Brennan’s Feb. 13, 2010 address to a meeting at the Islamic Center at New York University, facilitated by the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), provided an insight into his views on Islam, a faith which he said during the speech had “helped to shape my own world view.”
Travels around the world over more than three decades had taught him about “the goodness and beauty of Islam,” said Brennan, whose 25-year career at the CIA until 2005 included a stint as station chief in Riyadh.
In the speech, during which he drew applause after speaking in Arabic for more than a minute, Brennan used terms evidently designed to appeal to his audience, such as “Al-Quds” for Jerusalem, “Palestine” and “as the Qur’an reveals” – in keeping with the Muslim belief that the Qur’an was “revealed” directly by Allah to Mohammed through the angel Jibril (Gabriel).
He condemned what he said were negative stereotypes in the U.S. about Muslims and hostility towards Islam, adding that government actions and policies had contributed to the problem but saying this would change under Obama.
“Ignorance is a threat to our national security, prejudice is a threat to our national security, discrimination is a threat to our national security. And those who purport to be religious are frequently the most egregious purveyors of ignorance, prejudice and discrimination – and it must stop,” he said.
“We must also acknowledge that over the years the actions of our own government have at times perpetuated those attitudes,” Brennan continued.
“Violations of the Patriot Act; surveillance that has been excessive; policies perceived as profiling; over-inclusive no-fly lists subjecting law-abiding individuals to unnecessary searches and inconvenience; creating an unhealthy atmosphere around many Muslim charities that made Muslims hesitant to fulfill their sacred obligation of zakat [an Islamic tithe or tax] – these are challenges we face, we face together as Americans, and President Obama and his administration are pursuing a comprehensive approach to address them,” he said.
As Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, Brennan – a Jesuit-educated Catholic – has played a prominent role in the administration’s outreach to Muslims, American Muslims especially. He has also been a leading proponent of the effort to stop using terms many Muslims find offensive, such as “jihadist” as a descriptor for terrorists acting in the name of Islam.
“They are not jihadists,” he told the NYU audience in 2010, “for jihad is a holy struggle, an effort to purify, for a legitimate purpose. And there is nothing, absolutely nothing holy or pure or legitimate or Islamic about murdering innocent men, women and children.”
Brennan had made similar comments the previous August, telling a Center for Strategic and International Studies event that “describing terrorists in this way, using the legitimate term ‘jihad’ – which means 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.”
The administration’s National Security Strategy, released three months after the NYU speech, repeatedly used variations of the phrase “al-Qaeda and its affiliates” in identifying the enemy. The term “jihadist” and did not appear in the 52-page document and the word “Islam” appeared twice – the U.S. was not fighting a war against Islam, it said, and “neither Islam nor any other religion condones the slaughter of innocents.”
(By contrast the Bush administration’s 2006 NSS stated that “the struggle against militant Islamic radicalism is the great ideological conflict of the early years of the 21st century,” although it also said that Islam “has been twisted and made to serve an evil end.”)
When he previewed the NSS document in a speech several days before the launch, Brennan said, “Our enemy is not terrorism because terrorism is but a tactic. Nor do we describe our enemy as jihadists or Islamists because jihad is holy struggle, a legitimate tenet of Islam meaning to purify oneself or one’s community.”
Newspapers in the Islamic world routinely use the term “jihadist” (or, in South Asia, “jihadi”) in their news reporting on terrorist acts, without suggesting that the term has been misappropriated.