Terrorism and terminology

I swore to myself I would never argue with anything that comes out of the mouth of aspiring Clown in Chief Donald Trump for fear of lowering myself to whatever abyss he calls home, but here I am doing exactly that.  Thankfully, since I am really only keen to talk about terrorism in this blog, I can ignore 99% of the drivel the Donald thinks is profound.  Alas, he does talk about terrorism quite a bit and I think it is incumbent upon me to address one of the issues he has raised of late.

Trump, among others, has decided that President Obama is not serious about fighting terrorism – and, gasp!, may even be a terrorist himself – because neither he nor his administration can find their way to using the term “radical Islam” to account for (in the clown’s terms) “just what the hell is happening here”.

In the Donald’s world, calling something what it is miraculously resolves it (oh to live in his simplistic parallel universe).  That would be nice, except for the inconvenient fact that in this instance the phrase “radical Islam” is neither helpful nor even accurate.  And it is for those reasons that the Obama team does not use it and I do not support it.

There are several fundamental problems with the phrase the Donald wants us all to chant.  First of all, “radical” is not, and never was, uniquely associated with terrorism. Yes, all terrorists are radical, but not all radicals are terrorists (substitute the words “Catholic” and “Christian” in the preceding clauses and I think you’ll see what I mean).  Radicals are those among us that seek to change the status quo, whether that change is social, economic, academic, etc.  In fact, radicalism is how societies evolve, often for the better.  Copernicus was a radical.  So was Einstein.  To cite but a few more mundane examples, radical movements in Canada gave us votes for women, universal health care and gay rights.    None of which by the way were achieved via violence, nixing the assumption that radical = terrorist.

The second part is a little more complicated.  The unfortunate truth is that groups like Islamic State, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram and others, and their myriad numbers of followers and fans, are all about Islam in the sense that they have assumed for themselves the mantle of “true” Islam.  They are convinced that they have a monopoly on religious exegesis and practice and they see the vast majority of the world’s Muslims (some one and a half billion) as apostates worthy of killing (yes, they see non-Muslims in the same light but the overwhelming bulk of their victims are Muslim, not Christian, Jew, Hindu…).

The problem is that the aberration of Islam owned by the terrorists, who by the way constitute a tiny, tiny percentage of the world’s Muslims, has little to do with the faith of one fifth of humanity.  Both sides use the same texts and some of the same scholars but they come to very different conclusions on what those texts tell them to do.  Most Muslims don’t think it is OK to set off a suicide belt in a crowded market and reject the notion that these acts are divinely mandated.  By the same token, very few Christians condone the killing of doctors who offer abortion services and very few Jews think it is justifiable to murder Muslim worshipers in the West Bank.  We rightly don’t paint all Christians and Jews with the same colours we use to portray extremists so why would we do so with Muslims?  As to the argument that the Quran contains verses that call for violence, do yourself a favour and read your Old Testament, Leviticus in particular, to get a sense of what “our” holy texts tell us to do (check out Leviticus 20:9 to see how you should treat your kids and see if that is permissible in today’s world).

We nevertheless have to come up with a workable phrase that captures the ideology underlying these terrorist groups.  I have preferred “Al Qaeda extremism” in the past but realise that times marches on and AQ is by far not our biggest current concern (but do not write them off yet).  Furthermore that term sounds dated.  In its place “violent Islamist extremism” fits the bill and is readily understood I think.  There are subtle but important differences between “Islamic” and “Islamist” that are beyond the scope of a blog post but you can read the relevant part of my book if the urge seizes you.

As an aside I can think of no better rebuttal to Trump’s whining than a post by my old friend Emile Nakhleh. His thoughts are well worth a read.

In the end, words have meaning, most of the time.  They also have power and the choices we make on which ones to use have consequences, and not always good ones.  Make the right choice here and throw the phrase “radical Islam” into the same garbage pile already occupied by virtually everything else Donald Trump has ever said.



By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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