FPI Analysis: Bush, Obama, and Islam

January 6, 2016

By FPI Policy Analyst Joshua Holdenried and FPI Policy Director David Adesnik

At a press conference following the Paris attacks, President Obama responded to a question about the relationship between Islam and terrorism by saying, “I had a lot of disagreements with George W. Bush on policy, but I was very proud after 9/11 when he was adamant and clear about the fact that this is not a war on Islam.” With regards to Islam, the similarities between Bush and Obama go far beyond their common insistence that the United States is at war with terrorists and not with Islam itself. Both Presidents insisted throughout their tenure that there is no substantive relationship between Islam and terrorism, because terrorists betray the fundamental values of the Muslim faith. Where both Presidents have struggled is in their ability to explain to the American people why a significant number of Muslims—such as the 30,000 foreigners who have joined the Islamic State—consider violent actions to be a legitimate expression of their faith.

September 11, Terrorism, and Islam

Six days after the devastating attacks of September 11, 2001, George W. Bush made his way to the Islamic Center of Washington D.C. to call for tolerance and reject any notion of a conflict between America and Islam. In doing so, Bush set a precedent both for his own presidency and for that of his successor.

In his brief remarks at the Islamic Center, Bush asserted, “These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith.  And it's important for my fellow Americans to understand that.” He added, “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam.  That's not what Islam is all about.  Islam is peace.” Then Bush praised American Muslims for their contributions as “doctors, lawyers, law professors, members of the military, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, moms and dads.” He warned that “they need to be treated with respect.  In our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect.”

Two days after his visit to the Islamic Center, President Bush welcomed to the White House Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri, elected leader of the nation with the largest Muslim population in the World. During joint remarks with Megawati, Bush said, “I've made it clear, Madam President, that the war against terrorism is not a war against Muslims, nor is it a war against Arabs. It's a war against evil people who conduct crimes against innocent people.”

Although such remarks became a staple of Bush’s rhetoric, few credited him with a progressive stance on Islam. Instead, Bush faced criticism throughout his tenure for a remark made the day before his visit to the Islamic Center, in which he said, “This crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take a while.” The comment provoked an immediate backlash that echoed throughout Bush’s eight years in office. The Wall Street Journal observed, “There could hardly have been a more indelicate gaffe,” whose Christian overtones reinforced “the anxiety of some Muslims that the war on terrorism is really a war on them.” The White House quickly disavowed the phrase, with spokesman Ari Fleischer explaining that the president meant crusade in the “traditional English sense of the word, a broad cause.”  Accordingly, Bush never used the word again in connection with terrorism.

Continuity From Bush to Obama

In 2007, as a candidate for President, Sen. Barack Obama promised that, “In the first hundred days of my administration, I will travel to a major Islamic forum and deliver an address to redefine our struggle.  I will make clear that we are not at war with Islam.” Only after the Paris attacks in November 2015 would he acknowledge that Bush had defined the war in the same manner. As President, when Obama arrived in Cairo to deliver the promised address, he presented a vision remarkably similar to that of his predecessor.

In Cairo, President Obama emphasized both the values shared by Islam and America as well as the integral of Muslims in the United States. “Let there be no doubt,” the President said, “Islam is a part of America.”  Muslims “have fought in our wars, they have served in our government, they have stood for civil rights,” and accomplished many other things, from winning Nobel Prizes to lighting the Olympic torch. Obama’s broader message to the Muslim world was “that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition.  Instead, they overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.” As he had in an earlier address to the Turkish Parliament in April 2009, Obama echoed Bush almost verbatim, assuring his audience that, “The United States is not, and will never be, at war with Islam.”

In Cairo, Obama also followed Bush’s precedent of denouncing anti-Muslim bigotry. “I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear,” Obama said. He explained that “the United States government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab and to punish those who would deny it.” Eight years earlier, at the Islamic Center, Bush made an identical point. “Women who cover their heads in this country must feel comfortable going outside their homes. Moms who wear cover must be not intimidated in America,” Bush said, “That's not the America I know. That's not the America I value.” Thus, during Bush’s tenure, the Department of Justice fought to defend the right of a Nashala Hearn, an Oklahoma sixth-grader, to wear the hijab in school.

Hijacking and Perverting Islam

In addition to presenting a positive of view of both the Muslim faith and Muslims in America, both Bush and Obama sought to address the significance of the fact that terrorists continue to commit atrocities in the name of Islam. Borrowing imagery from the attacks of September 11, Bush frequently said that the terrorists were “hijacking Islam”, whereas Obama prefers to describe the terrorists’ ideology as a “perversion of Islam.” The difficulty of this approach is that it does not explain why, as Obama noted in Cairo, a “small but potent minority” of the world’s Muslims have embraced the terrorists’ ideology as an authentic expression of Islam.

In his September 20, 2001 address to Congress, President Bush described terrorists as “traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself.” The following year, Bush said, “We respect the [Islamic] faith. We honor its traditions. Our enemy does not. Our enemy doesn't follow the great traditions of Islam. They've hijacked a great religion.” Bush employed similar language during his final year in office, telling an audience in Abu Dhabi, “Today your aspirations are threatened by violent extremists who murder the innocent in pursuit of power. These extremists have hijacked the noble religion of Islam, and seek to impose their totalitarian ideology on millions.”

When accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, President Obama condemned “the way that religion is used to justify the murder of innocents by those who have distorted and defiled the great religion of Islam.” Last year, when asked if the U.S. is at war with radical Islam, Obama responded, “there is an element growing out of Muslim communities in certain parts of the world that have perverted the religion, have embraced a nihilistic, violent, almost medieval interpretation of Islam.”

A distinctive feature of Obama’s rhetoric is the adamant refusal to employ phrases such as “Islamic extremism” or “radical Islam” which may leave some audiences with the impression that there is anything remotely Islamic about such extremism. As he explained at last year’s White House summit on countering violent extremism, terrorists “try to portray themselves as religious leaders – holy warriors in defense of Islam,” but “We must never accept the premise that they put forward, because it is a lie.” In contrast, George W. Bush did not believe that employing phrases such as “Islamic extremism” amounted to an admission that such extremism was legitimately Islamic.In a 2005 speech at the National Endowment for Democracy, Bush acknowledged the difficulty of describing the threat the country faced. “Some call this evil Islamic radicalism; others, militant Jihadism; still others, Islamo-fascism,” remarked the President, “Whatever it’s called, this ideology is very different from the religion of Islam.”  For Bush, no name could alter the underlying truth that such extremism is not truly Islamic.

While Obama is almost certainly right that “the overwhelming majority of Muslims reject that [perverted] interpretation of Islam,” neither he nor Bush has been able to answer the question why, if that interpretation is patently false, tens of thousands of young Muslims are leaving comfortable homes to wage the holy war declared by the Islamic State. In other words, how is it possible for terrorists to pervert or hijack a religion while persuading so many others that they have not distorted it any way?

The Credibility Gap

A compelling explanation of the relationship between terror and Islam is necessary in order to preempt the excessive fear and baseless prejudice whose emergence so concerned both George W. Bush and Barack Obama. In the absence of a compelling explanation, there is a risk that Americans will come to the false conclusion that Islam itself is the problem. Both Bush and Obama worked hard to prevent Americans from reaching that conclusion, yet their refusal to acknowledge any relationship between Islam and terrorism has generated a credibility gap, which is now being exploited by those who do believe that Islam itself is the problem.

A Rasmussen survey conducted after the attacks in Paris found that 35 percent of Americans believe that ISIS does represent the Islamic faith. A plurality of 46 percent disagrees, yet that is down from 58 percent in a previous survey. Elliott Abrams, a senior adviser to President Bush on Middle Eastern affairs, argues that the relentless positivity of Bush and Obama’s rhetoric is a part of the problem. Such rhetoric antagonizes much of its audience, because “the average American thinks…all these people who are doing beheadings are Muslims, so don’t tell me it’s all wonderful.” Shadi Hamid, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, makes a similar point. The rhetoric employed by American leaders to prevent Islamophobia has backfired, since “claims that ISIS and Islam are unrelated sound entirely divorced from reality.” In fact, Hamid writes, “ISIS draws on, and draws strength from, ideas that have broad resonance among Muslim-majority populations.”

The challenge for American leaders is to describe how certain Islamic traditions are conducive to extremism under certain circumstances, while clarifying that most of the world’s Muslims subscribe to beliefs that value human life no less than our own. Such an effort will help to lay the foundation for U.S. cooperation with Muslim leaders who share our determination to uproot the influences that foster extremism. In addition, this effort should help Americans to understand that the threat of extremism may have deep roots, but can be fought effectively through patient efforts to confront the problem at its source.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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