Marco Rubio gives an excellent explanation for why our leaders don’t say “radical Islamic terrorism”

Marco Rubio, free from the constraints of actually running to win the Republican nomination, made a refreshingly clear and sensible argument during last night’s debate. He just didn’t realize he was making it.

Responding to Donald Trumps claim that, no really, the entire Muslim religion considers America to be its enemy, Rubio pointed out that if we’re going to be serious about protecting the United States from extremist groups in the Middle East, we’re going to have to ally ourselves with Muslim countries and other Muslim groups who have even more of an incentive to neutralize the Islamic State than we do.

As Rubio said:

I’m not interested in being politically correct. I’m not interested in being politically correct. I’m interested in being correct. And in order to be correct on this issue, here’s the bottom line. We do work. There is — Islam has a major problem on its hands. It has a significant percentage of its adherents, particular in the Sunni faith but also in the Shia, who have been radicalized. And are willing to fly planes into a building and kill innocent people.

There is no doubt about that. It is also true if you look around the world at the challenges we face, we are going to have to work together with other — with Muslims, who do not — who are not radicals. We’re going to have to work with the Jordanian kingdom.

We’re going to have to work with the Saudis. We’re going to have to work with the Gulf kingdoms. We’re going to have to work with the Egyptians to defeat, for example, ISIS.

Rubio’s argument here concerns Trump’s depiction of the entire Muslim faith as being hostile to the West, but it’s not the first time this argument has been used in the service of what Trump or even Rubio would call “political correctness.” As it happens, the same points can be made to defend President Obama’s reluctance to use the term “radical Islamic terrorism” — a term that Rubio, along with the rest of his opponents, has hammered the President for not using.

As conservative columnist Eli Lake explained over a year ago:

Marco Rubio, via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Marco Rubio, via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

It’s easy to see the absurdity in saying that men who shout “Allahu Akhbar” before they murder Jews, cartoonists and French policeman are not radical Muslims. But [Press Secretary Josh] Earnest was not freelancing, he was articulating a longstanding U.S. policy, not only for Obama but also his predecessor, George W. Bush. Both administrations have said repeatedly since Sept. 11, 2001, that radical Islam is not Islamic.

There is a reason for this: The long war against radical Islamic terrorists requires at least the tacit support of many radical Muslims.

It sounds strange. But as Emile Nakhleh, who was one of the CIA’s top experts on political Islam between 1993 and 2006, told me, there was a recognition following the 9/11 attacks inside the Bush administration that many supporters of the Wahhabi strain of Islam favored by al-Qaeda and its allies were not plotting attacks on the West. In some cases, such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the purveyors of Wahhabism were longstanding American allies. “There was the two-ton elephant in the room, and that is Saudi Arabia,” Nakhleh said.

If you need a group of people to help you take out a common enemy, it helps to avoid pissing that group of people off. With respect to the Muslim groups we need in order to form a coalition against the Islamic State, that means avoiding insulting their faith — whether the insult is calling all members of the faith radicals, or calling radical actions Islamic.

So Marco Rubio was right to point out that Donald Trump’s “Clash of Civilizations” rhetoric isn’t making us any safer (Trump, for his part, suggested that political correctness indirectly led to the September 11th attacks), but his argument applies to a critique that he himself has made.

That doesn’t make him wrong in this case, but it does make him a hypocrite.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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