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Jihadists? Radical Islamists? U.S. Election Wrestles With Semantics Of Terrorism

The attack in Nice has killed over 80 people, although the attacker's motives are unknown.
The attack in Nice has killed over 80 people, although the attacker's motives are unknown.

WASHINGTON -- As the world grapples with the horrific Bastille Day truck attack in Nice, France, that killed more than 80 people and wounded hundreds, the tragedy has rekindled a semantic debate that has permeated the U.S. presidential election: what to call terrorists who claim to be inspired by Islam.

Hours after the attack, presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump, who has drawn widespread criticism for his controversial comments about Muslims, renewed his demand that President Barack Obama use the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” when discussing Islamic militants.

Trump and fellow Republicans have made the phrase and its variants a central theme in their bid to portray Obama as soft on the issue of national security, accusing him of failing to recognize the enemy even after a string of deadly attacks by Islamic State (IS) militants and their supporters over the past year in Europe and the United States.

“People would sigh with relief if he would say it but he doesn’t want to say it,” Trump said in an interview with Fox News late on July 14, acknowledging that French authorities had yet to determine a clear motive for the attack in Nice.

“If it is indeed again [a terrorist attack] like in Orlando, like in San Bernardino, like in Paris, and like in the World Trade Center, like so many other places, if it’s radical Islamic terrorism, he ought to say it,” said Trump, who previously proposed a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country.

The White House and Trump’s presumptive Democratic opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have repeatedly dismissed calls by the wealthy businessman and reality TV star to use the phrase “radical Islam” as divisive grandstanding capitalizing on anti-Muslim sentiment.

A new Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted prior to the attack and published July 15 found that 37 percent of U.S. adults have a "somewhat unfavorable" or "very unfavorable" view of Islam, and that Trump’s supporters are more than twice as likely to hold negative opinions of the religion as Clinton’s supporters.

Trump’s critics also say his fixation with the phrase “radical Islam” demonstrates a shallowness in his understanding of policy.

”It’s not so important what we call these people as to what we do about them,” Clinton told CNN in a July 14 interview following the Nice attack.

Referring to his Republican opponents in Congress, Obama said after a meeting with his National Security Council last month that “for a while now, the main contribution of some of my friends on the other side of the aisle have made in the fight against ISIL is to criticize this administration and me for not using the phrase ‘radical Islam.’”

“Calling a threat by a different name does not make it go away. This is a political distraction,” he said.

Clinton’s language when discussing terrorist acts carried out by Islamic militants, however, has shifted toward Trump’s over the past nine months.

Asked to respond to Republicans’ characterization of the deadly November terrorist attacks in Paris as the work of “radical Islam,” Clinton said the United States is “not at war with Islam or Muslims” but rather with “violent extremism” and "people who use their religion for purposes of power and oppression."

She has since incorporated the word “radical” into her vernacular when discussing the issue, while stopping short of parroting Trump’s phrasing.

“We’re at war against radical jihadists who use Islam to recruit and radicalize others in order to pursue their evil agenda,” Clinton said in her July 14 interview with CNN following the Nice attack.

With reporting by Reuters
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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

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