(RNS) When Sen. Ted Cruz announced his candidacy for president, the Texas Republican asked the audience at Liberty University to “imagine a president who says, ‘We will stand up and defeat radical Islamic terrorism … and we will call it by its name.’” The last part of that sentence was one of the strongest applause lines in Cruz’s speech.
My friends on the left don’t understand why calling Islamic terrorism “by its name” is such a big deal to conservatives. They see the president’s unwillingness to link “Islam” and “terrorism” as a matter of prudence. After all, George W. Bush also went out of his way to differentiate between the two.
Why should President Obama dignify the barbarism of terrorists by sullying the name of Islam, they ask.
Why should the extremists be allowed to claim the name of Islam when the majority of Muslims disagree with their methods and aims?
Besides, we don’t want to incite fear or hatred of the peaceful Muslims in our midst.
Therefore, the thinking goes, the president’s calculated restraint in linking “Islamic” with “terrorism” deserves commendation, not criticism.
Not so fast, say conservatives. Obama has been too guarded in his rhetoric, causing many to wonder if we are underestimating the religious aspect of today’s terrorist threat.
Here are three reasons why conservatives want Obama to mention Islam by name.
1. Political correctness run amok. Criticism of another religion is “politically incorrect,” so some conservatives worry that we are unable to have an authentic and reasonable conversation about the religious motivation behind terrorism today. It seems laughable to debate whether we should refer to the “Islamic State” as “Islamic.” Many fear that our political correctness has run amok, to the point we look foolish.
2. The Islamic State’s theological foundations. In his article in The Atlantic, “What ISIS Really Wants,” which lays out the vision of the Islamic State, Graeme Wood quotes Maj. Gen. Michael K. Nagata, who says, “We have not defeated the idea. We do not even understand the idea.” Then, countering those who would separate ISIS from Islam, Wood writes: “The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. … (T)he religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.”
Whether or not you believe ISIS to be the inheritor of “true Islam” or a cruel distortion that is ravaging the world, there is no question that theology (and more specifically, eschatology — a radical Islamic understanding of the end times and ISIS’ role in it) lies at the heart of today’s terrorist activity. This is why, in January, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi spoke of the Islamic world as being “torn,” “destroyed,” and “being lost by our own hands” because peaceful Muslims are failing to confront the strain of Islamic thinking that has led to today’s crises. The U.S. president may speak of ISIS as “not Islamic” or describe the group as al-Qaida’s “JV team,” but the president of Egypt sees the civil war within Islam as an Islamic battle.
It may be that some leaders are willing to mention the Islamic roots of terrorism, but unable to see just how strong the theological foundations are.
People who consider themselves secular, or nonreligious, may have a harder time recognizing how theological and doctrinal considerations inform and inspire actions — sometimes for good, sometimes for bad.
When Obama recently spoke of ISIS’ appeal and success in gaining recruits, he blamed poverty and unemployment. Conservatives see this materialist explanation for the allure of ISIS as woefully naive. It doesn’t explain why some young people from the West find ISIS’ vision of the future compelling. It fails to recognize the spiritual yearning that secularism is unable to fulfill, the void that remains in a secular society, which some recruits now want to fill with a twisted sense of transcendence. Conservatives believe the president’s reticence to link radical Islam with terrorism is a misdiagnosis of the fundamental, worldview differences that have led to the crisis.
3. The need for forceful rhetoric. When speaking of the growing terrorist threats around the world, conservatives want Obama to sound like Winston Churchill, not Neville Chamberlain. Black-and-white, “us versus them” type speeches don’t play well with the liberal elite. They never have. Ronald Reagan was criticized for referring to the Soviet Union as “an evil empire,” but within a decade, Mr. Gorbachev did “tear down this wall.” As the dark regime of ISIS spreads, conservatives want to be reassured that Obama is as strongly committed to protecting the country as he is in staying in the bounds of political correctness.
(Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project and author of multiple books, including “Clear Winter Nights: A Journey Into Truth, Doubt and What Comes After.”)
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