Could this argument be any dumber?
The Obama administration has forced America and much of the world into a debate no one wanted or needed. Namely, does Islamic terrorism have anything to do with Islam?
This debate is different from the much-coveted “national conversation on race” that politicians so often call for (usually as a way to duck having it) because that is a conversation at least some people want. The White House doesn’t want a conversation about Islam and terrorism.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest says, “We have chosen not to use that label (radical Islam) because it doesn’t seem to accurately describe what happened.”
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
What happened was the slaughter last week at the satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo. The sound of the terrorists’ gunfire was punctuated by shouts of “Allahu akbar!” and “We have avenged the prophet Muhammad!”
Because no one questions the sincerity of these declarations, that alone should settle the issue of whether Islam had anything to do with the attack. And for normal people it would.
The problem is that the White House’s position is categorical denial. It is not that the role of Islam in such attacks is exaggerated. Nor is it that these attacks should not be used to disparage more than a billion peaceful Muslims around the world. These are mainstream and defensible positions.
But, again, that’s not what the White House is saying. It is saying that one should not associate these attacks with the word “Islamic,” no matter what adjective you hang on it — radical, extreme, perverted — even when the murderers release videos attesting to their faith and their association with Islamist terror groups.
By taking this radical and extremist rhetorical approach, the Obama administration invites people to talk about Islam more, not less.
Think of it this way. A bird waddles into the room. It walks like a duck, it talks like a duck, it gives off every indication of duckness. If Josh Earnest says, “That’s not a mallard,” well, OK. You can have a reasonable conversation about which species the bird might be. But if Earnest says, “That is not a duck. It has no relation or similarity to anatine fowl in any way, shape or form, and any talk of ducks is illegitimate.”
Well, now we have a problem.
Such rhetorical extremism almost forces people into an argument about what a duck is. Likewise, by denying the role of radical Islam, they invite sane people everywhere to focus more, not less, on Islam.
There are, of course, many problems with this analogy. The most important one is that ducks cannot talk. They cannot say, “Look, I am a duck.”
Terrorists can talk. And they do. They also form organizations with magazines and websites and Twitter accounts. They issue manifestos. They recruit in mosques. When we capture them alive, they demand Qur’ans and pray five times a day, bowing toward Mecca.
You know who else can talk? Non-extremist Muslims. And millions of them routinely refer to the bad guys as radical Islamists and the like.
I could go on, but you get the point — if you don’t work at this White House.
The Obama administration seems to believe that the wonder-working power of their words can get everyone to stop believing their lying eyes and ears. It’s tempting to ask, “How stupid do they think we are?” But the more relevant question is, “How stupid do they think the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are?” Whatever appeal the Islamic State may or may not have in the larger Muslim world, Barack Obama insisting “it is not Islamic” surely makes no difference whatsoever. And as for the jihadists, it’s not like his words speak louder than his drone strikes.
It’s true that the Obama administration has had remarkable success playing word games. They “created or saved” millions of jobs — as if that were a real economic measure. (For what it’s worth, I do or save 500 pushups every morning.) They decimated “core al-Qaida,” with the tautological definition of “core al-Qaida” being “the parts of al-Qaida that we have decimated.”
But this is different. Those distortions were political buzz phrases intended for domestic consumption and a re-election campaign. This is a much bigger deal. The threat of Islamic extremism transcends Obama’s theological hubris and lexicological shenanigans. All Obama’s insipid rhetorical gamesmanship does is send the signal to friend and foe alike that he can’t or won’t see the problem for what it is.
Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor of National Review. Reach him at email@example.com.