It didn’t get much attention over the weekend, but, in his interview with “60 Minutes,” President Barack Obama described Osama bin Laden as a leader of a global “jihad.” That’s a word that he and his advisers generally avoid.
“For us to be able to definitively say, ‘We got the man who caused thousands of deaths here in the United States and who had been the rallying point for a violent extremist jihad around the world’ was something that I think all of us were profoundly grateful to be a part of,” Obama said. He didn’t repeat the term during the exchange CBS broadcast Sunday night.
Pundits and journalists frequently refer to bin Laden and his followers as “jihadists,” but Obama and his team have been loathe to use that kind of terminology.
“Nor does President Obama see this challenge as a fight against ‘jihadists,'” Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan said in an August 2009 speech. “Describing terrorists in this way-using a legitimate term, ‘jihad,’ meaning to purify oneself or to wage a holy struggle for a moral goal-risks giving these murderers the religious legitimacy they desperately seek but in no way deserve. Worse, it risks reinforcing the idea that the United States is somehow at war with Islam itself. And this is why President Obama has confronted this perception directly and forcefully in his speeches to Muslim audiences, declaring that America is not and never will be at war with Islam.”
Brennan made a similar point in a May 2010 address where he said the administration’s policy was not to refer to members of Al Qaeda and related groups as “jihadists” or “Islamists.”
“Jihad is a holy struggle, a legitimate tenet of Islam, meaning to purify oneself or one’s community, and there is nothing holy or legitimate or Islamic about murdering innocent men, women and children,” Brennan said. “Indeed, characterizing our adversaries this way would actually be counterproductive. It would play into the false perception that they are religious leaders defending a holy cause, when in fact they are nothing more than murderers, including the murder of thousands upon thousands of Muslims.”
All of which makes it somewhat odd that Obama would use his first on-air question and answer with CBS’s Steve Kroft to refer to bin Laden as leading a “jihad.”
During his trip to India last year, Obama himself was asked directly about the use of the term “jihad” and “jihadi.”
“The phrase ‘jihad’ has a lot of meanings within Islam and is subject to a lot of different interpretations,” the president said. He went on to talk of isolating “those who have these distorted notions of religious war.”