Republicans on the presidential campaign trail regularly suggest that President Barack Obama is soft on terrorism and too tolerant of what they say is an enduring threat from Islamic radicals.
Obama batted away such appeasement charges at a Dec. 8, 2011, news conference, but the insinuation arose again during a two-person foreign policy debate on Dec. 12, 2011, between former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire.
Gingrich said American efforts to combat terrorism under Obama had no coherent theme, unlike the Cold War-era theory of "supporting everybody who is not a communist."
In fact, Gingrich said, "The Obama administration just issued instructions that terrorism training should not involve any reference to Islam. Well, that would be like talking about the Cold War and not mentioning communism. How do you describe ‘radical Islamist’ if you're not allowed to say ‘radical Islamist?’ It's a willful denial of reality on a scale that is breathtaking."
Could Gingrich be right on this one?
His campaign spokesman, R.C. Hammond, referred PolitiFact to several documents Hammond said were germane.
Most critically, Hammond cited a speech by Deputy Attorney General James Cole on Oct. 19, 2011, at a "Conference on Post-9/11 Discrimination," which followed revelations by Wired that training material used by the FBI unfairly stereotyped Muslims.
One of the documents, for example, referred to the Prophet Mohammad as a "cult leader," and said jihad and "Just War" traditions were part of the "strategic themes and drivers" in Islamic law. "The strategic themes animating these Islamic values are not fringe; they are main stream," the document stated.
The report of the loaded language about Islam drew criticism from the Arab American Institute and other groups, and Cole’s speech appeared to be a response. Cole warned of "stereotyping" and said, "All of us must reject any suggestion that every Muslim is a terrorist or that every terrorist is a Muslim. As we have seen time and again – from the Oklahoma City bombing to the recent attacks in Oslo, Norway – no religion or ethnicity has a monopoly on terror."
Even more to the point, Cole said, "We also are working comprehensively to ensure that every aspect of the Department’s work reflects sensitivity and respect for all peoples and faiths. As just one example, to that end, I recently directed all components of the Department of Justice to re-evaluate their training efforts in a range of areas, from community outreach to national security, to make sure they reflect that sensitivity."
While the speech did not ban "any reference to Islam," Hammond, Gingrich’s spokesman, also referred to a report on Cole’s speech in the right-leaning The Daily Caller, which said the "Obama administration was pulling back all training materials used for the law enforcement and national security communities, in order to eliminate all references to Islam that some Muslim groups have claimed are offensive."
In a phone interview the day after Gingrich made his claim, Justice Department spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa said Cole’s speech never did what Gingrich asserted it had.
"No one has ever said we are barring the word ‘Islam’ from training materials," she said.
And James Zogby, the founder and president of the Arab American Institute, who had raised concerns about the FBI material, also said Gingrich was overstating what had taken place.
"There’s been no order, no banning. No decision has been made, other than let’s evaluate and see whether (the training materials) are helping or hurting," said Zogby, who said he discussed the matter with someone in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights division after being contacted by PolitiFact. "An evaluation does not constitute a banning."
Asked whether he believed a discussion of Islam was appropriate in the counter-terror training, Zogby, a Catholic with a Ph.D. in Islamic studies, said yes, because "it’s a misunderstood religion, we need to know more about it … Should law enforcement be studying the religion? Of course they should, but they should be studying it as it is and not as bigots imagine it."
While the Justice Department denial certainly calls into question Gingrich's statement, Hammond, his spokesman, also cited a Talking Points Memo story on the training material controversy that focused on Dwight Holton, the former U.S. attorney in Oregon.
Holton, who was in office when Mohamed Osman Mohamud was arrested in November 2010, after allegedly trying to detonate what he believed was a car bomb at a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Portland, Ore., told TPM, "I want to be perfectly clear about this: training materials that portray Islam as a religion of violence or with a tendency towards violence are wrong, they are offensive, and they are contrary to everything that this president, this attorney general and the Department of Justice stands for."
The Gingrich camp highlighted a portion of that story that said the 37-page complaint against Mohamud, a Somali-American, did not state that he was a Muslim. Holton said what was "relevant is the violence," not his religion.
Some other evidence to consider: a 12-page document released by the White House in August 2011, "Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States," wades into the complicated challenge authorities face in dealing with potential efforts to radicalize Americans.
"Groups and individuals supporting al-Qaida's vision are attempting to lure Americans to terrorism in order to create support networks and facilitate attack planning, but this also has potential to create a backlash against Muslim Americans. Such a backlash would feed al-Qaida’s propaganda that our country is anti-Muslim and at war against Islam, handing our enemies a strategic victory by turning our communities against one another; eroding our shared sense of identity as Americans; feeding terrorist recruitment abroad; and threatening our fundamental values of religious freedom and pluralism," the August document stated.
Also, a 23-page White House document issued in December 2011, "Strategic Implementation Plan for Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States," mentions Islam only once, though it does refer more often to the threat from al-Qaida.
"As President Obama emphasized, when discussing Muslim Americans in the context of al-Qaida's attempts to divide us, 'we don't differentiate between them and us. It's just us,'" the document states.
More often, the December plan issued by the White House uses language like "community resilience programming" and the importance of "enhancing engagement with and support to local communities that may be targeted by violent extremists," without explicitly saying that many of those communities are, in fact, Muslim-American.
There is no question that the Obama administration has tried to address Islam carefully and to avoid blaming a religion with an estimated 1.6 billion adherents for terrorism.
But we find Gingrich has greatly exaggerated what the Obama administration has done. Although the Justice Department clearly has yanked some questionable material related to Islam, and the recent White House document refers almost obliquely to Muslim Americans, it has not banned a discussion of al-Qaida or Islam in terrorism training. We rate his statement False.