Lieberman and "Islamic terrorism"

As The Washington Monthly's Steve Benen pointed out on Thursday, Senator Joe Lieberman (I-Connecticut) gave a talk that day at the National Press Club in which he complained that the Obama administration prefers to criticize "violent extremism" as opposed to "violent Islamic extremism." Quoting Senator Lieberman, "The administration still refuses to call our enemy in this war by its proper name: violent Islamist extremism."

There are at least three things wrong with this, two of them Benen mentions. First, given the administration's success in capturing or killing major terrorist leaders, including not just Osama bin Laden but al-Qaeda leaders Atiyah Abd al-Rahman (reportedly the second in command, killed in late August), al Qaeda financial chief Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, Abu Ayyub al-Masri of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, et al, not to mention terrorists from other groups, such as Taliban military chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, Hakimullah Mehsud, Baitullah Mehsud, Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, Najibullah Zazi, Talib Islam, Hosam Maher Husein Smadi and others (list compiled by Benen).

Second, there's good reason to think Lieberman's phrasing would be entirely counterproductive. That, in fact, was the view of the last administration as well, whose policies Lieberman largely supported (except of course that Lieberman, who'd been tortured himself by North Vietnamese prison guards, opposed what the Bush people called "enhance interrogation"). Benen quotes Karen Hughes, a close Bush advisor: "We ought to avoid the language of religion. Whenever they hear ‘Islamic extremism, Islamic jihad, Islamic fundamentalism,’ they perceive it as a sort of an attack on their faith. That’s the world view Osama bin Laden wants them to have." That is, what Lieberman advocates would play directly into the hands of the bad guys.

Finally, if Lieberman is talking about the so-called "war on terror," then the enemy is not limited to Islamic extremism but includes extremists of all sorts. The people behind the Oklahoma City bombing (the second-worst terrorist attack in American history), the Olympic Park bombing, and many other attacks ranged from a Japanese religious cult to home-grown right-wing Americans, often from the far reaches of the Christian right. Would Lieberman think it reasonable to refer to the Olympic Park bombing as "violent Christian extremism"? I hope not.

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