WASHINGTON — President Obama gave a lengthy defense of the administration’s policy to not link Islam to terrorism, telling the summit on Countering Violent Extremism this afternoon that “no religion is responsible for terrorism; people are responsible for violence and terrorism.”
He gave as examples of extremism the 1994 Oklahoma City bombing, 9/11, the Fort Hood massacre, the Boston Marathon bombings, and “horrific acts of violence at a Sikh temple near Milwaukee or at a Jewish community center outside Kansas City.”
“Most recently, with the brutal murders in Chapel Hill of three young Muslim Americans, many Muslim Americans are worried and afraid. And I want to be as clear as I can be, as Americans all faiths and backgrounds, we stand with you in your grief and we offer our love and we offer our support,” Obama told the crowd in the South Court auditorium.
The president called “groups like al-Qaeda and ISIL” a challenge for the world, as “we’ve seen deadly attacks in Ottawa and Sydney and Paris and now Copenhagen.”
“Given the complexities of the challenge and the nature of the enemy, which is not a traditional army, this work takes time and will require vigilance and resilience and perspective,” he said. “But I’m confident that just as we have for more than two centuries, we will ultimately prevail.”
He defined violent extremism: “We don’t just mean the terrorists who are killing innocent people; we also mean the ideologies, the infrastructure of extremists, the propagandists, the recruiters, the funders who radicalize and recruit or incite people to violence.”
“Around the world and here in the United States, inexcusable acts of violence have been committed against people of different faiths by people of different faiths, which is, of course, betrayal of all our faiths. It’s not unique to one group or to one geography or one period of time.”
Obama addressed the “fair amount of debate” over the terms used to describe the terrorist threat.
“We must never accept the premise that they put forward, because it is a lie, nor should we grant these terrorists the religious legitimacy that they seek. They are not religious leaders; they’re terrorists,” he said of ISIS’ claim to be the Islamic State. “And we are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.”
Al-Qaeda and ISIS, he added, “do draw selectively from the Islamic texts. They do depend upon the misperception around the world that they speak in some fashion for people of the Muslim faith, that Islam is somehow inherently violent, that there is some sort of clash of civilizations.”
“Of course, the terrorists do not speak for a billion Muslims who reject their ideology. They no more represent Islam than any madman who kills innocents in the name of God, represents Christianity or Judaism or Buddhism or Hinduism.”
He lauded religious leaders who “preach that Islam calls for peace and for justice and tolerance towards others.”
“That terrorism is prohibited. The Koran says whoever kills an innocent, it is as if he has killed all mankind. Those are the voices that represent over a billion people around the world.”
Obama said the “reality, which, again, many Muslim leaders have spoken to, is that there’s a strain of thought that doesn’t embrace ISIL’s tactics, doesn’t embrace violence, but does buy into the notion that the Muslim world has suffered historic grievances, sometimes that’s accurate.”
“It does buy into the belief that so many of the ills in the Middle East flow from a history of colonialism or conspiracy. It does buy into the idea that Islam is incompatible with modernity or tolerance, or that it’s been polluted by Western values. So, those beliefs exist. In some communities around the world, they are widespread,” he continued. “And so, it makes individuals, especially young people who already may be disaffected or alienated more ripe for radicalization.”
He stressed Muslim leaders “need to do more than discredit the notion that our nations are determined to suppress Islam, that there is inherent clash in civilizations.”
Obama advocated tackling “head-on” terrorist ideologies, encouraging entrepreneurship and addressing “the grievances that terrorists exploit, including economic grievances.”
“There are terrorists who come from extraordinarily wealthy backgrounds, like Osama bin Laden. What’s true, though, is that when millions of people, especially youth, are impoverished and have no hope for the future, when corruption inflicts daily humiliations on people, when there are no outlets by which people can express their concerns, resentments fester. The risk of instability and extremism grow,” he said.
The president said community intervention is needed as well, such as when “faith leaders may notice that someone’s beginning to espouse violent interpretations of religion.”
“I know some Muslim Americans have concerns about working with government, particularly law enforcement. And their reluctance is rooted in the objection to certain practices, where Muslim Americans feel they’ve been unfairly targeted. So, in our work, we have to make sure that abuses stop, are not repeated, that we do not stigmatize entire communities. Nobody should be profiled or put under a cloud of suspicion simply because of their faith,” he said.
“Engagement with communities can’t be a cover for surveillance. It can’t securitize our relationship with Muslim Americans, dealing with them solely through the prism of law enforcement.”
America, Obama said, needs “to show that we welcome people of all faiths” to dismantle the terrorists’ recruitment narrative. He spoke of getting a Valentine from an 11-year-old Muslim girl who wrote, “I am worried about people hating Muslims. If some Muslims do bad things that doesn’t mean all of them do.”
“We can’t paper over problems. And we are not going to solve this if we are always just trying to be politically correct. But we do have to remember that 11-year-old girl. That is our hope. That is our future,” he said.
The president didn’t mention a “military component” to defeating ISIS until the end of his speech.
“There are savage cruelties going on out there that have to be stopped. ISIL is killing Muslims at a rate that is many multiples the rate that they’re killing non-Muslims. Everybody has a stake in stopping them. And there will be an element of us just stopping them in their tracks with force,” Obama said.
“But to eliminate the soil out of which they grew, to make sure that we are getting a brighter future to everyone, and a lasting sense of security, now we are going to have to make it clear to all of our children, including that little girl in fifth grade, that you have a place.”