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All things nefarious are non-Western

In September 2014, President Barack Obama delivered a speech at the United Nations General Assembly in which he chastised warring nations for failing to make peace. He reserved his harshest words for terrorist groups, especially the Islamic State, which he lambasted for their bloodletting. Toward the end of the speech he acknowledged that the United States is not perfect:

I realize that America’s critics will be quick to point out that at times we too have failed to live up to our ideals; that America has plenty of problems within its own borders.... So, yes, we have our own racial and ethnic tensions.

Obama noted, however, that U.S. history is a history of working on such problems, overcoming differences, and becoming a better society. And he urged turbulent nations and violent groups to strive for the same.

The speech incensed American conservatives. In comments on Fox News afterward, former Vice President Dick Cheney accused Obama for suggesting that incidents of police killing of black people were the moral equivalent of ISIS’s brutality. “I was stunned,” Cheney said. “I mean, to compare the two as if there’s some kind of moral equivalence there is, I think, outrageous.” Obama never said such a thing, of course. He was merely pre-empting the counterpoint to his chastisement, a classic strategy in argumentation.

Some conservatives similarly criticized Obama for his speech in Cairo in June 2009 that he used to articulate his vision of world affairs. He pressed on the Arab and Muslim world in particular to embrace peace and political reforms. He extended an olive branch to U.S. adversaries, especially Iran. Obama also acknowledged U.S. diplomatic missteps of the past and deviations from its ideals, including unlawful

AU things nefarious are non- Western 31 detentions and use of torture as an interrogation technique. And above all, he vowed “a new beginning.”

As with the U.N. speech, some conservatives lashed out at Obama, describing his state visits in the Middle East as the “apology tour.” Nearly ten years later, the speech still riled those conservatives. When Mike Pompeo—the second secretary of state in President Donald Trump’s administration—visited Cairo in January 2019, he used Obama’s speech as the departing point of his.

It was here, here in this city that another American stood before you. He told you that radical Islamist terrorism does not stem from an ideology. He told you that 9/11 led my country to abandon its ideals, particularly in the Middle East,

Pompeo said to the audience at the American University in Cairo. “The good news is this. The age of self-inflicted American shame is over, and so are the policies that produced so much needless suffering. Now comes the real new beginning.”1

Conservative critics have been especially riled by Obama’s preference for the phrase “violent extremism” to describe acts of terrorism by Islamists. To them, that is political correctness. That is, Obama was avoiding pinning terrorism on Islam as the phrase Islamist terrorism might connote. Yet, Obama’s preferred phrase allows for the neutral labeling of acts of terrorism. It also precludes the befuddling law enforcement practice of investing resources to determine whether a given premeditated act of mass killing is terrorism or not.

Indeed, to Obama’s critics, the phrase “violent extremism” is objectionable because it doesn’t demarcate between the West and others. To them differences are not a matter of a continuum of values; they are a dichotomy, and as such do not permit of relative comparisons.

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