Is America at war with radical Islam?

Short answer: Yes, of course. But we can’t say that too loudly.

Let me explain.

This question came up during Saturday’s Democratic presidential debate, which followed the attacks in Paris. I freely admit that – to a wounded and frightened world populace – the Democrats responses seemed like weak tea, with their inability to straightforwardly say whether we were or were not at war with radical Islam. The Republican presidential candidates clearly thought they had a gotchya moment here and attacked the Democrats. Donald Trump even says the problem of terrorism can’t be solved until we say the magic words “radical Islamic terrorism”. (It’s like saying hocus pocus, I guess.)

While this demand to speak the words is probably very satisfying to some, it is also very irresponsible – especially coming from presidential candidates.

You see, what U.S. presidential candidates say is not just for domestic consumption. Their words are heard around the world. Citizens of other countries – who don’t get to vote, of course – are very much effected by what the U.S. does, and they follow our politics closely. When discussing terrorism, you have to be nuanced about how your criticize Islam. If you’re not careful, you’ll lose the battle for hearts and minds before you even have a chance to fight. If we’re ever to stop Islam-inspired terrorism, we cannot alienate moderate Muslims. We cannot have them thinking, “Well, they hate us anyway, so screw ‘em. Bring on the jihad.” Hillary Clinton came closest to articulating this that night. She even – and it kills me to say this – rightly praised George W. Bush for his restraint:

If they hear people running for– president who basically shortcut it to say we are somehow against Islam– that was one of the real contributions– despite all the other problems that George W. Bush made after 9/11 when he basically said after going to a mosque in Washington, “We are not at war with Islam or Muslims. We are at war with violent extremism. We are at war with people who use their religion for purposes of power and oppression.” And yes, we are at war with those people that I don’t want us to be painting with too brand (sic) a brush.

So, what seems like mealy mouthed responses from the Democrats are, in fact, finely calibrated responses.

Can we not criticize Islam at all, then? Of course we can. Look, clearly ISIS is a religiously inspired movement. For some reason – and it’s not at all clear to me why – a certain brand of fundamentalist Islam is proving remarkably attractive to some Muslims across the world, who are willing to travel to Syria to fight and to conduct terrorism at home. This is certainly a fact that Islam and its adherents must confront.

We must discuss, understand, and criticize Islam as it relates to terrorism. But we have to be careful in how we go about it. And certainly presidential candidates saying things that will be perceived to threaten Muslims worldwide won’t help. It matters who does the criticizing. If that’s not satisfying to you, well, I don’t know what to say. Maybe you should just grow up a little.

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