Federal officials remain reluctant to clearly link Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez's actions on July 16 to his Islamic faith, and after one official in the Obama administration explained why, his statements created a firestorm among conservatives.
Late last week at the Aspen Security Forum, Homeland Security Chief Jeh Johnson ignited a controversy when he said he believed that attackers such as Abdulazeez should be called "violent extremists" and not "Islamic extremists."
A week earlier, the FBI seemed to take a similar stance. Despite the fact that officials called the attack "terrorism" in the early hours, the final label Abdulazeez received was "homegrown violent extremist."
"I believe strongly — and I hear this over and over again from Muslim leaders in this country — that to refer to ISIL [Islamic State] as 'Islamic extremism' concedes too much. It dignifies them as occupying some part of the Islamic faith, which is about peace," Johnson said.
When asked if the government was denying the fundamental religious component by not using the word "Islamic" to describe lone wolf or terrorist-inspired attacks, Johnson said he doesn't agree that the label implies denial. He said the government wants to and is trying to build bridges with American Muslims, who are crucial to helping fight this type of violence.
But many Republican leaders and commentators say the move isn't about strategy. It's about being politically correct.
"I think we need to call it what it is, and define the enemy for who they are. You can't defeat an enemy that you can't define," said House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul in an interview with Fox News. "They call themselves the Islamic State, the caliphate. We called the Nazis the Nazis, the Communists the Communists, and we call them the Islamist extremists."
Here in Tennessee, state Rep. Judd Matheny, R-Tullahoma, is one of a group of state lawmakers raising concerns about what they call "radical Islam."
"We spend so much time misappropriating those resources to problems other than radical Islam because we refuse to see radical Islam as the problem," Matheny, who has been called Islamaphobic by critics, wrote in a two-part editorial. "We have to begin to somewhat, I don't want to say profile, but almost profile 18-year-old to 26-year-old Middle Eastern males that rise to a certain level of suspicion within certain levels of Islamic communities."
State Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, also raised concerns about the federal government's attempts to distance Islam from terrorism.
"I think until this country wakes up and realizes the threat that we have right here at our back doors, it's just going to get worse," Beavers told the Times Free Press.
Several conservative commentators took a harsher tone.
"Even if you buy Johnson's intellectually feeble claim that the Koran-quoting, Allah-praising, Halal-keeping members of Islamic State have 'no connection to Islam,' they certainly believe they do," wrote Michael Graham, a conservative political commentator, in the conservative magazine the Weekly Standard.
Graham argued that to deny a connection between al-Qaida and Islam would be like denying any connection between the Christian Identity movement, a religious movement that unites some white supremacist groups, and Christianity.
Yet local Muslim leaders such as Bassam Issa, president of the Greater Chattanooga Islamic Center, praised the federal government's decision. Linking Islam to terrorist attacks creates hostility toward American Muslims, he said. It also alienates Muslims who want to help the government and bring attention to dangerous individuals.
"There is great relationship between the FBI and community and the Islamic center, and that's what keeps us safe," Issa said. "If you make Muslims afraid that the government is after them and accuse them falsely of wrongdoing, the trust breaks down and we've got a bigger problem."
National experts who study terrorism, argue that terrorism and counterterrorism are inherently political and about messaging. Terrorists intend to gain legitimacy and attention through violence. They want to be known as the purest forms of Islam. So, perhaps, letting them claim the Islamic faith, which is clearly practiced peacefully by millions, empowers them.
"On the one hand, terrorist organizations are often trying to appear as more legitimate than the powers-that-be," said William Braniff, director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. "The sound-bite is that they 'don't have anything to do with Islam,' but the meaning is that they are illegitimate and do not speak for Muslims."
But Braniff said ignoring how terrorists interpret the Islam faith and how it drives their behavior could leave us vulnerable.
"If we use very general language, we lose the ability to articulate the strengths and weaknesses of a particular adversary, and organize our capabilities accordingly," he said. "The argument suggests that it is not good strategy driving choice of vocabulary, but instead a misguided sense of political correctness."
Still, shifting terminology may be revealing how challenging the fight against terrorism really is.
In the Bible, there are many barbaric passages and laws that most Christians consider irrelevant to their faith. But the writings of the early Christian church leaders, which were canonized to be part of the Bible and written much later than the Old Testament, offer new commentary that many believe put those laws in historical context.
Yet, Muslims don't have a "credible institutional expression of Islamic teachings in the modern world," wrote Mohammad Fadel, a professor at the University of Toronto and a columnist at The Islamic Monthly.
Outsiders to the faith who read the Quran will see passages about violence and about waging war on oppressors and believe the faith spawns hate and extremism, Fadel explained.
"There is no objective source from which an outsider [or even Muslims] can know what authoritative Islamic teaching is," Fadel wrote.
Still, Pew Research global polling shows that, even though a majority of Muslims across the world "want Islamic law [sharia] to be the official law of the land" and in some countries substantial minorities believe violence against civilians is sometimes justified, it's clear that radicals who claim Islam and believe it is right to kill for their faith are among a very, very small percentage of Muslims worldwide.
"Muslims around the world strongly reject violence in the name of Islam," the study read. "Asked specifically about suicide bombing, clear majorities in most countries say such acts are rarely or never justified as a means of defending Islam from its enemies."
In fact, in a majority of countries surveyed, at least half of Muslims said they are somewhat or very concerned about religious extremism.
"More Muslims are concerned about Islamic extremism than Christian extremist groups," the study said.
Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6659.