Secretary of State John Kerry insisted Thursday that the Islamic State is not Islamic, underscoring the effort to distinguish the terror group from mainstream Muslims – but also causing consternation that the administration may once again be underplaying the threat of radical Islam.
“They’re not a state, and they do not represent Islam,” Kerry said in testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
At several points during the hearing, Kerry sought to describe the group in other terms. He called them a “militant cult masquerading as a religious movement.” At another point in the hearing, he used the phrase “Islamic radical groups” but immediately corrected himself.
“Islamic is the wrong word -- radical religious extremists,” he clarified.
Since President Obama last week approved expanded airstrikes in Iraq and authorized strikes in Syria, he and top officials have downplayed the religious component of the new enemy -- no doubt in an effort to avoid being seen as launching a war against Muslims, and stoking further anti-U.S. sentiment in the Middle East.
The administration is preparing to move forward on its expanded military plan. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel confirmed at a separate House hearing that he and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey have approved a plan that includes "targeted actions against ISIL safe havens in Syria, including its command-and-control, logistics capabilities and infrastructure.”
The Obama administration, as part of its anti-ISIS outreach in the Muslim world, has stressed that in fact many of the Islamic State’s victims are Muslims. In his address last week, the president said “ISIL is not Islamic,” and “no religion condones the killing of innocents.”
But some wonder if the administration is nevertheless ignoring the role that radical Islam plays in fueling these groups.
Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, said during Thursday’s hearing that “many, I think, were shocked” by the president’s remarks last week.
“They don’t call themselves the Methodist state or the Episcopalian state or the Baptist state,” he said. “They’re the Islamic State, and I think for good reason.”
He noted widespread reports that Iraqi Christians have been told to convert to Islam or die, and said: “That would seem to fly in the face of the president’s insistence that the Islamic State is not the Islamic State.”
He suggested the president does not accept that “radical Islam is indeed something that does exist.”
The efforts to downplay the radical Islam component of ISIS echo past efforts by the Obama administration to avoid certain words when describing threats to the U.S.
Then-Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in 2009 infamously referred to terrorism as “man-caused” disasters.
And even this year, according to The Washington Free Beacon, the FBI’s latest national threat assessment on domestic terrorism omitted any reference to Islamic terror.
Kerry, in explaining why the Islamic State should be rhetorically cleaved from Islam, noted that top clerics in Saudi Arabia just publicly condemned terrorism.
“They’re the enemy of Islam. That’s what they are,” Kerry said of ISIS. “There’s nothing in Islam that condones or suggests people should go out and rape women and sell off young girls or give them as gifts to jihadists and, you know, cut people’s heads off.”