he’s not, so it isn’t.”

Obama and Clinton have chosen not to specifically and directly describe the enemy as “radical Islam” out of deference to the many Muslim countries and leaders who feel it gives the terrorists legitimacy. President George W. Bush was similarly careful in his rhetoric. For this reason, throughout the Middle East, ISIS is called “Daesh,” an acronym with a derogatory connotation, which the group dislikes being called.

Conservatives have discovered a newfound love for France after its president declared war after the Paris attacks. They might not have realized that Francois Hollande purposely declared war not on the Islamic State but on Daesh. His foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, explained: “I do not recommend using the term Islamic State because it blurs the lines between Islam, Muslims and Islamists. The Arabs call it ‘Daesh’ and I will be calling them the ‘Daesh cutthroats.’”

The best proof that calling radical Islam by its name provides no solutions is that the Republican candidates had none at Tuesday’s debate. After all the huffing and puffing, the most aggressive among them proposed more bombing, no-fly zones and arming the Kurds.

These are modest additions to Obama’s current strategy, each with its problems. More bombing has proved hard because there are many innocent civilians in Daesh strongholds. No-fly zones would require about 200 U.S. aircraft and would do almost nothing to stop the violence, which is all conducted on land and via helicopters (flying low enough so that they are not covered by a no-fly zone). Arming the Kurds directly would enrage the Iraqi and Turkish governments, as well as many of the Sunni tribes that would have to eventually occupy the lands that are liberated. These are judgment calls, not no-brainers.

Most important, however, fighting this terrorist group is not the same as fighting radical Islam. Strangely, after the Republican candidates boldly and correctly described the enemy as an ideology – which is much broader than one group – they spoke almost entirely about fighting that one group. Even if Daesh were defeated tomorrow, would that stop the next lone-wolf jihadi in New York or Paris or London? The San Bernardino killers appear to have been radicalized when the terror group barely existed.

The enemy is radical Islam, an ideology that has spread over the last four decades – for a variety of reasons – and now infects alienated young men and women from across the Muslim world. The fight against it must at core be against the ideology itself. And that can be done only by Muslims – they alone can purge their faith of this extremism.

After a slow start, there are now several important efforts underway, more than people realize. The West can help by encouraging these forces of reform, allying with them, and partnering in efforts to modernize their societies. But that is much less satisfying than hurling invectives, calling for bans on Muslims and advocating carpet-bombing.

By Fareed Zakaria

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