The Language Of Counterterrorism: Is Obama Striking The Right Tone?
President Obama has been careful about how he frames terrorist attacks and the fight against extremism. Some say he’s too careful.
The president has said he will not call the terrorists “radical Islamists” because it grants the groups “the religious legitimacy that they seek,” and helps push militant propaganda that the West is “at war with Islam.” He’s also refrained from using the term “war on terror.”
Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson speaks with two people who have examined President Obama’s language of counterterrorism: Columbia University professor of international affairs Stuart Gottlieb and UC Berkeley professor of linguistics George Lakoff.
How do you think Obama is doing when he talks about terrorism?
Gottlieb: “His tendency, and we saw it at G-20, is typical of the administration, to want to keep very calm language, and keep it toned down and not use rhetoric that they believe is inflammatory, such as “warfare” and ‘civilizational war.’ But on the other hand, using the term like ‘setback’ for the Paris attacks was particularly, I think, understated and received some criticism not just here in the United States but also in Europe and in France in particular… It was not of what he should have said; it said something about the strategy, because he believes the strategy fighting ISIS right now is pretty much a containment strategy, and if you can contain them in the Mideast you can slowly degrade and then destroy them. But Hollande, as you mentioned, referred specifically to warfare, and there’s going to be a meeting next week at the White House and Hollande, my understanding, is going to talk to President Obama about how the containment strategy is not working and there’ll be more setbacks in Hollande’s view if containment is the language of the strategy for this administration.”
Lakoff: “The language he’s using is one of adulthood and rationality. The issue of geographical containment is an issue of trying to keep people there, but he also said they’re trying to break it up. The question is, are you going to destroy the ability of ISIS or Daesh to control that area. That needs to be discussed. Destroying the possibility of a state on the ground is necessary. Now the question of war is an interesting question. War is always used by presidents to get war powers, and that’s what Hollande did. He got war powers and he needed those war powers, and he needed to get support from the right wing in his country and he is using it and using those war powers. In this country, war powers are trickier and they’re not necessarily the greatest thing to have. And then all of the response saying we need boots on the ground there is crazy in a lot of ways – that’s exactly what Daesh wants you to have, which will get them more recruits.”
On criticism of Obama for refusing to use the term ‘radical Islamic terrorism’
Gottlieb: “That’s a completely fair criticism. So you have a president that every once in a while says something about the underlying indoctrination in the Islamic world – and that would be the radical Islamic ideology that’s been around for centuries – so it’s really not controversial in my opinion to talk about a radical Islamist ideology. So when this administration says that this has nothing to do with Islam and nothing to do with religion, but every headline shows radical Islamist groups that are claiming to operate on behalf of a very fundamentalist and militant version of Islam, there’s a tremendous disconnect. And one final point on this: They say this war has nothing to do with Muslims, and yet this administration has executed and killed thousands of people since they’ve been in office – every single one of them is a Muslim. So for them to say this has nothing to do with Islam, nothing to do with Muslims, shows a disconnect. And many Americans right now are saying, does this administration even understand the threat?”
Lakoff: “I agree with the president on this one. Most Muslims around the world are peaceful. The issue is violent Muslims, not just radical, not just whether they really believe in certain things, but what they do – violently. And that is of great difference. The issue of trying to target Muslim leaders who want violence, is very different from those who are peaceful and whatever they believe. And not only that, Islamic beliefs are not in general warlike, they’re not in general nasty, they’re not in general awful. Our president was raised for a while in Indonesia where he experienced that. Yes there are interpretations of the Quran that are violent and those have to be changed, but also there are ideas out there. One of the major things that one of the reporters said, is you can’t bomb an idea. And what is going on is what is calling itself the Islamic State – Daesh – which sounds in Arabic like people who crush and crumble you – that is an idea, and it’s a terrible idea. And that idea has to be what is fought, and it has to be fought by peaceful people who are Muslims throughout the world. It’s extremely important not to get people riled up against peaceful Muslims around the world and in this country.”
Gottlieb: “The vast majority of Muslims are of course peaceful and moderate. But the idea that there’s no such thing as a radicalized militant version that has infected the Islamic community – if anybody knows that, it’s the Muslim world. They hear us parsing the terms radical Islam and saying it’s not about Islam, and we look foolish because if anyone’s on the front lines of this war against violent militancy within a religion, it’s the moderate Muslim world, which is the vast, vast majority. So we just have to be willing and able to defend that we’re fighting something that is actually tangible. Let me give you a quote from a former recruiter for radical Islamists. His name is Maajid Nawaz he said in a New York Times interview, he said ‘the statement that this has nothing to do with Islam is disingenuous. We need to have a candid conversation about this and recognize that there is a correlation between scripture and this.’ We have to have an adult conversation – this is a war within Islam, to pretend that it isn’t is really willful blindness.”
- Stuart Gottlieb, professor of international affairs at Columbia University, and author of “Debating Terrorism and Counterterrorism: Conflicting Perspectives on Causes, Contexts, and Responses.”
- George Lakoff, professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley. Author of numerous books including “The ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate.” He tweets @GeorgeLakoff.
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