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So What If ISIL Is a 'Muslim' Terror Group? Obama's Still Right Not to Use the Word

02/24/2015 12:53 pm ET | Updated Apr 26, 2015

Are ISIL and al-Qaeda and terrorist groups like them "Muslim"? In the simplest terms, of course they are, although it is more accurate to call them "Islamist," to differentiate them from mainstream Islam. They are groups made up of Muslims who claim Islam as their inspiration and cite Islamic teachings as justification for their actions. ISIL and al-Qaeda are Muslim in the same way that, for example, Scott Roeder, Eric Robert Rudolph, and others who have killed or targeted abortion providers based on their understanding of Christian teachings are Christian, or, more accurately, Christianist terrorists. The same goes for terrorists who act in the name of any religion.

More importantly, just as the overwhelming majority of Christians reject the violence committed in the name of their faith, the overwhelming majority of Muslims reject the violence committed by groups like ISIL. Muslim religious leaders and preachers in the U.S. have already been working hard to counter extremist religious messages designed to tempt young people to join ISIL.

Norwegian Muslims who vowed to create a "ring of peace" around a synagogue in Oslo this Saturday also show a very different side of Islam from that of ISIL. One young activist declared, "We can't let extremists spread their message on behalf of all the rest of us." Another who helped plan the event added, "If the jihadists want to use violence in the name of Islam, they must go through us Muslims first." Just as Roeder and Rudolph are Christianist terrorists even though they do not represent Christianity, ISIL and al-Qaeda are Islamist terrorists who do not represent Islam.

This brings us to the "controversy" over how President Obama characterizes these groups. The president has spoken on a number of occasions in recent months about the fight against ISIL -- both military and non-military in nature. In remarks at a White House summit on Wednesday, he declared:

[Violent extremism is] not unique to one group, or to one geography, or one period of time.

But we are here at this summit because of the urgent threat from groups like al-Qaeda and ISIL.

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Al-Qaeda and ISIL and groups like it are desperate for legitimacy. They try to portray themselves as religious leaders -- holy warriors in defense of Islam. ... They are not religious leaders. They're terrorists. And we are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.

Now, just as those of us outside Muslim communities need to reject the terrorist narrative that the West and Islam are in conflict, or modern life and Islam are in conflict, I also believe that Muslim communities have a responsibility as well. Al-Qaeda and ISIL do draw, selectively, from the Islamic texts. They do depend upon the misperception around the world that they speak in some fashion for people of the Muslim faith, that Islam is somehow inherently violent, that there is some sort of clash of civilizations.

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And to their credit, there are respected Muslim clerics and scholars not just here in the United States but around the world who push back on this twisted interpretation of their faith.

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So just as leaders like myself reject the notion that terrorists like ISIL genuinely represent Islam, Muslim leaders need to do more to discredit the notion that our nations are determined to suppress Islam, that there's an inherent clash in civilizations. Everybody has to speak up very clearly that no matter what the grievance, violence against innocents doesn't defend Islam or Muslims; it damages Islam and Muslims.

Can anyone reading or listening to these remarks truthfully claim that President Obama is denying a connection between ISIL and Islam, or that he doesn't understand the nature of the conflict? If "anyone" includes Republicans, well, I think you know the answer.

Let's make one thing clear: No matter how the president talks about ISIL, Republicans will find fault with it. Here's a list describing 10 things Republicans supported and/or proposed until Obama embraced them, at which point they ran away from them faster than Scott Walker does from a question asking whether he accepts the reality of evolution, or one asking whether he thinks Barack Obama loves his country.

On the matter of ISIL, Republicans slam the president for not using the exact words they want him to use, in the exact order in which they want him to use them. After the president spoke at Wednesday's event, Ted Cruz called him an "apologist" because he refused to characterize recent terrorist murders as acts of "radical Islamic terrorism." Look again at the above quotations and decide whether Obama is an apologist for ISIL.

Bill O'Reilly told us that "the holy war is here," directly opposing the president's attempt to say that we are not at war with Islam. O'Reilly lamented that "the president of United States will be the last one to acknowledge it." Apparently, if Obama would just parrot O'Reilly's line, then ISIL would simply blow away like a sand castle in a windstorm.

Then there was Rudy Giuliani, who really needs to refrain from discussing who loves what.

But O'Reilly, Giuliani, and Cruz are what they are. A more "serious" criticism came from Republican foreign policy veteran Peter Wehner, who worked for Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush and is now a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Wehner solemnly noted, "Self-deception is not a good idea in politics or international affairs. We're lying to ourselves, and the world knows it." Again, go look at Obama's remarks and decide whether he is under any self-deception about the connection between ISIL and Islam.

So is the president right to refuse to describe ISIL and al-Qaeda as "Islamic" or even "Islamist" even though that's what they are? Is he right to reject the use of any form of the word "Islamic" or "Muslim" to characterize them? You betcha. How can I say that? As I wrote about another political speech on race and policing given by FBI Director James Comey:

Let's begin with a truth that is both obvious and easy to forget. Speeches by politicians and government officials do not have telling the truth as their primary goal. That doesn't mean that they don't seek to tell the truth. Some do so while others, well, not so much. Rather than truth telling per se, political figures speak in order to make a specific impact. The question they ask themselves is: What information can I present, and -- most importantly -- what is the best way to present it in order to achieve my goal, to make the impact I want to make?

To paraphrase and apply the final sentence from that paragraph, President Obama had a very specific goal in mind for his speech, and that goal is to defeat ISIL by enlisting the support of Muslims worldwide against it. That's why he talked about ISIL the way he did, and that's why he's right to deny ISIL the legitimacy that would follow if he called them "Muslim" or "Islamic" or even "Islamist," no matter how accurate the terms may be.

Despite what Republicans are saying, the president isn't deceiving himself. He's fully aware of this entire debate and knows exactly what he's doing. Daniel Benjamin was the chief counterterrorism official at the State Department during the first three years of the Obama administration. Here's what he had to say, according to The New York Times:

"Our allies against ISIS in the region are out there every day saying, 'This is not Islam,'" said Mr. Benjamin, now at Dartmouth. "We don't want to undermine them. Any good it would do to trumpet 'Islamic radicalism' would be overwhelmed by the damage it would do to those relationships."

Would you like more evidence? A Washington Post article quotes from the late, not-lamented planner of the 9/11 attacks:

The al-Qaeda brand had become a problem, bin Laden explained, because Obama administration officials "have largely stopped using the phrase 'the war on terror' in the context of not wanting to provoke Muslims," and instead promoted a war against al-Qaeda.

I won't say that the president's Republican critics don't love America. I believe that they sincerely do. However, they are blinded by hatred of the president and by an arrogance that leads them to think that anything they can do to weaken him actually helps America. Few things in politics are truly clear-cut, but when it comes to our fight against ISIL and how our country should present it, Barack Obama couldn't be more right, and his critics couldn't be more wrong.