For the second time, President Donald Trump's deputy assistant Sebastian Gorka has declined to state whether the commander in chief believes Islam is a legitimate religion. The refusal follows the president's assertion that the U.S. is at war with radical Islamic terrorism during his first address before a joint session of Congress.
On March 1, Gorka declined to answer whether the president views Islam as a religion during an interview with NPR. He had declined to answer the same question from the same news outlet in early February, stating, "I think you should ask him that question."
In his latest response to the question, Gorka asserted again that the answer could only come from Trump himself.
"This is not a theological seminary," Gorka said. "This is the White House, and we're not going to get into theological debates. If the president has a certain attitude to a certain religion that's something you can ask him, but we're talking about national security and the totalitarian ideologies that drive the groups that threaten America."
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Key players in the Trump campaign had offered controversial remarks about Islam during the presidential race. Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who resigned in February after misleading Vice President Mike Pence about the substance of his communications with a Russian ambassador, had asserted that Islam was not a religion while serving as an adviser to Trump on the campaign trail.
In August 2016, Flynn spoke at the annual ACT for America conference, likening Islam to a disease.
"Islam is a political ideology ... it definitely hides behind this notion of it being a religion," Flynn said, according to Quartz. "It's like cancer ... a malignant cancer in this case."
Flynn had advocated for viewing the entire Muslim world as a security risk. In February 2016, he tweeted "Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL."
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Flynn's replacement as national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, has offered a different view on how to approach the war on terrorism. On Feb. 23, he told the National Security Council that terrorist groups do not represent the broader Muslim population and warned against the president using the phrase "radical Islamic terrorism."
Senior fellow of the Brookings Institution William McCants told The New York Times that McMaster "is someone who was in positions and leadership and thought the United States should not play into the jihadist propaganda that this is a religious war."
Despite McMaster's position on the issue, Trump used the phrase during his first address before a joint session of Congress on Feb. 28.
"We are also taking strong measures to protect our nation from radical Islamic terrorism," Trump said, adding extra emphasis to the phrase, according to Politico.
While declining to state whether Trump recognizes Islam as a religion, Gorka asserted that the administration does not view the war on terrorism as a war against Islam, but a battle between moderates and extremists.
"It's not a war with Islam," Gorka said. "That would be absurd. It is a war inside Islam. And we want to see our friends win that war."