Mr. Trump, you are the first American president ever to use the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” in your Inaugural Address.
Neither Presidents George W. Bush nor Barack Obama chose to use the term. Thus, even though we have been at war in the Middle East since 2001 – and even though we continue to see horrific terrorist attacks by Islamic State loyalists from San Bernardino and Orlando to Paris and Brussels and now London just this week -- we have never had a Commander-in-Chief actually define for the American people the nature of our enemy.
“We will unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth,” you vowed in January.
Then, before a Joint Session of Congress last month, you built on the theme that you began during the campaign, declaring that your administration is committed to “taking strong measures to protect our nation from radical Islamic terrorism.”
Such language has been sharply criticized by former aides to President Barack Obama, who insisted on saying he was countering “violent extremism.”
“What was accomplished by declaring war on ‘radical Islamic terrorism’?” Ben Rhodes, the former National Security Council official, Tweeted during the Joint Session. “Just alienating Muslim allies who we need, and emboldening terrorists.”
“There’s nothing magic about those three words,” Tweeted Marie Harf, the former State Department spokeswoman. “They’re not a strategy, they’re a talking point.”
Ignore such partisan sniping, Mr. President. You are absolutely right to shine a spotlight on the homicidal ideology that drives jihadists to wage war against us and our allies. But be careful. Don’t assume everyone knows what you mean. The phrase, after all, is simply shorthand. Now that you have captured people’s attention by using the term, you must define it. As leader of the free world, you have an extraordinary platform to educate a national and global audience about the true nature and magnitude of the threat in more detail and with more precision. Seize it.
Here are three suggestions:
First, be clear and consistent that the vast majority of Muslims are not dangerous.
This may seem an obvious point, but there is genuine confusion among some. There are people – at home and abroad – who hear you use the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” and think you mean that the entire Islamic religion is radical and thus all Muslims are prone to terrorism. Since you’re actually using the word “radical” to define a subgroup that approves of violence against innocents, and not to cast aspersions on the broader Muslim faith, be forward-leaning in making the distinction crystal clear.
Since the Al Qaeda attacks of 9/11, the Pew Research Center, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Gallup and other organizations have conducted extensive polling throughout Islamic world on Muslim attitudes regarding a wide range of political and religious subjects.
An analysis of the data suggests that the vast majority of Muslims overseas – upwards of 90 percent – generally do not support violence against civilians to advance their beliefs. However, between 7 and 10 percent of Muslims worldwide can be characterized as having radical views in that they openly state that they support the extreme violence of the Islamic State or support the use of suicide bombings against innocent civilian targets to advance their political or religious objectives.
Study this 90/10 split. Immerse yourself and your national security team in the data. Direct the State Department to do more polling. And start explaining the 90/10 split to the public so they understand you’re not speaking about most Muslims.
Second, define for the public the nature of this violent subset and the gravity of the threat they pose.
Saying that “only” 7 percent to 10 percent sympathize with jihadists is true and fair, but hardly comforting. In a world of 1.6 billion Muslims, this means upwards of 160 million people could be fairly characterized as sympathizing with “radical Islam” or, more precisely, “militant Islamism,” a violent political ideology that seeks to accomplish totalitarian objectives under the cloak of Islam.
Imagine if this subset established their own country. It could be the ninth largest country in the world. Larger than Russia. Half the population of the United States. Not all Muslims who hold extreme views will turn to violence, of course. But this is the pool from which Islamist terrorist organizations and states raise funds, recruit new members, and inspire “lone wolf” attacks. Explain this to people.
Explain the objectives of the jihadists. And point out sobering truths like the fact that in 2016 alone, 37 people were arrested in the U.S. for ISIS-plots. ISIS began as al Qaeda in Iraq. Now it has recruited terrorists from 120 countries, and have murdered more than 1,200 people in countries outside of Iraq and Syria. Most people don’t know this.
Make it clear that this is precisely why we need to improve vetting procedures to prevent confirmed radicals from entering the U.S. This is why we need to protect our borders from jihadists trying to infiltrate, and why we need a comprehensive plan to defeat the Islamic State and a defense budget that will get the job done right.
Third, continue to strengthen ties to our Muslim allies, and seek their counsel not just on war-planning but on strategic messaging.
Your recent meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent a strong message of unity in the face of terror, since Israel is on the frontlines of the fight against jihadism. But I’m encouraged that you also recently met with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, the Saudi Deputy Crown Prince, and will soon meet with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
Your meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah II was also important, as he is America’s most faithful Sunni Arab ally, a direct descendent of the Prophet Muhammad, and a courageous leader against the jihadists.
“For those of us who are Muslim, this fight is very personal,” the Jordanian King recently explained in an address to the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington. “These criminals are khawarej; outlaws to our faith. People nowadays talk about ‘Fake News’; the khawarej produce ‘Fake Islam’. They selectively paste together the words of Islamic texts, to promote a false and perverted ideology. In reality, everything they are, everything they do, is a blatant violation of the teachings of my faith.”
The King added, “I have called on the Muslim world to fight back boldly. We, like other faith communities, have a vast silent majority and it is time for that majority to get loud and to be clear in their condemnation.”
Amen. Avail yourself of the King’s wise counsel, Mr. President. Ask him and other moderate Muslim leaders how best to shape your message. Then speak to the American people.
I recently commissioned McLaughlin & Associates, a leading U.S. polling firm whose clients include your presidential campaign, to conduct a national survey to better understand how Americans view the war against ISIS. The results were sobering. A plurality believe we are losing the war, and most believe ISIS will launch catastrophic attacks inside the American homeland.
Some of the most interesting results came when we asked people how they want their leaders to talk about the enemy we face.
Fortunately, we found that only 10 percent believe “our leaders should say we are waging a war against the religion of Islam.”
Some 36 percent believe “our leaders should not mention Islam at all, but simply say we are waging war against the forces of violent extremism.”
But fully 45 percent believe “our leaders should say we are waging war against the forces of radical Islam, but be careful to explain that most Muslims are not our enemy.”
This is the right way to talk about the war, shining a spotlight on the forces of the radicals, while affirming that the vast majority of Muslims at home and abroad are not our enemy, and should be mobilized as our allies in this war. And most of that, 45 percent, are people who voted for you, so you have a strong base of support for this approach and can build from there.
Mr. Trump, in the aftermath of the savage London attacks, you have a unique and historic opportunity to deliver a major address to the American people to define our enemy and explain your vision for victory.
Joel C. Rosenberg is the bestselling author of novels and non-fiction books about the Middle East. His latest political thriller is "Without Warning" (Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., March 14, 2017).