Obama: 'Terrorists' do not speak for one billion Muslims

The United States President Barack Obama is calling on leaders, both in Western and Muslim communities, to push back against the narrative that both sides are currently engaged in a sort of “clash of civilisations”.

Giving the keynote address on the second day of a summit to counter violent extremism organised by the White House, Mr Obama urged “honest” conversation between the two sides to combat the notion that American and the West are engaged in some sort of “War on Islam”.

This idea, he said, makes marginalised youth more likely to be radicalised by extremist groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

“We are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam,” he said to loud applause from the audience of community, religious and law enforcement leaders. “Just as those of us outside Muslim communities need to reject the terrorist narrative that the West and and Islam are in conflict, I also believe that Muslim communities have that responsibility as well.”

Mr Obama added: “If we are going to effectively isolate terrorists, if we’re going to address the challenge of their efforts to recruit our young people, if we are going to lift up the voices of tolerance and pluralism within the Muslim community, then we’ve got to acknowledge that their job is made harder by a broader narrative that does exist in many Muslim communities around the world that suggests that the west is at odds with Islam in some fashion… It makes individuals, especially young people who are already disaffected or alienated, more ripe for radicalization.”

The US president also took pains to explain why he insists of distancing the influence of religion on terrorist groups.

In the lead up to the three-day summit, some had criticised the White House for deliberately describing the event in generic terms, rather than one that would focus on Islamic extremism. Others had also questioned the administration’s decision to steer clear of referring to ISIS as the Islamic State. US leaders have tended to refer to the group as ISIL or Daesh.

Mr Obama was unapologetic for his choice, explaining on Wednesday that he refuses to give the terrorists the religious legitimacy they seek. He also reiterated his view that religion has little to do with the activities of those like Al-Qaeda and ISIS.

“We must never accept the premise that they put forward because it is a lie, nor should we grants these terrorists the religious legitimacy that they seek. They are not religious leaders, they are terrorists,” he said.

“No religion is responsible for terrorism, people are responsible for violence and terrorism,” he said.

And beyond combating the twisted ideologies of the terrorists, he also stressed that leaders needed to address the economic and political grievances that extremist groups exploit, as well as work with communities to spot vulnerable individuals early.

The loudest applause during Mr Obama’s speech was reserved for an anecdote of a young American Muslim girl who sent him a Valentine’s Day card expressing her concerns about Islamophobia in the US.

Mr Obama quoted from the heart-shaped card; “I'm worried about people hating Muslims… Please tell everyone that we are good people and we are just like everyone else." 

His remarks come at the end of the second day of the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism. The first two days have thus far been mainly focused on domestic policies for engaging immigrant groups and countering radical messaging.

The final day of the summit will feature global leaders discussing what government can do in the long term fight to prevent self-radicalisation. Singapore’s delegation to the summit is led by Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs Masagos Zulkifli.

On Wednesday, ministers from over 60 countries did meet for a discussion on the problem of foreign fighters. At that meeting, participants highlighted existing efforts, outlined lessons learned, and raised ongoing challenges that need to be addressed. 

The US State Department added that participants “agreed on the importance of improving information sharing and collaboration on a bilateral and multilateral basis. In particular, participants discussed the critical role of traveller screening in identifying terrorist travel and how Interpol can be used more effectively as an international information sharing platform.”

At the meeting on foreign fighters, US Secretary of State John Kerry stressed that the summit needs to conclude with concrete action.

“We need to walk away from this summit – and we’ll push for it – with very practical ideas that we can all go home and work on in order to roll back whatever appeal there is of violent extremism wherever it exists,” he said. 

The summit’s final day tomorrow will feature speeches from Mr Obama, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and US National Security Advisor Susan Rice.

jeremyau@sph.com.sg