President-elect Donald Trump characterized the gruesome truck attack on a Christmas market in Berlin as part of a systematic campaign by Muslim extremists against Christians, fueling speculation that he views the war on terrorism as a clash of civilizations and not a conflict against extremists.
Trump’s late-Monday statement noted that the 12 people killed and 50 wounded were “innocent civilians.” But rather than identifying them as German citizens and tourists, he cast the attack in unusually religious terms.
“ISIS and other Islamist terrorists continually slaughter Christians in their communities and places of worship as part of their global jihad,” Trump said. “These terrorists and their regional and worldwide networks must be eradicated from the face of the earth, a mission we will carry out with all freedom-loving partners.”
Neither the White House nor the State Department described the attack in religious terms. But German officials, including Chancellor Angela Merkel and top prosecutor Peter Frank, have highlighted the symbolism of striking a Christmas market outside a church less than a week before the holiday.
Frank suggested that the terrorists followed instructions from the so-called Islamic State and underlined that the attack occurred at “the prominent and symbolic target of a Christmas market.” Merkel said the victims “were looking forward to Christmas.”
The president-elect’s rhetorical choices bear special scrutiny because the rest of the world is still trying to figure out what kind of leader he will become Jan. 20. Trump communications aides did not return an email seeking their perspective.
And this is no mere debate about language. “The Trump statement on the Berlin attack rightly focuses on the victims who were celebrating the Christmas holiday, but he leaves out a critical point: the vast majority of ISIS’s victims are Muslims,” a former senior counter-terrorism official told Yahoo News. “In our counterterrorism fight, we need to enlist the support of Muslims around the world, and not alienate them by singling out Christians, as if they are the only victims of ISIS.”
Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, the real estate entrepreneur repeatedly promised to blame “radical Islamic terrorists” for such attacks, a clear break from the more cautious language his two immediate predecessors used.
President Obama, who has avoided referring to “radical Islamic terrorists” or the “war on terrorism,” went on a bit of a tear earlier this year against Republicans who accuse him of being naive or politically correct.
“There has not been a moment in my seven and a half years as president where we have not been able to pursue a strategy because we didn’t use the label ‘radical Islam,’” he said in June after a national security meeting at the White House. “Not once has an adviser of mine said, ‘Man, if we really use that phrase, we’re going to turn this whole thing around.’ Not once.”
The president continued, “Calling a threat by a different name does not make it go away. This is a political distraction.”
Former President George W. Bush spent years trying to separate al-Qaida from mainstream Islam, starting with a visit to the Islamic Center in Washington, D.C., six days after 9/11.
“The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself,” Bush said. “The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends; it is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them.”
Bush, who had made no mention of Islam when he declared “war against terrorism” on 9/11, pitched his message to reach nervous Muslim allies overseas and a domestic audience that, his aides worried, might include some misguided souls looking for payback at home.
“Immediately after 9/11, we could not gauge the public reaction in the U.S., nor the reaction in the Muslim world when we began to go after [al-Qaida] and the Taliban,” Elliott Abrams, who advised Bush on Middle East policy, told Yahoo News in February 2015. “It seemed important to separate those particular actors from all other Muslims, first to head off any possible anti-Muslim backlash at home and second to head off an anti-American backlash in the Islamic world.”
But, according to Abrams, “I think we went too far in claiming we knew what ‘real’ Islam was and saying the actions of such terrorists ‘have nothing to do with Islam.’”
Trump and his national security adviser-designate, retired Gen. Michael Flynn, have taken the opposite tack.
“I think Islam hates us,” Trump declared in a CNN interview in March. (He later clarified that he meant “many” Muslims abhor the United States).
Flynn has gone further, calling Islam “a malignant cancer” in one speech and Islamism — the militancy that demands government and society reflect Islamic law — “a vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people.”
“We are facing another ‘ism,’ just like we faced Nazism, and fascism, and imperialism and communism,” Flynn said.
The rhetoric has clearly unsettled some world leaders.
“Senseless Islamophobia compounds suffering with more suffering. It stokes antagonism and exacerbates the clash of civilizations, which plays into the hands of extremists of all stripes,” Senegal President Macky Sall said in a September speech to the U.N. General Assembly. “Given the scale of the global terrorist threat which concerns us all, good sense dictates the need to cooperate to vanquish evil with a global, united, concerted response.”
Slovak President Andrej Kiska, also speaking at the United Nations, warned that terrorists want to fulfill their “sick vision of the clash of civilizations” and warned against anti-Islam sentiment.
“We must not respond by judging people by the color of their skin or their choice of worship. We need to stop growing anger, prejudice, and hostility toward different religions,” said Kiska. “The true leaderships brings hope, reinforces trust and offers sustainable solutions for safety and peaceful coexistence.”
Obama himself delivered a very similar warning in August.
“In order for us to ultimately win this fight,” he said, “we cannot frame this as a clash of civilizations between the West and Islam. That plays exactly into the hands of [the Islamic State] and the perversions and perverse interpretations of Islam that they’re putting forward.”
For a longer look at the rhetoric of the war on terrorism, see this November column.