During his speech last night, President Obama declared, “ISIL is not ‘Islamic.’ No religion condones the killing of innocents. And the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim.” It is certainly true that the vast majority of the victims of ISIS, as the group is more commonly known, have been Muslim as have been the majority of victims of other radical Islamist movements, it is not the job of any president to decree what is and is not Islam; what is and is not Christianity; and what is and is not Judaism. For all practical purposes, religion is what its practitioners believe it to be, not what an American president says it is.
On September 20, 2001, George W. Bush was more nuanced when he addressed this issue during his address to the Joint Session of Congress:
Al Qaeda is to terror what the Mafia is to crime. But its goal is not making money, its goal is remaking the world and imposing its radical beliefs on people everywhere. The terrorists practice a fringe form of Islamic extremism that has been rejected by Muslim scholars and the vast majority of Muslim clerics; a fringe movement that perverts the peaceful teachings of Islam. The terrorists’ directive commands them to kill Christians and Jews, to kill all Americans and make no distinctions among military and civilians, including women and children.
National security should never be sacrificed upon the altar of political correctness. Ignoring the problem of religious interpretation by suggesting religion plays no part is disingenuous and ultimately handicaps the understanding of the enemy. No, the enemy is not Islam. But to pretend that the enemy—ISIS in this case—does not root itself in an interpretation of Islam is simply wrong. Obama subsequently paid lip service in his speech to the need to “counter [ISIS’s] warped ideology,” finally recognizing that its terrorism isn’t simply rooted in grievance that can be addressed by concession or incentive. But until we acknowledge what so many Muslims do—that theological interpretation is the problem—no efforts to counter such ideology will be successful.