President Barack Obama once again refused to label the fight against terrorism as a war on radical Islam or any kind of “religious war,” insisting that such labels hurt efforts to root out radical ideologies in Muslim communities.
Obama also cautioned against the risk of overplaying the threat of terror groups and said the U.S. should instead align itself with the overwhelming majority of Muslims who reject the radical ideology and tactics of terrorist groups like ISIS and al Qaeda.
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“I don’t quibble with labels. I think we all recognize that this is a particular problem that has roots in Muslim communities,” Obama said in an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria. “But I think we do ourselves a disservice in this fight if we are not taking into account the fact that the overwhelming majority of Muslims reject this ideology.”
Republicans have criticized Obama in recent weeks for refusing to label the terror threat the U.S. and the West faces as Islamic extremism or rooted in radical Islam. Obama stuck to condemning the terrorism and violent extremism in the wake of terror attacks in Sydney and Paris carried out by jihadists.
“We are in a religious war with radical Islamists,” Sen. Lindsey Graham proclaimed on Fox News earlier this month. “When I hear the President of the United States and his chief spokesperson failing to admit that we’re in a religious war, it really bothers me.”
But Obama said the U.S. needs to be wary of handing terrorists “the victory of overinflating” their actions and the threat they pose to the U.S.
Obama emphasized that while he is mindful of the “terrible costs of terrorism,” terror groups aren’t an “existential threat to the United States or the world order.”
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“The truth of the matter is that they can do harm. But we have the capacity to control how we respond in ways that do not undercut what’s the essence of who we are. That means that we don’t torture, for example, and thereby undermine our values and credibility around the world,” Obama said. “It means that we don’t approach this with a strategy of sending out occupying armies and playing whack-a-mole wherever a terrorist group appears because that drains our economic strength and it puts enormous burdens on our military.”
The U.S. needs to instead keep its response “surgical,” Obama said, to address the specific threat the U.S. faces without alienating the majority of Muslims who are peaceful and reject extremism – those who “have embraced a nihilistic, violent, almost medieval interpretation of Islam.”