This week saw the renewal of debate over whether or not it is appropriate to use the descriptive term "Islamic" when discussing acts of terrorism. While this might appear to be a debate over semantics, the discussions between Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) and the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) is an important facet of ongoing efforts to curb terrorism.
To paraphrase Sun Tzu the first rule in war is to know your enemy so that you can defeat it. Since the attacks of September 11, the United States has been engaging in an ongoing debate over who the enemy we are fighting is and how to combat it. The 2006 National Security Strategy identified our enemy as:
"the transnational terrorists [who] exploit the proud religion of Islam to serve a violent political vision."
By 2008, the Bush administration had shifted course, indicated by a Department of Homeland Security directive to refrain from using the words "jihadists," "mujahedeen," and "Islam" when referring to terrorism. We were critical of the Bush administration for their refusal to correctly identify the enemy the United States faces (see here and here).
The debate was renewed after the Obama Administration released the 2010 National Security Strategy last month. Absent from the document, intended to govern all U.S. counterterrorism efforts, was any mention of the Islamist ideology which has fueled acts of terrorism both in the United States and abroad. Since the release of the new report, the administration has been the subject of frequent criticism.
Senator Lieberman joined others to criticize the Obama administration's continuation of this failed Bush policy June 15th. Lieberman wrote an editorial in the Wall Street Journal "Who's the Enemy in the War on Terror?" which called upon the Obama administration to reconsider its current policies with regards to terminology:
"We must recognize the nature of the fight we are in, not paper it over. The United States is definitely not at war with Islam. But a group of self-identified, extremist Muslims has definitely declared war on us, a war which they explicitly justify by reference to their religion. Muslims across the world see the ideological nature of this struggle. I believe it is disrespectful to suggest they cannot understand these distinctions and act on them."
In response, Salam al-Marayati, MPAC's executive director, issued a letter to Senator Lieberman. MPAC was instrumental in having the terminology changed in the first place. In condemning the call to reconsider current policy, al-Marayati wrote:
"[Dropping religious labels] denies al Qaeda and its affiliates the religious legitimacy they severely lack and so desperately seek. For years, Muslim public opinion has decisively turned against Bin Laden, Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups because of the immoral, unethical, and gruesome tactics they employ and because the vast majority of their victims have been other Muslims."
While the U.S. and the international community should do all that it can do deny legitimacy of any kind to al Qaida, it is also true that different enemies require different battle tactics. As Senator Lieberman argued:
"[T]he strategies and capabilities needed to counter the specific threat of violent Islamist extremism are very different from those needed to deal with white supremacist extremists in the U.S. or genocidal militias in sub-Saharan Africa….This war will not end when al Qaida has been vanquished—though that, of course, is a critical goal—but only when the ideology of violent Islamist extremism that inspires and predates it is decisively rejected."