The White House excluded members of a prominent group of reformist Muslims from its terror summit this week, apparently because President Obama rejects their argument that such groups as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria are actually motivated by Islam.
A group of 23 prominent Muslim reformers signed a full-page ad in the Sunday New York Times on Jan. 11 asking "What can Muslims do to reclaim their 'beautiful religion'?"
But Obama and officials throughout his administration deny any connection between Islam and the terrorists beheading and burning their victims in a reign of terror in the Middle East.
Muslim reformers say the administration is ignoring them because they disagree with Obama's refusal to acknowledge the Islamic roots of the extremists' ideology.
Some of the most prominent reformers have argued for years that the ideological and theological roots of Islamist extremism must be addressed, but administration officials carefully avoided exactly that subject during Obama's three-day summit.
The White House is also undermining its own efforts by working with people who sympathize with the goals of violent extremist groups, if not their methods, the reformers say.
"We have to own the issue of extremist Islamic theology in order to defeat it and remove it from our world. We have to name it to tame it," Muslim journalists Asra Nomani and Hala Arafa wrote in an essay published Friday by the Daily Beast.
"Among Muslims, stuck in face-saving, shame-based cultures, we need to own up to our extremist theology instead of always reverting to a strategy of denial, deflection and demonization."
Nomani, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, was close friends with her colleague Daniel Pearl, who was kidnapped and beheaded by Islamist extremists in Pakistan in 2002.
"Al Qaeda and [the Islamic State] and groups like it are desperate for legitimacy. They try to portray themselves as religious leaders — holy warriors in defense of Islam," Obama said Wednesday.
"We must never accept the premise that they put forward, because it is a lie. Nor should we grant these terrorists the religious legitimacy that they seek. They are not religious leaders — they’re terrorists. And we are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam."
The summit aimed at empowering community leaders to help Muslims resist the extremists' message and improved strategies to communicate a more moderate message. But the administration's refusal to identify the threat — and the exclusion of those who do from the conversation — works against meeting those goals, reformers said.
Maajid Nawaz, a former Islamist radical andone of those who signed the Times advertisement, is co-founder of the Quilliam Foundation, an anti-extremist British think-tank. The refusal of Obama and his officials to name their real enemy is referred to among reformers as the "Voldemort effect," after the villain in the Harry Potter books whose name could not be mentioned.
Nawaz told CNN on Wednesday that refusing to address the Islamist ideology directly puts all Muslims at risk of being blamed for the actions of a tiny minority — the exact opposite effect of what Obama intended by his approach.
"When the president said there's a poisonous ideology that needs to be refuted by Muslim clerics, the average everyday non-Muslim, the only word they know for that is the religion of Islam and they will think that the ideology we are referring to is the faith of Islam itself and thereby they would end up blaming all Muslims," Nawaz said.
"Islam is a religion like any other with all the various sects and denominations. Islamism is a desire to impose Islam over society. And that is a very theocratic extremist desire. It can manifest itself violently. When it does, I call it jihadism. But it can also manifest itself politically. It's still a problematic ideology because any desire to impose anyone's faith over anyone else is inherently flawed and must be challenged," he said.
"Al Qaeda didn't inspire extremism. It was this extremist Islamist ideology that inspired al Qaeda. And unless and until we recognize the problem isn't these Mafiosi-style groups that we can just take out by taking out their leaderships, but it's the ideology that inspires them, we'll have a new [Islamic State] tomorrow."
The ad, by the Gatestone Institute, states, "If Islam is a religion that stands for justice and peaceful coexistence, then the quest for an Islamic state cannot be justified as sanctioned by a just and merciful creator. It is the duty of us Muslims to actively and vigorously affirm and promote universal human rights, including gender equality and freedom of conscience."
One of the 23 signatories, Tarek Fatah, is a columnist for the Toronto Sun in Canada, and has noted the lack of response from administration officials and journalists.
"Instead of engaging with these progressive Muslims and supporting their call for reform, not only did the White House ignore them, but every media outlet I saw other than Fox News did as well," he wrote on Feb. 3.
Instead, the White House and many in the mainstream media work with Muslim leaders who sympathize with the extremists, says Zuhdi Jasser, a doctor and former Navy officer who leads the American Islamic Foundation for Democracy.
"This is a Muslim problem that needs a Muslim solution," he told the Washington Examiner in November. "You can't just say it's about violence. You need sermons that call upon America as the leading force for goodness in the world."
Jasser's activism against Islamist theocracy recently landed him a prominent role in what the left-wing Center for American Progress calls the "Islamophobia network." In a report released Feb. 11, the group said Jasser "promotes conspiratorial claims that America is infiltrated by radical Muslims."
But many so-called mainstream Muslim groups that Jasser has criticized have documented extremist ties. Sympathies with the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egypt-based Islamist movement, landed two U.S. groups, the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Muslim American Society, on the list of terrorist organizations banned by the United Arab Emirates.
Though both groups vigorously deny extremist sympathies or ties, there is ample evidence that CAIR was founded by supporters of Hamas, the Brotherhood's Palestinian branch and a banned terrorist organization in the United States, and that the Muslim American Society is the Brotherhood's U.S. branch.