The provocative “Radical Islamists” discussion has reached a boiling point. It is a debate that should be a non-partisan conversation but has instead become a political food fight.
Sensitive to criticism, President Obama angrily denounced Republican charges that he’s afraid to use the term “Radical Islamist” to describe attackers in tragedies like the Orlando killings at Pulse Nightclub. He scolded, “ We can’t get ISIL unless we call them ‘radical Islamists?’ What exactly would using this label accomplish? It’s just a political talking point.”
Republicans vigorously responded that the President can’t win a war if he can’t name and define the enemy.
This question should not be a one-sided rant, except to say that neither side is right and that neither side truly understands the importance of precise wording. Unfortunately, most politicians achieved their positions as lawyers and orators, without understanding how to execute strategies with large, complex organizations. If these leaders had consulted an expert in organizational science, they would know the importance of clear, precise words at the top level.
The President’s wording must serve as the precursor to developing goals, strategies, and tactical execution. Naming hs enemy in clear terms will ultimately become a compass that directs his subordinates. For example, the phrase “War on Islam” would be inappropriate because it would suggest deploying assets, against Mecca and Medina, instead of the armies of ISIS, the Taliban, Al-Queda, or Boko Haran. Obviously, that’s an extreme example, but it illustrates how much wording matters. It ultimately filters down to every level of execution, such as recruitment, methods, training, equipment, and organizations. It applies equally to the management of military branches, the FBI, NSA, CIA, and Homeland Security.
The Republican insistence on “radical Islam,” radical Islamists,” etc. isn’t helpful either. From 2001 to 2008, the Bush Administration chose the term “Global War on Terror.” The war has morphed to include new objectives so the old name would be obsolete today. Moreover, It was only helpful during those years because it clearly established that we are at war. But how do we mount a war against ‘terror’ a word that only indicates personal fears?
The President must acknowledge that we are fighting an asymmetrical war. It has different kinds of attacks of varying sizes and character in a variety of locations. In the US, we are fighting a war of detect-prevent-and-arrest, similar to a widespread crime wave. It is a war, however, with all attacks interconnected by an ideology that compels killing civilians according to an interpretation of a religious doctrine. Separate organizations embrace that doctrine but execute in different ways, in different geographies, with different attack methods.
Most politicians agree that we are at war, though there has been no declaration of war requested by the President, nor has Congress formally supported a war declaration.
Nevertheless, we must use the word ‘war’ in our description.
If we identify our enemy simply as ‘ISIS,’ we will narrow the focus to eliminate other organizations we must confront. Though the controlling ideology is present in part of the Quran (known to scholars as the Sword Verse) we are not at war with all followers of the Quran. We are only at war with those segments that have declared war on America, or our allies in Europe and the Middle East. We might consider the following terms, based on their definitions:
Fundamentalist: A religious movement characterized by a strict belief in the literal interpretation of religious texts.
Islamist: A supporter or advocate of Islamic fundamentalism.
Jihad: A holy war undertaken as a sacred duty by Muslims.
Jihadism: An Islamic fundamentalist movement that favors the pursuit of jihads to defend the Islamic faith.
Militant: Vigorously active and aggressive, especially in support of a cause.
Based on these choices, the President could refer to our conflict as, “A War on Militant Jihadism.” This choice sharpens the target and includes all of our enemies without offending the peaceful followers of Islam.
There may be better names, but we should eliminate “fundamentalist,” because it could ambiguously apply to other religions We can also eliminate “Islamist” since a person might be philosophically an Islamist, though not involved in fighting or killing.
Regardless of the exact name chosen, it must be understandable by the organizations that execute it, and accepted across the full political spectrum.