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Obama attacks radical Islam and no one notices

His extremism summit speech hid the message in plain sight.

Islamic State flag
Islamic State flag

Islamic State flag

“Obama Tries to Split Religion from Terrorism at Summit,” declared the Bloomberg headline. “Much to the chagrin of Republicans and others,” lead the National Journal, he “avoided rhetorically tying the actions of the Islamic State to radical Islam, or Islamic extremists.”

Actually, that wasn’t the case. Obama used his extremism summit speech not to split religion from terrorism but to tie the actions of the Islamic State to radical Islam, in a way that went well beyond his predecessor’s anodyne “Islam is peace” rhetoric.

To be sure, he did indulge in a bit of the latter, which misled the media. “No religion is responsible for terrorism,” he said, as if “NRA” stood for National Religion Association. “People are responsible for violence and terrorism.”

But his point was precisely that the West is engaged in a war of ideas with radical anti-Western Islamic ideology. Let me quote the central paragraphs of the speech.

But if we are going to effectively isolate terrorists, if we’re going to address the challenge of their efforts to recruit our young people, if we’re going to lift up the voices of tolerance and pluralism within the Muslim community, then we’ve got to acknowledge that their job is made harder by a broader narrative that does exist in many Muslim communities around the world that suggests the West is at odds with Islam in some fashion.

The reality — which, again, many Muslim leaders have spoken to — is that there’s a strain of thought that doesn’t embrace ISIL’s tactics, doesn’t embrace violence, but does buy into the notion that the Muslim world has suffered historical grievances  — sometimes that’s accurate — does buy into the belief that so many of the ills in the Middle East flow from a history of colonialism or conspiracy; does buy into the idea that Islam is incompatible with modernity or tolerance, or that it’s been polluted by Western values.

So those beliefs exist.  In some communities around the world they are widespread.  And so it makes individuals — especially young people who already may be disaffected or alienated — more ripe for radicalization.  And so we’ve got to be able to talk honestly about those issues.  We’ve got to be much more clear about how we’re rejecting certain ideas.

I suppose that some of the President’s right-wing critics didn’t like this kind of talk because they also buy into the idea that Islam is incompatible with modernity and tolerance, and want to pump up the narrative that the West is at odds with Islam in a war of civilizations. Cleverly, Obama aimed his remarks at them too.

Last month journalist Eli Lake — no apologist for Obama foreign policy — wrote that American presidents have had to shy away from criticizing radical Islam by name because the “long war against radical Islamic terrorists requires at least the tacit support of many radical Muslims.” Continued Lake, in a column that the President might have cribbed for his speech:

Sadly, large pluralities of Muslims in countries allied with the U.S. in the war on terror disavow the tactics of terrorism but endorse the aims of radical Islam…

Given these popular attitudes, even the governments in the Muslim world most actively aiding in the fight against al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have to tread a fine line over fundamentalist religion, and Washington doesn’t want to make that task harder.

It’s possible to imagine a world in the future where American presidents would speak plainly about radical Islam. It would likely be a world in which the U.S. stopped waging a global war on terror.

This week, Obama spoke pretty plainly about radical Islam. The media just didn’t notice it.