UC Berkeley professor explains risks of using terms 'Islamic extremists'

BERKELEY, Calif. (KTVU) - President Obama tackled a controversial topic at the White House Countering Violent Extremism Summit in Washington D.C. Wednesday. 

Republicans have been pressing the administration to refer to ISIS and other terrorist factions using the phrase "Islamic extremists."

The three-day White House summit is focused on creating a worldwide plan to counter violent extremism and has attracted leaders of nearly 70 countries.

The President explained why he avoids that phrase and others such as "radical Islam."

"We are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam," President Obama said, "No religion is responsible for terrorism, people are responsible for violence and terrorism."

The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) applauded the President's stand, saying it acknowledges the 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide, who are not violent.

"I appreciate his words, I think they're very helpful," said Zahra Billoo, CAIR's San Francisco Executive Director.

She said she hopes the Obama Administration will do more, though, to separate the actions of terror groups from the religion of Islam.

"We don't have to have conversations about how the KKK are not Christian extremists," Billoo told KTVU.

Critics called the President blind, saying terror groups and their religious beliefs, however extreme, cannot be separated.

"It's about an understanding of who the adversary and who the enemy is and it seems like in many cases the administration has turned a blind eye willingly," said U.S. Representative Scott Perry, a Republican from Pennsylvania.

"I think we have to be careful with the terminology," said UC Berkeley professor Daniel Sargent. He says both sides have valid points but risk being overly simplistic.

"There are crucial differentiations to make, for example, between Sunni extremism and Shiite extremism. You know, these represent different ideological strands," Sargent told KTVU.

Sargent says its important to realize there is no unified Islam, as the world witnesses the rise of Al-Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, and recent attacks in the West by self-proclaimed Muslims.

"The Islamic world is very different from say, the Roman Catholic Church, which has a clearly defined power structure. It is possible for the Pope to presume to speak on behalf of the Catholic world. It's not possible for any single individual to presume to speak on behalf of the Islamic world. The Islamic world is much more like the Protestant world," Sargent said.

Sargent says the most important thing is to target each group with specific policies.

That's something the President is expected to address on the final day of the summit when he speaks to foreign ministers at the State Department Thursday.