Radical Islam vs. Violent Extremism: What Obama Misses

The White House’s terrorism lexicon is vapid.

Once again, we find ourselves trapped in a political game trying to pin down causation. As such, we thrust ourselves headfirst into a false dichotomy. With the Orlando mass slaughter, either we have an act of terrorism or a hate crime. Other times we either have acts of terror or workplace violence, such as the Fort Hood shooting. In tandem with classifying the incident, we also seek to uncover the main driver for the action. Too often, we seek out evidence that fits our preconceived perspective. We retreat to our ideological corners, cherry-picking factoids and anecdotes that support the argument we want to make.

In Orlando, we want to figure out what drove Omar Mateen more: his hatred for homosexuals or the allure of radical Islam? News flash—in some mass killings, multiple causal ingredients mix together to result in tragedy, one that a binary choice cannot adequately grasp. In our most recent example, we have a lone-wolf ISIS-inspired terrorist that specifically targeted homosexuals.

Does it matter that Mateen had sexual identity issues? Yes, but only in so far as to understand his psychological makeup, not to explain some singular causal logic for his act. Shortly after the shooting at Pulse nightclub reports began trickling in that Mateen frequented the hot spot for three years. Additional reports cite that Mateen used gay dating apps. These reports matter, but again, only to help better understand Mateen. We also know that the FBI previously questioned Mateen and put him on the terrorist watch list, only to take him off later. It all matters, and trying to quantify what matters more becomes a fool’s errand that many too eagerly participate in to advance a party-line policy agenda and score political points.

Politics does not mesh well with causal logic. My advice is to leave causation to philosophers and physicists. It’s foolish to try to sever either the Islamic-terrorist angle or antigay sentiment from the Orlando killings. Both are true. Incidents and people can be more than one thing at the same time. The choice need not be binary; we choose to make it an exclusive either/or proposition. When the federal government tabulates a list of mass shootings, terror incidents and hate crimes, does it matter if the Pulse nightclub massacre checks all three boxes? What is important, however, is that box checking occurs without ideological filters. We should not check boxes to quiet voices in the political debate. We should check boxes based on what the evidence suggests.

As important as it is to not try to separate relevant elements in particular incidents, the Pulse nightclub killings need to be placed in the broader, appropriate context. The Boston, Paris, San Bernardino and Orlando attacks share a common theme. All represent terrorism directly linked to or inspired by ISIS.

Last week, President Obama defiantly proclaimed: “There is no magic to the phrase ‘radical Islam.’ It’s a political talking point; it’s not a strategy.” He came off as detached from reality. He accuses others of playing politics. Yet, for ideological and political reasons, he wants to divorce any and all terrorism from ethno-religious labeling. For him, such labeling fails to comport with his postmodernist ethos. True, the phrase “radical Islam” has no magical power. President Obama, however, magically believes that by not labeling terrorism with the “radical Islamic” prefix he somehow hinders jihadist recruitment efforts. He places himself above the political-labeling debate, on some exalted intellectual plane, only populated by those that do not distinguish between extremist ideologies.

President Obama rightly pointed out that labeling something should not be conflated with a strategy. His ideological predispositions, however, lead him to not label terrorist acts as radical Islamic terrorism. The problem is not that he fails to qualitatively differentiate radical Islamic terrorism from say, ecoterrorism. Rather, it is that he offers the phrase “violent extremism” as some neutral term meant to encompass all types of extremism.

“Violent extremism” means nothing. The lack of a descriptive designator before the vapid phrase builds in emptiness. By definition then, violent extremism cannot motivate extremists to act, because it has no force to impel heinous behavior. Violent extremism does not drive people to blow up abortion clinics, engage in hate crimes against gays or yell “Allahu Akbar” during a mass shooting.

We have a problem. In Orlando we may simultaneously have a hate crime and terrorism, but calling it “violent extremism” fails in its anodyne intent and obfuscates what really happened and why. The current radical Islamic geographic metastasis abroad makes it more alluring to potential lone-wolf terrorists at home, no matter what you call it.

John Arcano is currently pursuing a MA in Security Studies at Georgetown University.

Image: President Barack Obama listens during one in a series of meetings discussing the mission against Osama bin Laden. Flickr/The White House.