Monday’s White House statement on ISIS’ beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians in Libya, which failed to mention their victims’ faith as the reason for their murder, was practically unique among world leaders’ reactions for its omission.
By contrast, Pope Francis on Sunday exclaimed that “they were killed simply for the fact that they were Christians,” and that “their blood confesses Christ.” (RELATED: Who Were ISIS’ Egyptian Christian Victims?) Even the official Twitter account of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a series of messages with the hashtag #ChristianLivesMatter.
Likewise, Britain’s David Cameron said he was “appalled by the murder of Christians in Libya, a simply barbaric and inhumane act,” and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon identified the victims’ religion while condemning “the targeting of persons based on religious affiliation.”
Rounding them out, Saudi Arabia’s Council of Ministers expressed its grief at the “criminal act that the terrorist Daesh group carried out, killing 21 Egyptian Copts in Libya.” (Though notably, Saudi law prohibits the public activity of any churches in the country.) (RELATED: 2 Days After Paris Massacre, Saudis To Whip Man 1,000 Times For Blasphemy)
Analysts and journalists have remarked that an inability to examine the religious dimension of terrorism is a chief flaw of President Barack Obama’s counterterrorism strategy. In arguably this week’s most widely-read article on ISIS, Graeme Wood wrote: “pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it.”
Examples of this reluctance to frame Islamic extremism in explicitly religious terms have been abundant in recent weeks. In the wake of jihadi attacks in Paris, several high-profile administration figures repeatedly refused to identify the incidents as instances of “Islamic extremism,” and earlier this month, he told Vox.com that terrorist Amedy Coulibali “randomly shot” Jews in a kosher grocery store (which, incidentally, he also mistakenly called a “deli”).
The White House’s most recent statement insisted that ISIS’ violence is “unconstrained by faith, sect, or ethnicity.” Whether motivated by American politics or mere tone-deafness, the claim instead comes across as a disinclination to recognize simple facts: ISIS strategically targets certain religious undesirables for elimination.
This week, the White House hosts a summit on “Countering Violent Extremism,” a term used in reference to combating jihadi radicalization as well as other violent movements, including radical white nationalism. It is unclear whether administration officials will focus on the religious and other ideological underpinnings of international and domestic terror threats, or merely on combatting the paths by which groups persuade and recruit its members.