Presidential candidates debate about terror talk

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- The presidential campaign debate about what to do about terrorism now includes a debate about how to talk about terrorism.

While GOP presidential candidates are not shy about using phrases like "Islamic terrorism" that link the tactic to a specific religion, Democrats largely avoid that connection.

GOP front-runner Rudolph W. Giuliani says it tells you something - something he believes is negative - about Democrats.

"During their two debates they never mentioned the word Islamic terrorist, Islamic extremist, Islamic fascist, terrorist, whatever combination of those words you want to use, [the] words never came up," Giuliani said Tuesday in Virginia Beach. "Maybe it's politically incorrect to say that. I don't know. I can't imagine who you insult if you say Islamic terrorist. You don't insult anyone who is Islamic who isn't a terrorist."

Giuliani also offered a slightly tweaked version of a popular disclaimer about Islam and terrorism.

"I recognize that this does not involve most Islamic people," he said of terrorism. "I also recognize it involves more than an insignificant number of people who organize themselves around a perversion of the religion."

Giuliani said he has been "studying" Islamic terrorism since 1975 and found its perpetrators to be "some of the most violent people in the world."

Muqtedar Khan, an Islam expert at the University of Delaware and the Brookings Institution, said the terminology matters and U.S. outreach to the Muslim world is hurt by the use of phrases such as "Islamic terrorism."

"It reflects a great amount of ignorance of what is really happening because many of those so-called terrorists are not fighting for Islamic causes," Khan said. "This whole idea that this is one monolithic threat motivated primarily by Islamic values leads to false policies."

Giuliani's stance is politically motivated, according to Khan.

"He is trying to say 'I might have some liberal tendencies [on social issues] but on foreign policy I am just another Bush.' That's the point he is trying to make," Khan said.

John L. Esposito, founding director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, concurred, saying Giuliani "clearly wants to play to and exploit the notion that he, and not the Democrats, is tough on terrorism."

"Democrats have been focusing on specific issues like Iraq in which you can talk about Sunni and Shiite or al-Qaida without necessarily using generic terms like Islamic terrorism or Islamic fascism," Esposito said.

Richard C. Martin, a religion professor at Atlanta's Emory University, said the phrase "Islamic terrorism" is "terribly loaded."

"I appreciate the caution of those Democratic candidates who want to address the issue of terrorism without confining it to a particular religion," Martin said, adding that "Muslims who are terrorists may be, and often are, terrorists for reasons other than being Muslim."

The Committee for American-Islamic Relations long has urged avoiding references to Islam in talk about terrorism.

"We have asked President Bush and other elected officials to avoid the use of hot-button terms such as 'Islamo fascism,' 'militant jihadism' or 'Islamic terrorism' because we believe the use of these loaded and imprecise terms promotes a false and negative impression that we are at war with Islam," CAIR spokeswoman Rabiah Ahmed said.

At an event Wednesday marking the 50th anniversary of the Islamic Center of Washington, Bush soft-pedaled the link between Islam and terrorism, opting instead to blame terrorism on a "self-appointed vanguard [that] presumes to speak for Muslims."

A day later, at a different kind of event in front of a different kind of crowd, Bush's word choice changed a bit.

America, he said at the Naval War College in Rhode Island, is at war with "Islamic extremists" who covet a "radical Islamic empire."

He ended the speech by referring to his Wednesday appearance at the Islamic Center.

"We honor all religion," Bush said, adding, "And it is really meant to counter this notion that somehow America is in war against Islam. We're not. We're at war against killers who subvert religion in order to achieve their political objectives."

The record shows that Giuliani is correct in his assessment of how Democratic candidates discussed terrorism in their debates.

On June 3 in New Hampshire, the only mention of Islam or Muslims came from John Edwards in an answer about Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. Edwards warned that "radical Islam" could gain power in Pakistan if Musharraf is ousted.

New York Sen. Hillary Clinton ascribed no religious connection when she spoke of "a small band of terrorists who are intent upon foisting their way of life and using suicide bombers and suicidal people to carry out their agenda."

At an April 26 debate in South Carolina, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson spoke of "international terrorism" and made no religious link. Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd referred to "stateless terrorism."

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama referred to "genuine enemies out there that have to be hunted down, networks have to be dismantled."

At their debates, GOP candidates have made the religious link.

On June 5 in New Hampshire, Giuliani spoke of "Islamist terrorists" arrested for plotting to attack JFK Airport.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney talked of "an effort to help move Islam toward modernity."

Arizona Sen. John McCain referred to "the battle and struggle against radical Islamic extremism," which he called "a force of evil that is within our shores."

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad