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Obama: Don't grant terrorists legitimacy by labeling them Islamic

"We are not at war with Islam," President Obama said at a White House summit on countering violent extremism
Obama: Don't grant terrorists legitimacy by labeling them Islamic 01:38

President Obama offered an extended defense of his approach to countering violent extremism on Wednesday, saying those who have criticized his administration's reluctance to single out the threat specifically posed by Muslim terrorists are in danger of offering extremists the kind of legitimacy they crave.

"Al Qaeda and ISIL and groups like it are desperate for legitimacy. They try to portray themselves as religious leaders...They propagate the notion that America, and the West generally, is at war with Islam. That's how they recruit. That's how they try to radicalize young people," he said.

"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," he added. "They are not religious leaders, they are terrorists. And we are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam."

Mr. Obama did acknowledge that al Qaeda and ISIL "do draw selectively from Islamic texts," and he emphasized the importance of Muslim communities stepping up and speaking out against those who commit atrocities in the name of the faith. He urged Muslim leaders to "discredit the notion that our nations are at odds with Islam, that there's an inevitable clash of nations."

"Of course the terrorists do not speak for a billion Muslims who reject their hateful ideology," he said. "They no more represent Islam than any madman who kills innocents in the name of God represents Christianity or Judaism or Buddhism or Hinduism. No religion is responsible for terrorism. People are responsible for violence and terrorism."

The president also stressed the need for societies to address the social and economic grievances that extremists aim to exploit. "Poverty alone does not cause someone to become a terrorist, any more than poverty causes someone to become a criminal." he said.

But poverty and political repression, Mr. Obama added, can provide extremist groups with a fertile recruiting ground. "When there are no outlets where people can express their grievances, resentments fester," he said. "Terrorist groups are all too happy to step into a void."

The president's remarks, delivered on the second day of a three-day White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, came as extremist groups continue their bloody rampage in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and other parts of the Middle East -- seizing territory, sowing unrest, brutalizing local populations, and inspiring deadly attacks across the globe.

The summit is drawing together experts from the government and the private sector, along with representatives from over 60 countries and various nongovernmental organizations, to discuss how to empower local communities to push back against violent extremists.

Plans for the summit were finalized last month in the wake of deadly shootings in France, Canada, and Australia that were inspired by radical Islamist groups. Another deadly shooting in Copenhagen last week, inspired by extremists with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), further underscored the threat posed by that group's violent ideology.

Flash Points: Can the administration counter violent extremism? 05:12

The White House has sought to broaden the focus on countering extremism, suggesting it would be an error for societies to seek a military solution to a problem with far deeper, more complex social roots. "There will be a military component to this," the president acknowledged Wednesday. "There are savage cruelties out there that have to be stopped."

But Mr. Obama also argued the answer to the problem is "not just a matter of military affairs," saying societies must target the ideologies that inspire violent extremism, and the infrastructure that allows extremists to convert their hatred into action.

"We also have to confront the violent extremists -- the propagandists, recruiters and enablers -- who may not directly engage in terrorist acts themselves, but who radicalize, recruit and incite others to do so," he wrote Wednesday in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times. "We know from experience that the best way to protect people, especially young people, from falling into the grip of violent extremists is the support of their family, friends, teachers and faith leaders."

Secretary of State John Kerry also addressed the summit Wednesday, and he, too, argued the societies need to be more adept in reaching out to the marginalized elements that could be tempted to turn to terrorism. "Let's be honest," he said. "Those recruiting for [ISIS] are not looking for people who are devout and knowledgeable about the tenants of Islam. They're looking for people gullible enough to believe that terrorists enjoy a glamorous lifestyle."

The president suggested that countries need to step up their efforts to counter the messages being pushed by groups like ISIS over the Internet and social media, where the group has worked to recruit followers through the slick use and dissemination of memes, viral videos, and other media.

"By the way, the older people here, as wise and respected as you may be, your stuff is often boring," he said, prompting some laughter from his audience. "You're not connected, and that means you're not connecting."

CBS News Senior National Security Analyst Juan Zarate said the recent attacks in France, Australia, and elsewhere demonstrate the ideological underpinnings of terrorism voiced by groups like al Qaeda and ISIS remain a vexing problem - and one for which there isn't an easy solution.

"There is a clear recognition both in the U.S. and around the world that we are not winning when it comes to dealing with the ideology, the narrative that is radicalizing individuals," Zarate said. "So this White House summit is an attempt to being attention to that issue, to try to not only recognize what's already happening -- the attempts to counter the narrative the attempts to intervene to deal with the radicalization -- but also a way of bringing attention, funding, perhaps even new ideas to the table."

Vice President Biden addressed a roundtable marking the summit's opening on Tuesday, and he emphasized the importance of ensuring our efforts to combat extremism go "beyond a military answer...beyond force." He said societies must offer an "affirmative alternative" to the ideology pushed by violent extremists, and he stressed the importance of people in different cultures seeing and respecting each other as human beings.

On Thursday, the president will also speak at the State Department, which is convening a series of ministerial-level meetings on the issue, bringing together international representatives to exchange ideas and best practices for defusing extremism before it turns violent.

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