WASHINGTON — Muslims in the U.S. and around the world have a responsibility to fight a misconception that terrorist groups like the Islamic State speak for them, President Barack Obama said Wednesday in his most direct remarks yet about any link between Islam and terrorism.
For weeks, the White House has sidestepped the question of whether deadly terror attacks in Paris and other Western cities amount to “Islamic extremism,” wary of offending a major world religion or lending credibility to the “war on terror” that his predecessor waged. But as he hosted a White House summit on countering violent extremism, Obama said some in Muslim communities have bought into the notion that Islam is incompatible with tolerance and modern life.
“We are not at war with Islam,” Obama said. “We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.”
While putting the blame on IS and similar groups — Obama said the militants masquerade as religious leaders but are really terrorists — the president also appealed directly to prominent Muslims to do more to distance themselves from brutal ideologies. He said all individuals have a duty to “speak up very clearly” in opposition to violence against innocent people.
“Just as leaders like myself reject the notion that terrorists like ISIL genuinely represent Islam, Muslim leaders need to do more than discredit the notion that our nations are determined to suppress Islam,” Obama said.
Issuing such a direct challenge to Muslims marked a clear departure from the restrained, cautious language Obama and his aides have used to describe the situation in the past.
In the days after last month’s shootings at a satirical French newspaper that had caricatured the Prophet Muhammad, Obama avoided calling the attack an example of “Islamic extremism,” and instead opted for the more generic “violent extremism.” Recently, the White House also struggled to explain whether the U.S. believes the Afghan Taliban to be a terrorist organization.
That refusal to directly assess any Islamic role in the terrifying scenes playing out in Europe, the Mideast and Africa has drawn criticism — especially from national security hawks, who argued the Obama counterterrorism strategy couldn’t be successful if the president was unable or unwilling to confront what they considered the true nature of the threat. White House aides said they were avoiding associating the attacks with Islam for the sake of “accuracy” and to avoid lending credence to the terrorists’ own justification for violence — a strict interpretation of Islam.
“These are individuals who carried out an act of terrorism, and they later tried to justify that act of terrorism by invoking the religion of Islam and their own deviant view of it,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said at the time.
Yet the argument over terminology has increasingly become a distraction, including this week as Obama gathered law enforcement officials, Muslim leaders and lawmakers for a three-day summit on violent extremism. In his remarks Wednesday, Obama acknowledged it was a touchy subject but insisted it was critical to tackle the issue “head-on.”
“We can’t shy away from these discussions,” Obama said. “And too often, folks are understandably sensitive about addressing some of these root issues, but we have to talk about them honestly and clearly.”