The Word Most World Leaders Talking About Paris Won’t Say

What's in a name? A lot when it comes to describing the extremists behind the Paris terror attacks

U.S. President Barack Obama. — Getty Images
Nov 16, 2015 at 7:34 PM ET

In the wake of the deadliest attacks to hit Paris since World War II, the world’s leaders quickly rallied in support of France and its people. One by one, heads of state pledged support and vowed to fight extremism. Their language was direct, compassionate and at times harsh. Almost none of them uttered the word “Islamic.”

In an age when many major cities have been hit with shocking acts of violence at the hands of extremists claiming affiliation with a radical form of Islam, talking meaningfully about terrorism is part of our leaders’ jobs. But the words those conversations use determine how we understand the war on terror and reflect contentious political realities.

Vocativ used our technology to analyze the initial responses to the Paris attacks by eight heads of state in the first two days after Friday’s massacre. The speeches totaled 2,674 words and contained many similarities: many included the word “attack” and some form of the word “terror.” But only Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani used the word “Islamic,” the Vocativ analysis showed. Netanyahu called the events “militant Islamic terrorism” in his response on Saturday.

Vocativ’s analysis of remarks delivered by heads of state focused on British Prime Minister David Cameron, U.S. President Barack Obama, French President Francois Hollande, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel, Russian President Vladimir Putin, President of Iran Hassan Rouhani, and Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel. Nearly everyone called the attacks terrorism, but nearly all avoided linking them explicitly to Islam.

In the United States, the decision to use the word now falls almost perfectly along party lines, with Democrats avoiding it. At Saturday’s debate, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would not use the words “radical Islam” to characterize the twin threats of ISIS and al Qaeda. That term is “not particularly helpful,” she argued, instead primarily calling the terrorist groups “radical jihadis.” Clinton’s approach is a continuation of President Obama’s policy. He uses the phrase “violent extremism” and “terrorism” to avoid the appearance of linking Islam and violence, much to the consternation of conservatives.

Many on the right see Obama and Clinton’s decision not to use “Islamic” to describe attacks motivated by that religion’s radical fringe as excessive political correctness. “Obama seems more concerned with protecting the sensitivities of Islamists than he does the lives of their victims,” wrote Michael Rubin, resident scholar at AEI, in February, pointing out the attacks do, in fact, draw motivation from the religion. “Woven into the Islamic State’s videos are Koranic recitations and theological incantations.”

Numerous Republican presidential candidates pounced after Clinton’s remarks during the debate, suggesting that she was fundamentally mischaracterizing the nature of the threat the U.S. faces. “Yes, we are at war with radical Islamic terrorism,” Jeb Bush tweeted. On ABC’s “This Week,” Marco Rubio said not saying U.S. is at war with “radical Islam… would be like saying we weren’t at war with Nazis, because we were afraid to offend some Germans who may have been members of the Nazi Party but weren’t violent themselves.”

The phrase is more common in the right across Europe, too. Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s anti-immigration National Front party declared, “Islamist fundamentalism must be annihilated, France must ban Islamist organizations, close radical mosques and expel foreigners who preach hatred in our country as well as illegal migrants who have nothing to do here.” Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy’s far right Northern League, wrote on Facebook on Saturday, “The throat cutters and Islamic terrorists should be eliminated with force!”

Meanwhile, Muslim advocacy groups regularly criticize the phrase “radical Islam” as a thinly veiled attack on the religion as a whole. “It’s one of those ill-defined phrases that’s used by many on the right to target Islam without appearing to target the entire faith,” said Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director at the Council on American-Islamic Relations, in a phone interview with Vocativ. “Many who use that term, when you push them, they end up attacking all Muslims and the entire faith.”

“If it’s used constantly, it creates the impression that all of Islam is, quote, radical,” Hooper says.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a terrorism analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, says there might be tactical reasons to avoid calling terrorism “Islamic.” “The positive case for the Democrats,” he says, is that by avoiding saying Islam, they avoid “giving legitimacy to al Qaeda or ISIS.” He echoes claims by the president’s press secretary this year that ISIS terrorists aren’t true Muslims. In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo shooting, Josh Earnest, Obama’s press secretary, called the attackers’ view of Islam “deviant.”

But, according to Gartenstein-Ross, Republicans use of the word “radical” implies a subset and they say avoiding religion all together risks misunderstanding the role ideology plays within these groups. The Obama administration saw that danger play out in their response to the Arab Spring, Gartenstein-Ross said, by downplaying the influence Islamist groups could wield in the aftermath of the uprisings.

Though it may feel new, politicians walking a rhetorical tightrope in the war on terror dates back at least to the George W. Bush administration. In the days after the attacks on 9/11, then-President Bush referred to the war on terrorism as a “crusade,” raising fears in the Muslim and Arab world that the U.S. saw itself at war with Islam. Shortly afterward, Bush adopted a slightly more restrained approach. “The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends; it is not our many Arab friends,” Bush later said. “Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them.”

Despite the praise Bush now regularly gets for that position—including from Clinton herself at the debate—over his two terms he continued to link Islam with terrorism. The most famous example came in 2006, when Bush said the U.S. was “at war with Islamic fascists.” The term was popular among neoconservatives in Washington at the time, but provoked a critical response from American Muslims who felt the president’s comments contributed to a growing phenomenon of Islamophobia in the country.

The current president again denied the language of “war on Islam” in his most recent statements on the Paris massacre. “We don’t feed that kind of notion, that somehow Christians and Muslims are at war, and if we want to be successful defeating ISIL, that’s a good place to start, by not promoting that kind of ideology, that kind of attitude,” Obama said, speaking at the G20 in Turkey on Monday.

“We don’t discriminate against people because of their faith. We don’t kill people because they’re different than us. That’s what separates us from them,” he said.