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By RICHARD STENGEL FEB. 13, 2017, New York Times
Radical Islamic extremism.
There, I’ve said it.
For three years, as under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public
affairs, I would not and could not utter that phrase. No one in the Obama
administration could or did. We used the much less specific term “violent
extremism.” As in “countering violent extremism,” which is what we called much of
our anti-Islamic State efforts.
And for all of that time, we were collectively excoriated by conservatives,
Republicans and Donald J. Trump.
“These are radical Islamic terrorists, and she won’t even mention the word, and
nor will President Obama,” Mr. Trump said, referring to Hillary Clinton at a
presidential debate last year. “Now, to solve a problem, you have to be able to state
what the problem is, or at least say the name.”
The implication is that we were all somehow too timid or too politically correct
to say it.
But the reason was a much more practical one: To defeat radical Islamic
extremism, we needed our Islamic allies — the Jordanians, the Emiratis, the
Egyptians, the Saudis — and they believed that term unfairly vilified a whole
They also told us that they did not consider the Islamic State to be Islamic, and its
grotesque violence against Muslims proved it. We took a lot of care to describe the
Islamic State as a terrorist group that acted in the name of Islam. Sure, behind the
scenes, our allies understood better than anyone that the Islamic State was a radical
perversion of Islam, that it held a dark appeal to a minority of Sunni Muslims, but it
didn’t help to call them radical Islamic terrorists.
Now the Trump administration wants to toss out the term “violent extremism”
and the rubric we used to fight it. Instead, they are renaming it “countering Islamic
extremism,” or “countering radical Islamic extremism.”
Fine. Abandon the name, but let’s not abandon the strategy. First, let’s
acknowledge that it’s working. The Islamic State as a military force, much less as a
caliphate, is on the ropes in Iraq and Syria. The group has not had a military victory
in a year and a half. The flow of foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria is down by 90
percent, according to the Defense Department. The liberation of Mosul is on the
Second, let’s recognize the truth of what King Abdullah of Jordan has said over
and over: “This is our fight.” And by that he meant that it is Islam’s fight.
It is a misconception that the Islamic State is focused on fighting us. I led the
State Department’s agency that sought to counter the Islamic State’s propaganda
efforts and saw this firsthand. More than 80 percent of the Islamic State’s
propaganda is in Arabic. Russian is the second-most-used language, while English
and French are tied for third. The United States is not the Islamic State’s main
audience. We have always been the distant enemy.
So, jettison “violent extremism,” but let our Arab allies know that “radical
Islam” or “Islamic extremism” refers only to the tiny fraction of the world’s 1.6
billion Muslims who have embraced violence. Tell them we need their help both on
the military battlefield and in the information and intelligence space. And be
specific: “We are fighting the Islamic State and Al Qaeda and their radical Islamic
imitators like Boko Haram.” After all, “radical Islam” is only a shade less vague than
The Islamic State is not just a terrorist group, it is an idea. Its rallying cry is that
the West is hostile to Islam and that every good Muslim has a duty to join the
caliphate. Most of the group’s propaganda was not violent at all. I saw thousands of
tweets about how beautiful the caliphate was. There were videos of kids on Ferris
wheels and jihadi fighters distributing cotton candy. I remember one tweet showing
a shiny apple and the words, in Arabic, “The caliphate is bountiful.”
It is not up to us to say what is Islamic and what is not. Only the voices of
mainstream Muslims and independent clerics in Muslim countries can create a
narrative that refutes the Islamic State’s and offers a more positive alternative. A
tweet from the United States government saying the Islamic State is a distortion of
Islam is not going to hurt the group. Instead, it will help its recruiting.
That is why the Trump administration’s executive order on immigration from
seven Muslim-majority nations is deeply counterproductive in the fight against
Islamic extremism. It has already been reported that the Islamic State has called it
“the blessed ban” because it supports the Islamic State’s position that America hates
Islam. The clause in the order that gives Christians preferential treatment will be
seen as confirming the Islamic State’s apocalyptic narrative that Islam is in a fight to
the death against the Christian crusaders. The images of Muslim visitors being
turned away at American airports will only inflame those who seek to do us harm.
Two years ago, just before Ramadan, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the Islamic
State’s spokesman, said: Don’t bother coming to the caliphate, but commit acts of
violence against the enemy wherever you are. The call was no longer religious or
ideological — what the group sought to do was exploit vulnerability. Mr. Adnani was,
in effect, saying, “Whatever angers you — whether it’s your boss or your neighbors or
the police — commit acts of violence in the Islamic State’s name.”
Thus, the black flag of the Islamic State became a flag of convenience for any
complaint. Now the travel ban, despite being blocked by the courts, has given the
group ammunition to weaponize grievance here in America. President Trump may
become its No. 1 recruiting tool.
The Islamic State will go away, but violent extremism will not. The way to defeat
radical Islamic extremism is to help our Islamic allies and promote the voices of
mainstream Islam that reject everything the Islamic State does and stands for.
Defeating the Islamic State on the military battlefield is only temporary. Violent
extremism — or whatever you call it — must be defeated on the battlefield of ideas.
Richard Stengel is a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School