November 18, 2015 | Quote

The Word Most World Leaders Talking About Paris Won’t Say

In the wake of the deadliest attacks to hit Paris since World War II, the world’s leaders quickly rallied in support of France and its people. One by one, heads of state pledged support and vowed to fight extremism. Their language was direct, compassionate and at times harsh. Almost none of them uttered the word “Islamic.”

In an age when many major cities have been hit with shocking acts of violence at the hands of extremists claiming affiliation with a radical form of Islam, talking meaningfully about terrorism is part of our leaders’ jobs. But the words those conversations use determine how we understand the war on terror and reflect contentious political realities.


Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a terrorism analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, says there might be tactical reasons to avoid calling terrorism “Islamic.” “The positive case for the Democrats,” he says, is that by avoiding saying Islam, they avoid “giving legitimacy to al Qaeda or ISIS.” He echoes claims by the president’s press secretary this year that ISIS terrorists aren’t true Muslims. In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo shooting, Josh Earnest, Obama’s press secretary, called the attackers’ view of Islam “deviant.”

But, according to Gartenstein-Ross, Republicans use of the word “radical” implies a subset and they say avoiding religion all together risks misunderstanding the role ideology plays within these groups. The Obama administration saw that danger play out in their response to the Arab Spring, Gartenstein-Ross said, by downplaying the influence Islamist groups could wield in the aftermath of the uprisings.


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