What’s the Magic Word?

President Obama made headlines last week by speaking at a CNN Presidential Town Hall. The President was confronted by Gold Star mother Tina Houchins, who asked him why he refused to use the term “radical Islamic terrorism” to describe terrorist attacks against the United States in recent months.  President Obama again opted to defend his deliberate choice of words, drawing a contrast between himself and certain “people aspiring to become president.”

One can only speculate as to which of the candidates Obama might have been referring to.

The President’s refusal to use the phrase “Islamic terrorism”  has become a source of outrage for many republicans, who claim that a refusal to “name the enemy” betrays Obama’s lack of  dedication to the fight against terrorism, and moreover displays his blindness to the relationship between terrorism and Islamic religion. Democrats counter by claiming that use of the phrase needlessly associates terrorism with all Muslims, an action which they say exacerbates Islamophobia and distrust in the United States.

Why do the Words Matter?

As David Zarefksy points out, the president is in a unique position to define one of the greatest threats facing America today. As Zarefsky puts it, “The president, by defining a situation, might be able to shape the context in which events…are viewed by the public.”

Indeed, the Obama argument against using the phrase is strong enough that it was the same strategy utilized by George W. Bush following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  Defining terrorism as a specifically “Islamic” problem would shatter any effort at peaceful coexistence between Muslims and the rest of the world- a practice that could encourage individual radicalization and discourage international cooperation.

Obama chooses to disassociate “Islam” from “terrorism” and to define our understanding of the problem: Islam is not to blame for terrorism.

The Election to Define Terror

Come January, a new president will have the power to determine the relationship between the United States and Islam. Donald Trump, for his part, has already vociferously criticized the Obama administration for its refusal to use the phrase, while Hillary Clinton has only partially fallen in line with the Obama tactic (albeit with reluctance).

The next president will need to weigh carefully the effects of his or her rhetoric on the rest of the world, and  decide whether or not irrevocably associating “Islam” with “terrorism” is a wise move. As the threat of terrorism increases, so too will the importance of its definition.