Many conservatives, such as Sen. Ted Cruz, accuse President Obama of "bizarre, politically correct doublespeak" for referring to "violent extremists/jihadists/radicals" instead of "Islamic terrorists."
By refusing to link one of the world's great religions with acts of mass murder, Obama seeks to isolate the terrorists from the 1.6 billion mostly peaceful Muslims who inhabit the world. Is he wrong to downplay the obvious importance of their faith?
Early this year, The Atlantic magazine ran an influential article that condemned "a well-intentioned but dishonest campaign to deny the Islamic State's medieval religious nature." The author, Graeme Wood, declared, "The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. . . . The religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam."
Unlike many conservative rants, Wood's long piece was nuanced and acknowledged the obvious: most Muslims don't subscribe to the political agenda of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh). But while insisting on the serious faith of its "most ardent followers," his article failed to answer a key question: Does their support for terrorism flow from a long and deep immersion in Koranic studies, or is the Koran, with its fighting words about jihad, simply a convenient text to justify violent impulses that stem from other causes? If the latter, Obama has a strong case for downplaying the religious context of terrorist movements that claim to honor the one true faith.
Judging from some recent profiles of ISIS leaders and terrorists, Islam was less a motivating force than an ennobling cover for their basically criminal, anti-social violence.
For example, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, described as the "godfather" of the organization, was "a onetime thief, . . . a tattooed Jordanian and a reformed drinker of extreme personal violence whose own mother had proclaimed him not very smart," according to the New York Times. He spent his youth as a "petty criminal" before joining other jihadists in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Haji Bakr, the former Iraqi colonel and organizational genius behind the ISIS until he was killed in 2014, was described as "a nationalist, not an Islamist," by Iraqi journalist Hisham al-Hashimi. A major study of Bakr's career by Der Spiegel reporter Christoph Reuter, based on a trove of captured documents, notes pointedly that "there is no mention in Bakr's writings of prophecies relating to the establishment of an Islamic State allegedly ordained by God." Although Bakr was not particularly religious, "he did believe that the faith of others could be exploited."
Reuter adds, ISIS "has little in common with predecessors like al-Qaida aside from its jihadist label. There is essentially nothing religious in its actions, its strategic planning, its unscrupulous changing of alliances and its precisely implemented propaganda narratives. Faith, even in its most extreme form, is just one of many means to an end. Islamic State's only constant maxim is the expansion of power at any price."
As Atlantic magazine's Wood admits, ISIS propaganda "has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe." Among them were the Paris terrorists. The suspected mastermind, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was radicalized only last year when he traveled to Syria.
Growing up, he studied at a Catholic school before dropping out and "drifting into a life of thievery and drugs," according to the Independent. He "showed much more interest in petty crime than Islam" and never prayed in a mosque, according to his sister.
Salah Abdeslam, another ISIS operative who has been described as "the most wanted man in Europe" following the death of Abaaoud, was reportedly known most for "having a long line of girlfriends, including an English woman, and a party lifestyle."
Hasna Ait Boulahcen, the woman killed during the police assault in Saint-Denis, "was a party animal with a string of boyfriends who had shown no interest in religion," according to interviews by the London Daily Mail. She was "known for her love of alcohol and cigarettes rather than devotion to Islam," the paper reported.
"Her brother . . . said that she had had no interest in religion, never read the Koran and had only started wearing a Muslim veil a month ago." He added, "She had been the victim of violence since she was very young - mistreated and rejected - she never received the love she needed. From the age of five she was taken into care, so she grew up with a foster family."
In a recent speech on the "driving force behind jihadist terrorism," the noted French scholar Olivier Roy confirmed that young men become jihadists because it offers them a chance to belong to a "small brotherhood of superheroes" in a celebrated global cause, not out of faith. "Almost none followed a real process of religious education," he said. "Their religious knowledge is low (some brought with them "Islam for the Dummies"). When they said that they were going to learn Islam in Pakistan or Yemen, it is just to appease their parents: in fact they go for jihad."
He added, "This explains why . . . 'reforming Islam' does not make sense: they just don't care about 'what Islam really means.'"
It is, of course, true that Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and other terrorist groups operating mainly in the Middle East embrace Islam to justify their radical doctrines. But politicians and pundits who insist on branding them first and foremost as Islamic play into the hands of sociopaths by conflating them with peaceful followers of a religion who make up nearly a quarter of the world's population. Their focus demonizes Islam and casts the struggle waged by terrorists as a clash of civilizations, elevating the status of fringe extremists and attracting more thrill-seekers to their ranks.
So yes, words matter. In this sometimes shrill semantic debate, score one for President Obama, who wisely refuses to turn the world's battle against terrorists into a 21st century Crusade.