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COLUMN - Islam, terror and political correctness: Bernd Debusmann

(Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)

Reuters columnist and correspondent Bernd Debusmann is seen in his office in Washington, February 3, 2009. REUTERS/Jim Bourg/Files

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Islamic terrorists of the Bush era are gone. They have been replaced by violent extremists in a purge of the American government’s political lexicon. Smart move in the propaganda war between al Qaeda and the West? Or evidence of political correctness taken to extremes?

Those questions are worth revisiting after the publication in February of two key documents issued by the administration of President Barack Obama, the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) and the Quadrennial Homeland Security Review. Both deal with what used to be called the Global War on Terror. Neither uses the words “Muslim” or “Islam.”

The QDR says the United States is at war with al Qaeda and the Taliban, and speaks of the threat from “non-state actors” and terrorist networks. The Homeland Security Review identifies “al Qaeda and global violent extremism” as one of the main threats to the United States. No word on religion or al Qaeda’s use of a twisted version of Islam to justify mass murder.

To some, this omission amounts to a dangerous failure to deal with the root of the problem, evidence of a mind-set determined to avoid the appearance of anti-Muslim bias even if that endangers national security. Such charges flew thick and fast after a Muslim army officer, Major Nidal Malik Hasan allegedly killed 12 fellow soldiers and an army civilian in a shooting spree last November at the Fort Hood military base, shouting “Allahu Akbar” (God is greater) as he opened fire.

There was no mention of Islam, or Hasan’s interpretation of his faith and his publicly proclaimed anger over America’s wars in Muslim countries, in the 86-page Army report on the shooting. In the words of John Lehman, a member of the commission set up to investigate the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, the report released in January showed “how deeply entrenched the values of political correctness have become.”

President Obama’s initial description of the young Nigerian Muslim who attempted to bring down an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day (“an isolated extremist”) also prompted charges from conservatives that his administration fails to recognize the link between Islamic radicalism and terrorism.

According to a variety of media reports, the Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, was fitted with his explosives-laden underwear in Yemen and was in contact there with Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born radical cleric and al Qaeda recruiter who also corresponded by email with Maj. Hasan before the Fort Hood shooting spree.

So what’s the other side of the story, that it is smart to use terminology that avoids routinely linking the words Islamic or Muslim and terrorist? This idea actually dates back to the final year of the administration of George W. Bush, the man who handed al Qaeda a potent propaganda weapon five days after the September 11 attacks.

BUSH’S GIFT TO AL QAEDA

“This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take awhile,” he said in an unscripted remark. Using the word “crusade” to describe American retaliation to September 11 was counter-productive in the extreme. It recalled one of the darkest chapters in Christian history, the killing of hundreds of thousands of Muslims by marauding Christian “holy warriors” in repeated attempts to capture Jerusalem.

Bush never used the word again but “crusades” has been a gift that keeps giving for Osama bin Laden and his followers who say they are waging war against “Jews and crusaders,” a conflict they still hope to turn into a permanent clash of civilizations.

“Al Qaeda and its affiliated ideologues ... want to create a homogenous, undifferentiated Islam on whose behalf they speak and a coherent master narrative which justifies their action,” Marc Lynch, who heads the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University, wrote in a recent essay.

Conflating terrorism and Islam and thus creating a mental connection between the two, in other words, serves al Qaeda’s cause.

In March 2008, the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), established by a George W. Bush executive order, issued an internal set of guidelines on “language issues that may enhance or detract” from getting America’s message across.

Key points:

** “Don’t Invoke Islam: Although the al Qaeda network exploits religious sentiments and tries to use religion to justify its actions, we should treat it as an illegitimate political organization, both terrorist and criminal.”

** “Don’t Harp on Muslim Identity: Avoid labeling everything ‘Muslim.’ It reinforces the “U.S. vs Islam” framework that al Qaeda promotes. Be specific (Egyptian, Pakistani) and descriptive (South Asian youth, Arab opinion leaders) where possible.

** “Use the terms ‘violent extremist’ or ‘terrorist.’ Both are widely understood terms that define our enemies appropriately and simultaneously deny them any level of legitimacy.”

At the time, “violent extremist” was a non-binding suggestion. It has now become the Obama administration’s phrase of choice. Whether that is tantamount to dangerous political correctness is still a matter of debate.

(You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters)

Editing by Kieran Murray

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