Throughout his campaign and continuing into his presidency, Donald Trump and most of his senior advisers have made a point of using the term “radical Islamic terrorism” when talking about the threat of terrorist attacks around the world. In a town hall debate against Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, then-candidate Trump explained, “Before you solve [the problem], you have to say the name.” However, Trump’s new national security adviser, H. R. McMaster, has explicitly rejected the term, believing it is an unhelpful way to describe terrorism. Indeed, prior to Trump’s well-received speech to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on February 28, it was reported that McMaster had advised the president to avoid the phrase altogether. McMaster’s advice was ignored; Trump declared, “Our obligation is to serve, protect, and defend the citizens of the United States. We are also taking strong measures to protect our nation from radical Islamic terrorism.”
In a meeting with the National Security Council staff, McMaster reportedly argued that it was wrong to use “radical Islamic terrorism” because the terrorists to whom Trump would apply the term are, in fact, un-Islamic. His assessment, however, ignores the clear religious dimensions that this phenomenon possesses, namely the Salafist ideology that animates so many acts of violent extremism. At the same time, Trump’s use of the term implies that Islam is somehow inherently associated with terrorism.
Both approaches are flawed. Salafism is a minority faction within Islam, and most of its adherents are nonviolent. But this ideology can be used to justify the extremism found in terrorist groups in the Islamic world. In 2015, Sheikh Aadel al-Kalbani, the former imam to the Grand Mosque in Mecca, even said that the Islamic State (ISIS) was a result of the Salafi version of Islam and that the question of how this ideology was fueling terrorism must be addressed with transparency. The significance of his statements cannot be understated; it is nearly unheard of for a prominent Salafi imam to publicly recognize that Salafism is prone to radicalization and is therefore in need of some kind of reformation.
McMaster argues that discussing the religious elements of terrorism is unhelpful to U.S. relationships with its allies. This is incorrect. The United States must encourage countries such as Saudi Arabia to grapple with the issue, especially when one of its most prominent religious leaders has already put it out in the public. Trump’s rhetoric, of course, is less than productive. Rather than encourage reformists in Saudi Arabia, the term could silence them.
Salafism is not something the United States can continue to ignore. In Syria, prominent Salafist groups such as Jabhat al Nusra, al Qaeda’s affiliate in that country, have dominated the battlefield by forming alliances with the other rebels from the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Salafi groups often receive support derived from an intricate web of private donors and government officials in the Gulf. Until 2013, for example, Kuwait did not have anti-terrorism financial laws, which enabled the financing and the prolongation of the insurgency in Syria. During that period, its minister of justice, Nayef al-Ajmi, openly called on individuals to support jihad there.
Meanwhile, although religion is not the driving factor of the rebellion (and militants join these groups due to a variety of reasons, such as social ties or unemployment), Salafism as a religious ideology serves a sectarian purpose. It can be used to distinguish “true” Sunnis from Shiite Assad loyalists (even if the Syrian Arab Army has been composed primarily of Sunnis), and it has become a tool for mobilization and a source for comfort and justification in times of war.
In Syria and elsewhere, many Salafi preachers call for their followers to fight jihad. Ibn Taymiyyah, a fourteenth-century theologian, is often referred to as their Sheikh of Islam, meaning that his teachings are central to the lives of “pious or good” Muslims. ISIS has quoted him several times on Dabiq, its propaganda arm. Taymiyyah’s ruling on the Druze and the Alawites is one example of Salafism’s history of producing extremism. In his ruling, the Islamic scholar describes the Druze (an esoteric religious group) as “kafir,” meaning unbelievers, and declares that anyone doubting that is also an unbeliever. He would make it permissible for their women to be enslaved, for their property to be seized, and for them to be slaughtered.
There needs to be an honest discussion in the Islamic world about some of the Salafist doctrines that can be exploited by violent extremists.
Although observers must be cautious not to offend, they must also have the courage to confront real issues. The question of whether to use the term “radical Islamic terrorism” is something of a sideshow to the real matter: the encouragement of an honest discussion in the Islamic world about some of the Salafist doctrines that can be exploited by violent extremists. More immediately, a consortium of intelligence officials, judicial officers, and academic experts must monitor foreign funding of mosques and other religious centers in order to root out preachers who are advocating hate. Doing so will keep more people safe.