‘Islamist Extremists,’ Phrase Rejected by Obama, Embraced by Allies
By Rowan Scarborough
March 25, 2015
While President Obama and his aides insist that Muslim extremists have nothing to do with Islam the religion, other world leaders are leaving that approach behind.
British Home Secretary Theresa May on Monday announced a get-tough policy that includes a comprehensive strategy to combat what she called “Islamist extremists,” a phrase the Obama administration officials have repeatedly refused to use.
Ms. May said the new counter-extremism measures include the power to close sites “that are owned or occupied by extremists or are used to host extremist meetings or speakers.” It was widely interpreted in Britain to mean closing Islamic centers and mosques that foment intolerance and violence.
She also announced new scrutiny of religious figures trying to enter Britain and a requirement that they speak English when speaking to followers. The policies would take effect if a new Conservative government is elected in May.
Tunisia, site of two horrendous terror attacks in recent months, has been closing mosques since last summer. This week, the North African country, seen as one of the few success stories of the so-called “Arab Spring,” issued a report identifying scores of additional mosques as catering to Islamic extremists.
And in France, Prime Minister Manuel Valls told The Wall Street Journal in late February, “France has been struck very much at its heart by terrorism — jihadist terrorism and radical Islamism, because let us call things like they are.”
France has enacted tougher and more intrusive counterterrorism laws in the wake of the Jan. 7 Charlie Hebdo massacre carried out by two Islamists against a satirical magazine that had lampooned Islam.
In Egypt, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on Sunday expanded a campaign to forcefully urge his country’s Muslim leaders to purge an ideology of violence from its ranks. The president, a former head of Egypt’s military forces, does not hesitate to say the religion of Islam has an extremist problem.
Even Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani, addressing a joint session of Congress Wednesday at the end of a four-day Washington visit, said leaders in Muslim-majority countries must do more publicly to condemn terror movements such as the Islamic State, even as Mr. Ghani denied jihadi terror groups were a true reflection of Islam as a faith.
For public officials and Islamic leaders in Muslim-majority countries, “silence is not acceptable,” Mr. Ghani said.
The United States is home to a relatively small, but growing, Muslim population of 5 million to 8 million people, or about 2 percent, compared to 4 percent in Britain and France’s 8 percent. But the U.S. too has witnessed the kind of incidents seen in Europe. American Muslim residents have traveled to Syria to try to join the ultraviolent Islamic State terror army. Authorities have stopped a number of homegrown terror plots. Some, such as the Fort Hood massacre and the first attack on the World Trade Center, were carried out by self-proclaimed jihadis in this country.
Soeren Kern, an analyst at the Gatestone Institute, which tracks radical Islam, said domestic politics are at work in Britain and France just as much as security concerns. Britain has general elections set for early May.
“The flurry of counterterrorism activity in recent months is an attempt by the Conservative government to stanch the flow of votes to right-wing parties such as the United Kingdom Independence Party, which has long warned of the danger posed by radical Islam, and which is now the third-most-popular political party in Britain,” Mr. Kern said.
In France, presidential elections are two years away, but the security issue is already playing into the jockeying for advantage.
“In the wake of the jihadist attacks in Paris in January, we can expect all presidential candidates to take tough positions against radical Islam and Islamic terrorism as the election draws near,” Mr. Kern said.
Focused on Islam
It was the Theresa May speech on Monday that will perhaps usher in a new era in Britain of directly combating homegrown extremism. And while she spoke of all types, her focus was clearly on Islam, whose radical members seem to be on the march in the U.K.
Ms. May acknowledged that unauthorized courts that follow harsh Shariah law have been springing up outside the British court system and making rulings, some of them particularly anti-woman.
“There is increasing evidence that a small but significant number of people living in Britain — almost all of whom are British citizens — reject our values,” she said. “We have seen the Trojan Horse plot to take over state schools in Birmingham. Some concerns about religious supplementary schools. Widespread allegations of corruption, cronyism, extremism, homophobia and anti-Semitism in Tower Hamlets. Hate speakers invited to speak at British colleges and universities. Segregation by gender allowed at universities and even endorsed by Universities UK. Charities and the generosity of the giving public abused by extremists. Examples of Shariah law being used to discriminate against women. Thousands of ‘honor’ crimes committed every year. And hundreds of British citizens who have traveled to fight in Syria and Iraq.”
The “Trojan Horse” scandal, uncovered by a special government investigation last year, involved a plot by Muslim faculty to turn Birmingham public schools into essentially Islamic institutions. Tower Hamlets is a predominantly Muslim neighborhood in East London.
“Islamist extremists believe in a clash of civilizations,” Ms. May said. “They promote a fundamental incompatibility between Islamic and Western values, an inevitable divide between ‘them and us.’ They demand a caliphate, or a new Islamic state, governed by a harsh interpretation of Sharia law. They utterly reject British and Western values, including democracy, the rule of law and equality between citizens, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, religion or sexuality. They believe that it’s impossible to be a good Muslim and a good British citizen.”
In defending the conservative government’s decision to call out “Islamist extremists,” Ms. May said:
“I know there are some people who disagree with me. They say what I describe as Islamist extremism is simply social conservatism. But if anybody else discriminated against women, denounced people on the basis of their religious beliefs, rejected the democratic process, attacked people on the basis of their sexuality or gave a nod and a wink in favor of violence and terrorism, we wouldn’t hesitate to challenge them or — if the law was broken — call for their prosecution and punishment.”
In Tunisia, the Ministry of Religious Affairs disclosed this month that 149 mosques are under the control of radical Salafists, a hard-line version of Islam, reported the Tunis Times. The Salafists took over scores of mosques in 2011, evicting more moderate imams, while other militants set up or controlled additional places of worship.
Since the fall of Tunisian strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, whose regime exerted control on all mosques, “over 1,000 have fallen into the hands of radicals,” said a Ministry of Interior spokesman.
Last July, the government began closing scores of mosques tied to militants, including al Qaeda, in the aftermath of an extremist attack that killed 14 soldiers near the Algerian border.
Amid the mosque crackdown, the country suffered one of its worst terrorists attacks on March 18, when gunmen trained by the Islamic State in Libya opened fire inside the Bardo museum, killing 24 people, 20 of them foreign tourists.
In January, Egypt’s President el-Sisi delivered what could turn out to be a landmark address on an Islamic reformation.
He went to the heart of Sunni Islam, the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, and spoke directly to senior scholars and imams.
“I am addressing the religious scholars and clerics. We must take a long, hard look at the current situation,” he said. “It is inconceivable that the ideology we sanctify should make our entire nation a source of concern, danger, killing and destruction all over the world.”
CIA Director John Brennan is the most recent senior Obama official to reject the use of the phrase “Islamic extremists.”
At a forum at the Council on Foreign Relations on March 13, he said he was “amused” by the intense focus on what label President Obama and his aides used. Calling the terrorists “Islamic,” Mr. Brennan argued, plays into the enemy’s hands.
Terrorism, he said, “is totally inconsistent with what the overwhelming majority of Muslims throughout the world [believe],” he said. “And so by ascribing it as, you know, Muslim terrorism or Islamic extremism, I think it really does give them the type of Islamic legitimacy that they are so desperately seeking, but which they don’t deserve at all.
“They are terrorists. They’re criminals. Many of them are psychopathic thugs, murderers, who use a religious concept and masquerade and mask themselves in that religious construct. And I do think it does injustice to the tenets of religion when we attach a religious moniker to them.”