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Obama’s Take on Terror: The Good and the Bad

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President Obama made a significant admission in his address to the nation last night: There is an ideological threat unique to the Muslim world and we must focus on its doctrine, not just its violent fruition. Unfortunately, it did nothing to blunt the Islamic State's appearance of success or how these doctrines will be addressed. The audience was left feeling like the status quo is being accepted.

The brightest part of President Obama's address is that he forcefully challenged Muslims to confront interpretations of their faith that lay the foundation for groups like the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda. He even acknowledged how much of the Muslim world tries to excuse itself from responsibility:

"That does not mean denying the fact that an extremist ideology has spread within some Muslim communities. This is a real problem that Muslims must confront, without excuse. Muslim leaders here and around the globe have to continue working with us to decisively and unequivocally reject the hateful ideology that groups like ISIL [Islamic State] and Al-Qaeda promote; to speak out against not just acts of violence, but also those interpretations of Islam that are incompatible with the values of religious tolerance, mutual respect, and human dignity."

In other words, he's calling for a broader ideological war within the Muslim world that focuses on interpretation and modern values rather than a singular focus on terrorism and a couple of terrorist groups.

However, it is not clear that he understands how well-grounded this extremist ideology is. President Obama said the U.S. "has been at war with terrorists since Al-Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 Americans on 9/11," as if the threat is a new phenomenon.

What about the countless Islamist terrorist attacks before that time? The 9/11 attacks weren't the grand opening of a new ideology. Al-Qaeda's view of the world is grounded in deeply-rooted interpretations taught by theologians like Ibn Taymiyyah who are still held in high esteem today, even among many of those considered to be "moderates."

Another positive part of President Obama's address is that he conceded that the vetting process for who is permitted into the U.S. is too weak. The female shooter in the San Bernardino attack was vetted by the Department of Homeland Security and Department of State and approved for a visa.

The biggest disappointment in the speech was that President Obama did not lift a finger to undermine the Islamic State's appearance of success and to show that there's light at the end of the tunnel. Generic and repetitive declarations that ISIS will lose are not taken seriously, especially when they are stated without passion or supporting evidence.

The President simply stated that the U.S. would continue hunting down terrorists with airstrikes and raids; working with a coalition of 65 countries and training Iraqi and Syrian partners—the same things we were doing before the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. The only new detail he mentioned was working with Turkey to seal its 60-mile border with Syria. 

In the coming weeks, the U.S. needs to expand on the generic comments made in this speech. It is not enough to acknowledge the problem of Islamic interpretations that reject modernity and it is not enough to pound your chest while declaring victory. We need to convince the world that the future will be decided by us and not by Islamists like ISIS.

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Meira Svirsky

Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org