Abizaid: In ‘The Battle Of Words,’ Phrases Like ‘Islamic Extremism’ Alienate ‘Mainline Islam’

In July, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani complained that Democratic presidential candidates avoided using formulations of the term “Islamic extremists,” saying “I can’t imagine who you insult if you say Islamic terrorist”:

“During their two debates they never mentioned the word Islamic terrorist, Islamic extremist, Islamic fascist, terrorist, whatever combination of those words you want to use, (the) words never came up,” Giuliani said Tuesday in Virginia Beach. “Maybe it’s politically incorrect to say that. I don’t know. I can’t imagine who you insult if you say Islamic terrorist. You don’t insult anyone who is Islamic who isn’t a terrorist.

In August, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) said he worries that candidates “don’t use the term ‘Islamist extremism’ or ‘Islamist terrorism’ in the debates.” He said it was “a problem” of “political correctness.”

The hawkish logic of Giuliani and Lieberman was contradicted yesterday by former CENTCOM Commander Gen. John Abizaid, who said in a speech that “even adding the word Islamic” makes it “very, very difficult” to “work together” with mainline regional leaders to keep extremism “from becoming mainstream.” Abizaid was speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on the role of the military in counterterrorism. Watch it:



While hawks like Giuliani and Lieberman push to ratchet up the rhetoric, people like Abizaid realize that recklessly conflating Islam with extremism is counterproductive to actually addressing the problem of terrorism, as it alienates necessary allies in the Muslim world.


ABIZAID: I mean, even adding the word Islamic extremism, or qualifying it to Sunni Islamic extremism, or qualifying it further to Sunni Islamic extermism as exemplified by government such as Bin Laden, all make it very, very difficult because the battle of words is meaningful, especially in the Middle East to people. And so, I do think, and I had a chance to get to know many of the regional leaders out there. They clearly understand that we, collectively, are fighting a problem that they don’t want to win, that we don’t want to win. The problem that we have to face is how do we work together to keep this problem from becoming mainstream. […]

The key is to figure out how we don’t turn this into Samuel Huntington’s Battle of Civilization’s and we work toward an area where we respect mainstream Islam. There’s nothing Islamic about Bin Laden’s philosophy, there’s nothing Islamic about suicide bombing. I believe that these are huge difficulties that we need to overcome, this notion of Christianity versus Islam. It’s not that, it doesn’t need to be that.