For two painful minutes this spring, Attorney General Eric Holder refused to blame "radical Islam" for terrorism. Rep. Lamar Smith prodded Holder over and over during the May House Judiciary Committee hearing, but Holder wouldn't budge.
"There are a variety of reasons I think people have taken these actions," Holder said.
"Could radical Islam been one of the reasons?" Smith insisted.
"There are a variety of reasons why…."
"But was radical Islam one of them?"
"There are a variety of reasons people are doing these things…."
For conservatives, the exchange was proof the administration isn't taking terrorism seriously. Likewise, when White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan defended the traditional Islamic concept of "Jihad" as legitimate, conservatives were aghast. In a speech hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Brennan said the administration would not "describe our enemy as 'jihadists' or 'Islamists' because jihad is a holy struggle, a legitimate tenet of Islam, meaning to purify oneself or one's community, and there is nothing holy or legitimate or Islamic about murdering innocent men, women and children."
"Rather than running from the expression 'radical Islam,'" read an editorial in The Washington Times, "the administration should be openly discussing the ideological motives of the terrorists and finding ways to delegitimize them."
That's exactly what the Obama administration is attempting to do. The administration's studious avoidance of associating terrorism with Islam isn't political correctness run amok. It represents one of the few points of divergence between the Obama administration and its predecessor on matters of national security -- a deliberate effort to narrow the scope of the "war on terror" to a fight against al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups. Some conservatives, who see not just terror groups but Islam itself as a threat, oppose the administration's approach. They see the threat as posed not merely by plots against the homeland but by the influence of Islamic culture within the United States.
By cleaving terrorism from Islam, the administration hopes to dismantle any claim al-Qaeda and its ideological allies have to the religion. "We reject the notion that al-Qaeda represents any religious authority," reads part of the administration's recently released National Security Strategy. "They are not religious leaders, they are killers, and neither Islam nor any other religion condones the slaughter of innocents."
Malcolm Nance, a former military intelligence officer and author of An End to al-Qaeda: Destroying Bin Laden's Jihad and Restoring America's Honor, says the administration has the right idea.
"The Muslim world's view of the 'war on terrorism' is that this was a war with Islam, despite the fact that the Muslim community made it clear that these [acts of terror] were un-Islamic," Nance says. The point isn't that al-Qaeda and their allies follow a "perverted" version of Islam. It's that what they adhere to isn't Islam at all. "The worldview of al-Qaeda is corrupt; it's not an Islamic worldview. Al-Qaeda is in an existential battle to destroy traditional Islam.”
Matthew Levitt, director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says the new NSS goes too far. Pointing to recent terror plots, Levitt says that while the perpetrators weren't all directly connected to a particular terror group, "there's only one constant, the radical Islamist ideology that’s underpinning the acts of all these characters."
"Al-Qaeda does not speak for Muslims and the Muslim religion, but it has crafted an ideology of its own based on Islam," Levitt says. "We need to be as concerned with the radical ideology that leads people to carry out acts of violence as the violence itself."
The proper way to do that, Nance says, is by separating al-Qaeda's ideology from Islam. "When you frame it as a fight against Islam and Islamic fundamentalism," Nance argues, "you're almost encouraging Osama bin Laden's line of thinking. He loves this idea that this is seen as a clash between Islam and the West; he wants that, he thrives on that. We have to take that away from him, and the administration is trying to do that."
Fundamentally, this is a disagreement not over whether it is al-Qaeda or its ideology that poses a threat but over how to effectively counteract and delegitimize both. But some conservatives are opposed to the administration's deliberate narrowing of the focus on al-Qaeda rather than "Islamic radicalism" as a whole, because they see Islam and radicalism as inseparable, and in practice draw few distinctions between Muslims, moderate or otherwise.
The uproar over the planned construction of an Islamic cultural center near the ruins of the World Trade Center illustrates this point. Those planning the center say it is meant to be an Islamic version of a YMCA, although it will contain space for worship. Conservative critics like National Review's Andy McCarthy called it "a classic instance of supremacist Islamists building their icons over those of the non-Muslims they mean to vanquish."
Last week, Debra Burlingame, one of the co-founders of Liz Cheney's organization, Keep America Safe, described the plan in a statement as "shockingly insensitive to the history of the site where their loved ones were slaughtered in the worst terrorist attack by extremist Muslims in America's history." Appearing on The Sean Hannity Show, she accused the leader of the project, Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf, of wanting to impose Sharia law in the United States, based on remarks he made about the U.S. being "Sharia compliant."
Rauf says that this is a "complete misunderstanding" and that what he meant was that the U.S. allows Muslims to freely meet their own religious obligations. "The thing that people mistake, is that we're trying to impose Sharia law in America, there are aspects of Sharia law that we are allowed to practice. Like Jews practice their dietary laws, we practice them without contradiction."
Manhattan Community Board 1 approved the project nearly unanimously last week, despite loud conservative objections, and although approval was not needed for the center to be built, it was an important show of local support. Following the vote, conservative radio host Michael Berry said, "I hope somebody blows it up." He eventually apologized, but the hysterical tone reflects the general tenor of the conservative reaction to the visible public presence of Muslims in American life. Before the freak-out over Ground Zero, there was the hysterical right-wing response to a Lebanese-American being named Miss USA. Before that, Republican lawmakers were accusing interns from the Center on American Islamic Relations of trying to "infiltrate" Congress.
What makes the conservative reaction to the proposed Islamic Center near Ground Zero so strange is that Rauf has long been known as a voice of a moderate, even liberal, Americanized version of Islam. "There is a need to establish American cultural Islam, where those who are Americans and Muslims can feel comfortable," Rauf says. "Yes there are problems, but these problems require American Muslims to be part of the solution."
Conservative critics have also suggested the project will be funded by radical groups abroad, but Rauf says they haven't raised any money yet. They've also sought to tie Rauf's late father, Dr. Muhammad Abdul Rauf, to the Muslim Brotherhood. But Rauf points out that during the 1960s, when Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser was cracking down on the Brotherhood, the Egyptian government was sending his father around the world to give lectures. "Anyone who had ever been in the Muslim Brotherhood was imprisoned," Rauf says. "Had my father been in the Brotherhood, he would have been picked up."
Mohammed Elibiary, a Muslim community leader who works with the U.S. government on countering violent extremism, says that more conservative Muslim groups are likely to see what happened to Rauf as a cautionary tale. "Other more conservative Muslims, theologically speaking, have issues with his group because they're so liberal," Elibiary says. "When they see that liberal person framed as a political radical, that's proof [non-Muslim Americans] are going to be hostile to our version."
Rauf sees American Muslims as able to counter the kind of extremist ideology espoused by groups like al-Qaeda. "We need to give our young Muslims, to make them stakeholders in what it means to be American," Rauf says. This is ultimately, the same role the Obama administration envisions Muslims filling in its new National Security Strategy. "Our best defenses" against homegrown radicalization, the report reads, are "well informed and equipped families, local communities, and institutions."
In the aftermath of small-bore attacks by al-Qaeda inspired freelancers like Maj. Nidal Hasan at Ft. Hood, an effective homeland counter-radicalization strategy has grown ever more important.
"The more effective terrorist attacks are extremely difficult, so as [terror groups] fall back to wanting to exert some kind of threat, they fall back on the call to amateurish jihadi attacks," says Karen Greenberg, a terrorism expert at the NYU Center on Law and Security. Elibiary agrees. "Instead of [terror groups] functioning as a hierarchical organization with central management," he says, "they're functioning as a propaganda movement that identifies people with dysfunctional lives that they can then sway and send on a mission."
Elibiary emphasizes that while they're on the right track now, the Obama administration has been slow to recognize the problem, only reaching out to the Muslim community for help against homegrown radicalization in January.
"We need to be doing this on more than just a law-enforcement level, we need to see the positive face of government involved here, we need to see HUD, the Department of Education, all the other elements of government out there doing things," Matthew Levitt says.
Ultimately, protecting America from violent extremism at home will still require assistance from Muslim American communities, who will be dissuaded from turning to the government if they feel as though they are under assault for being Muslim. Although Levitt declined to comment on the Ground Zero dispute, he pointed to the families of the Virginia Five, who reached out to the government for help through Elibiary.
"The Muslim American community is our biggest ally in this effort," he says. "There is an inherent connection between the Muslim American community and the American government to protect those youth."
Given that, portraying the effort to build an Islamic cultural center at Ground Zero as a "victory" for al-Qaeda doesn't seem like the type of behavior that will actually keep America safe. Rather, it reinforces the kind of cultural narrative Osama bin Laden and his followers need to lend legitimacy to their murderous efforts.
"Al-Qaeda is an existential threat to Islam; it is not an existential threat to America," Malcolm Nance says. "You can't fight a war against the Islamic world; we have to help the Islamic world in its battle against this virus."