Saturday, May 26, 2018
Opinion

The silly debate over the words 'radical Islam'

Saturday night's Democratic debate was supposed to center on domestic policy, but after the attacks in Paris, it was altered to focus in large part on terrorism and foreign policy. A significant portion of the debate centered on the question of whether the candidates, particularly Hillary Clinton, have used the appropriately belligerent terminology in discussing terrorism. Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley got involved, but the critical exchange was between moderator John Dickerson and Clinton:

Dickerson: "Secretary Clinton, you mentioned radical jihadists. Marco Rubio, also running for president, said that this attack showed and the attack in Paris showed that we are at war with radical Islam. Do you agree with that characterization, radical Islam?"

Clinton: "I don't think we're at war with Islam. I don't think we're at war with all Muslims. I think we're at war with jihadists who have —"

Dickerson: "Just to interrupt. He didn't say all Muslims. He just said radical Islam. Is that a phrase you don't —"

Clinton: "I think that you can talk about Islamists who clearly are also jihadists, but I think it's not particularly helpful to make the case that Senator Sanders was just making that I agree with, that we've got to reach out to Muslim countries ... We've got to have them be part of our coalition. If they hear people running for president who basically shortcut it to say we are somehow against Islam, that was one of the real contributions, despite all the other problems, that George W. Bush made after 9/11 when he basically said after going to a mosque in Washington, we are not at war with Islam or Muslims. We are at war with violent extremism. We are at war with people who use their religion for purposes of power and oppression. And, yes, we are at war with those people. But I don't want us to be painting with too broad a brush."

In case it isn't clear: Saying "radical jihadists" makes you weak, while saying "radical Islam" makes you strong. "The critique is that the softness of language betrays a softness of approach," Dickerson said.

Not surprisingly, Republicans pounced. Nearly all the candidates tweeted out some version of "Yes Hillary, we're at war with radical Islam!" Conservative media outlets were full of articles with headlines like "Clinton Refuses to Say the U.S. Is at War With Radical Islam."

And it wasn't just Republicans themselves. In some quarters of the media, the candidates' failure to say we're at war with "radical Islam" is being treated as some kind of gaffe.

But before we get consumed with the politics of this argument about word usage, we should ask a simple question: To quote something Clinton herself once said, what difference does it make? Do the words "Islamic terrorism" constitute some kind of magical incantation that, once spoken, will drive our enemies from the Earth? I'm not saying language never matters, but what exactly is this particular language choice supposed to accomplish?

Republicans have been making this criticism of Barack Obama for years, endlessly saying, "How can he defeat radical Islam if he won't call it by its name?" But this is a stupid argument. Let's say Obama or Clinton came out tomorrow and said: "Hey, you know what? You guys are right. We are at war with radical Islam." Then what? Would that make anyone any safer?

I've yet to hear any conservative give a substantive reason why it would be preferable to have the president say "We're at war with radical Islam," other than that doing so would prove that he or she is tough and strong. And as Clinton pointed out, George W. Bush was careful to emphasize that we're not at war with Islam; I don't think there are many conservatives who think Bush's problem when it came to terrorism was that he was weak.

But the Democrats do have a good reason why they think it's a mistake to feed into the idea that this is a religious war. They argue that to stop terrorism, we need the help of the world's Muslim populations, and the last thing we want to do is drive them away by implying that they're all our enemies. Terrorists want Muslims everywhere to believe the West is at war with Islam. Should we really be helping them make that case?

Why have there been so few terrorist attacks in the U.S. by home-grown Muslim radicals? It's not that someone who wants to kill a bunch of people faces some kind of practical impediment to doing so. It's because American Muslims are much more integrated into the broader American community than their counterparts in Europe. American Muslims are less alienated and more patriotic, despite the kind of harassment and surveillance so many of them have been subjected to in the last 14 years.

When people are fearful, they often turn to leaders who will offer the most simplistic analysis of events. You don't get a lot of applause for saying that the situation we confront is complex and requires us to be not just strong but thoughtful and careful as well.

So it's more important than ever to force those who would be president to be as specific as possible about what they would do, not just what they would say. The truth is that both the Democratic and Republican candidates have been vague on that score, which tells you just how difficult the situation is. But there's one thing we know for sure: It won't be solved by figuring out who's using the toughest words.

Paul Waldman is a contributor to the Washington Post's Plum Line blog, and a senior writer at The American Prospect.

Comments
Is the Lightning’s Jeff Vinik the best owner in professional sports?

Is the Lightning’s Jeff Vinik the best owner in professional sports?

Hope of another Stanley Cup has dissolved, and soon the ice will follow. Yet even if sorrow is the price of devotion, the true hockey fans will still buy in when the next season comes around.That concept may not be unique to Tampa Bay, but it does se...
Published: 05/26/18
Editorial: Welcome Bayshore changes still can’t stop bad judgment

Editorial: Welcome Bayshore changes still can’t stop bad judgment

It’s human nature in following any tragedy to imagine: How could this have been prevented? On that score, the city of Tampa responded appropriately to the deaths this week of a mother and her toddler whom police say were hit by a teenage driver racin...
Published: 05/25/18
Editorial: Filling Rocky Point lagoon to build townhomes is an empty-headed idea

Editorial: Filling Rocky Point lagoon to build townhomes is an empty-headed idea

One of the worst ideas in a long time in the field of urban planning received a blessing this month when the Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission approved a land-use change for a project that calls for filling three acres of water insi...
Published: 05/25/18
Editorial: Searching for the real Adam Putnam

Editorial: Searching for the real Adam Putnam

Send out an Amber Alert for Adam Putnam. The red-haired, affable fellow who has served capably as a state legislator, member of Congress and agriculture commissioner is missing. In his place is a far-right caricature who has branded himself as a prou...
Published: 05/24/18
Updated: 05/25/18
Column: Going viral: The good, the bad, and the food for thought

Column: Going viral: The good, the bad, and the food for thought

More than 25 million. That’s how many people saw my joke on Twitter."I once taught an 8 a.m. college class. So many grandparents died that semester. I then moved my class to 3 p.m. No more deaths. And that, my friends, is how I save lives."I expected...
Published: 05/24/18
Updated: 05/25/18
Editorial: A strong economic case for restoring voting rights for felons

Editorial: A strong economic case for restoring voting rights for felons

Floridians are paying a steep price for a system that makes it as difficult as possible for people who leave prison to reintegrate into civic life. Gov. Rick Scott’s clemency process isn’t just archaic and cruel — it also wastes enormous public resou...
Published: 05/24/18
Updated: 05/25/18
Editorial: Trump right to cancel North Korea talks on nuclear weapons

Editorial: Trump right to cancel North Korea talks on nuclear weapons

Regardless of the reason, the cancellation of the U.S.-North Korea summit to address Pyonyang’s nuclear program is hardly the worst possible outcome of this high-stakes diplomatic gamble. President Donald Trump was unprepared, North Korea’s Kim Jong ...
Published: 05/24/18
Updated: 05/25/18

NFL kneels before the altar of profits

The owners of the 32 National Football League teams sent a wrongheaded and, frankly, un-American message to their players Wednesday: Expressing your opinion during the national anthem is no longer permitted."A club will be fined by the League if its ...
Published: 05/24/18
Column: 30-something and still living at home? You’ve got lots (and lots) of company.

Column: 30-something and still living at home? You’ve got lots (and lots) of company.

A 30-year-old upstate New York man was ordered to leave his parents’ house by a state Supreme Court Justice this week after rebuffing several attempts by his parents to get him to move out.The case of Michael Rotondo has made national and internation...
Published: 05/24/18
Column: Woman’s poem on Meghan Markle’s mom — and all single moms — goes viral

Column: Woman’s poem on Meghan Markle’s mom — and all single moms — goes viral

On the morning that Meghan Markle married Prince Harry, Lesle Honore sat in bed in front of her TV on Chicago’s South Side, 4,000 miles from the royal spectacle at Windsor Castle, and wrote a poem on her phone.It was inspired by the sight of Markle a...
Published: 05/24/18