The Republican conflation of Islam and Islamic terrorism is dangerous and it is counterproductive. But I have to say: the alternative Democratic language feels defensive and insufficient for the moment.

Asked why she wouldn’t refer to “Islamic terrorists,” Hillary Clinton meandered: “I– I think that you can– you can talk about Islamists who– clearly are also jihadists. But I think it’s– it– it’s not particularly helpful to make the case that– Senator Sanders was just making that I agree with that we’ve gotta reach out to Muslim countries. We’ve gotta have them be part of our coalition.”

She’s right that American leaders should avoid attacking Islam as a whole, but refusing to utter the phrase “Islamic terrorism” – without offering a compelling reason why — makes it seem like she’s naïve about the role of Islamic fundamentalism in the terrorist movement.

There’s a better way of thinking about this: There is a civil war within Islam, and we damn well better be on the right side of it.

A war within Islam, rather than with Islam – this acknowledges that there is a large and powerful block of Muslims advocating violence. But there is also a much larger group of Muslims who hate that, and are often its victims.

As we identify with the Muslims seeing their faith being poisoned, we should try a bit of American exceptionalism. Islam American-style is probably the most pluralistic in the world. And the United States has been far more successful assimilating Muslim immigrants than the rest of the world.

Efforts to demonize American Muslims – by closing mosques, setting up databases, harassing them at airports, or generally casting aspersions – are hurting “our side” in the civil war. Moderates need support and those actually fighting for democracy – like the at least 4,000 Muslims in the U.S. military – should be celebrated. Rather than fearing the Islamicization of America, we should trumpet the Americanization of Islam.

This approach also will have the benefit of laying bare the approach of many conservatives, which is to intentionally blur the lines between violent Muslims and Muslim pluralists. It’s important to understand the roots of this: for almost a decade now, in evangelical churches, conservatives Christians have been taught that Islam is inherently wicked. It’s baked into the Koran.

Franklin Graham spoke for many of them when he said a few years ago: “This is Islam. It has not been hijacked by radicals. This is the faith, this is the religion.…It is the same [as 1500 years ago]. It is a religion of war.”

The Rev. Jack Vines, the former head of the Southern Baptists, said Muhammed is a “demon-possessed pedophile.” There’s a cottage industry of religious conservatives arguing that Muhammad was a false prophet and anti-christ.

Writing about Revelations, “Author, historian and Bible prophecy expert Michael D. Fortner” writes, “When the head of the beast has a fatal wound, it represents the death of the last Islamic empire, the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire, in World War I—which means another Islamic empire will come back to life again to wage jihad upon the world.”

But they had a problem. Conservative Christians in recent years have been championing “religious freedom” (focusing on issues like gay marriage). How can they hail religious freedom while calling for the closing of mosques? Some awkwardness ensued, even for them.

Some on the edges of conservative Christianity found a nifty solution: Islam is not a religion. “Ladies and gentlemen,” Pat Robertson explained, “we have to recognize that Islam is not a religion. It is a worldwide political movement meant on domination of the world. And it is meant to subjugate all people under Islamic law.”

Republican Congressman Jody Hice explained the implications. “It is a complete geo-political structure and, as such, does not deserve First Amendment protection.”

That’s why most Republican candidates have no problem going all the way to demonizing the entire (or most of the) faith. A good chunk of the base has been taught for years that the whole religion is demonic. The candidates are just catching up.

The proper response to all this should not (merely) be to say they’re intolerant and hostile to religious freedom (though both are true). It’s to say, there’s a civil war going on and its both right, smart and tough, to support the good guys.

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Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman is chair of the Rebuild Local News Coalition, cofounder of Report for America, and a contributing editor at the Washington Monthly.