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Rahim Kanani Headshot

Defining Terrorism Without Islam: Obama Versus Petraeus

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This war of words between President Obama and General Petraeus has profound implications on the U.S. counterterrorism strategy across the globe. Affecting high-level diplomatic discourse, to the way in which the entire U.S. military understands and defines the terrorist threat, to the policies and practices currently underway to engage America's enemies, the Obama Administration's new policy on defining the threat of terrorism as one devoid of any relation to Islam is directly at odds with the U.S. army's doctrine on counterinsurgency (COIN), a field manual written by the new Commanding General of Afghanistan, General David Petraeus.

President Obama's chief national security advisor for counterterrorism, John Brennan, recently revealed a new White House rhetorical policy regarding terrorism: detach all references made to Islam, including any statement that makes mention of al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or any other group. This marks a significant shift in defining the terrorist threat to the United States, and will likely contribute to the easing of tensions carved for nearly a decade between the West and the Islamic world, but is it a smart shift in policy or an ill-guided misunderstanding of the threat facing America?

Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Brennan stated that "describing our enemy in religious terms would lend credence to the lie propagated by al Qaeda and its affiliates to justify terrorism, that the United States is somehow at war against Islam. The reality, of course, is that we have never been and will never be at war with Islam. After all, Islam, like so many faiths, is part of America." Indeed, by characterising the threat as one of "Islamic insurgents," "Islamic extremists," and "Islamic subversives"-- phrases used in Gen. Petraeus' COIN field manual -- the immediate perception, and one that is rarely challenged intellectually in the public sphere, is that terrorism is inherently related to Islam. As a Muslim, reading such phrases at every turn for years, including others such as "Islamofacism," "Islamic radicalism," and "Islamic terrorism," to name a few more, I am very much aware of how such rhetoric can serve to alienate the more than 1.2 billion Muslims around the world. But at the same time, I believe the Obama Administration's new doctrine of removing any reference to "Islam" when defining the terrorist threat is also ill-conceived.

One can explain the relationship between al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other groups in the context of terrorism by clearly delineating the fact that the overwhelming majority of practicing Muslims worldwide do not preach or practice violence, and that those who engage in mass atrocities and the harming of innocents under the banner of Islam are acting in contradiction to core Islamic principles. It is important to state and restate this fact over and over again, as to continually address the majority of moderates respectfully; while, on the other hand, constantly cast those who perversely interpret Islamic teachings as inherently violent and vicious as cold-blooded killers -- pure and simple -- exploiting their otherwise illegitimate religious authority, which they use to target illiterate, uneducated, down and depressed vulnerable populations seeking a pure, devout and purposeful life. Sure, it's a longer and a more nuanced explanation of the terrorist threat, but simply dropping the religious reference fails to grasp the nature of how terrorists are recruited or the deeply religious motivations -- albeit misguided motivations -- driving a suicide bomber, among other areas of concern. In other words, removing the Islamic reference entirely from official U.S. rhetoric is almost as careless as prefacing everything terrorism-related with it.

A more genuine strategy to engage the Muslim world -- one of President Obama's top priorities since occupying the Oval Office -- would be to show a more grounded understanding of Islam in the public arena, and to explain the differences openly and continually between perverse interpretations of Islam, propagated to justify the killing of innocent civilians, and that of a moderate, tolerant and compassionate interpretation, one that is practiced domestically within American borders and around the world. Moreover, President Obama should constantly highlight al-Qaeda's war on Muslims, for based on a recent study conducted at West Point using strictly Arabic media sources, the terrorist group has killed far more Muslims than foreigners. Undercutting al-Qaeda's tongue, which targets the foreigner, from al-Qaeda's tactics, which have largely targeted innocent Muslims, is a distinction that should dominate U.S. rhetoric on terrorism.

This is an ideological battle of interpretation for which the ultimate referee is none other than God himself. And that being said, the West simply cannot wage a war of ideas with the Muslim world, when the solution to the struggle lies within the source of the conflict: it is the moderate Muslim world who must stand up against the few who are hijacking the religious pulse of the many. Indeed, as I've discussed before, local ideological moderation is the strongest weapon against local ideological extremism, and I believe that Western intelligence is well aware of this fact, but still insists on exercising an invisible hand. Moreover, in listening to the former head of Britain's MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, speak at the London School of Economics a few years ago about the terrorist threat facing the West, he too concluded that this is a problem within the Muslim world and that the Muslim world would ultimately solve it.

In an interview published in Time Magazine on December 23rd, 1998, Osama bin Laden said, "Hostility toward America is a religious duty, and we hope to be rewarded for it by God." With al-Qaeda's call to arms against the U.S. couched in Islamic teachings and Muslim identity, we must confront such wicked interpretation of Islam with intellectual and scholarly firepower, and not simply with bombs, bullets and body bags.

Cross-posted with RahimKanani.com