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The GOP’s Obsession With ‘Radical Islam’

Republicans say they call it as they see it—until the tables are turned on them.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The deadly attacks in Paris last week, followed by the second Democratic primary debate over the weekend, reignited a Republican obsession, unique to the Obama era, with the claim that U.S. leaders can’t defeat jihadi terrorism unless they identify the perpetrators with highly prescriptive language.

This obsession arose after the George W. Bush presidency precisely because Bush and his security advisers recognized the humane and strategic value in avoiding anti-Muslim incitement. As a Republican, Bush was able to mostly keep a lid on the kind of rhetoric his party now espouses unapologetically.

Republicans specifically claim, without a shred of evidence, that referring to ISIS fighters as “radical Islamic terrorists” isn’t just nomenclature, but a strategic prerequisite to vanquishing them.

Their preferred rhetoric serves two purposes, one the flip-side of the other. By adopting a label that implies a dogmatic link between Islam and violent extremism, they play to the U.S. public’s broad suspicion of and antipathy to Islam; and by insisting on a label they know responsible stewards of U.S. national security will reject, they can cow Democrats as weak-on-terror agents of political correctness.

In reality, Democratic unease with this language is almost entirely a function of strategic, rather than empathic, thinking—a reflection of the greater seriousness with which the party treats national security and foreign affairs than Republicans. And the most shameless thing about it is that many Republicans understand the objection at a deeply personal level. Their nomenclature wouldn’t survive even one Presidential Daily Brief. But they’re happy to set that all aside for immediate political expediency.

At the debate Saturday, Hillary Clinton explained her unease with saying we are at war with “radical Islam.”

You can talk about Islamists who clearly are also jihadists, but …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.

Clinton stipulated instead that we’re at war with “jihadists.” She could perhaps have beat Republicans at their own faux-specificity game by referring to them as “Salafist Jihadists.” But her point is clear: Nobody disputes that the perpetrators of the attacks in France were Muslim, but insisting on a rote connection between jihadis and the religion they claim makes it harder for the U.S. to enlist non-jihadi Muslims into the fight against terrorism.

Republicans claim to be aghast at this logic, but they in many ways personify it.

The most commented-upon response to Clinton came from Senator Marco Rubio, who deployed a predictable but unusually inapt simile. “I don’t understand it. That would be like saying we weren’t at war with Nazis, because we were afraid to offend some Germans who may have been members of the Nazi Party but weren’t violent themselves. We are at war with radical Islam, with an interpretation of Islam by a significant number of people around the world, who they believe now justifies them in killing those who don’t agree with their ideology.” Others have deconstructed and reconstructed the comparison to make better sense of it. But the best way to illustrate the point is by reference to one of the right’s own pet peeves.

In April 2009, less than three months after President Obama took office, the Department of Homeland Security issued an internal report, commissioned during the Bush administration, on the resurgence of right-wing extremism in the U.S. and its resemblance to the surge in extremism and violence the country experienced in the 1990s.

When word broke, conservatives were apoplectic. They attributed some of their outrage to the fact that the report identified reintegrating veterans as a potential source of violence. But their objection to a focus on “right-wing” extremists contributed to their grievance in equal or greater measure.

The right’s objection wasn’t so much to the government studying violent internal threats, but to the association the report drew between those threats and right-wing politics.

The phenomenon extends outside the realm of violent extremism, too. Liberals and conservatives frequently disagree about what constitutes racism, but there is a strong bipartisan consensus in the country that overt racism is anathema. Conservatives take incredible umbrage at any linkage—whether justified or trumped up—between conservatism and extant racism in America for precisely this reason. Call Dylan Storm Roof a neo-Nazi, nobody will object. Call him a right-wing extremist, and conservatives will balk. Some will take great offense.

It turns out leaders of all stripes, including religious and political ones, are at pains to distinguish their ideological commitments from those who do violent or otherwise heinous things in their name. Neither Republicans, nor orthodox Muslims, are exempt. Of course, nobody’s trying to recruit Republicans into a massive geo-political conflict with their co-partisans, but they’re familiar enough with the broad brush Clinton described to know that positing a war with “radical Islam” is counterproductive.