The Democrats’ Problem With ‘Radical Islam’

It’s time to get past terminology and political correctness, and move on to real solutions of dealing with the Islamic State menace.


In the wake of the Paris attacks, there’s plenty to be written about the inflammatory comments and factually incorrect statements that Republican presidential candidates are making about Islam and Muslims — from comparing them to rabid dogs to ambiguous calls for a database of Muslim-Americans. And with reports about hate crimes against Muslims on the rise in Western countries, there’s reason to worry about how the debate is fanning the flames of hatred.

But the Democrats’ rhetoric is problematic too, for very different reasons.

When Hillary Clinton was asked whether she would use the term “radical Islam’’ during the Democratic debate on Nov. 14 in Des Moines, Iowa, she demurred. She had referred to “radical jihadist ideology” in her opening statement and then invoked President George W. Bush. She quoted him speaking after the 9/11 attacks saying, “We are at war with violent extremism.” The same term is used often by the Obama administration.

During the debate, Bernie Sanders never uttered the word Islam. When pressed about whether he would use the term radical Islam, he said, “I don’t think the term is what’s important.” Martin O’Malley spoke mostly about Muslim-Americans’ sense of belonging in the United States and settled on the term “radical jihadis” when pushed about defining the problem as radical Islam.

During a speech a few days later in New York, Clinton took another stab, referring to “an ideological movement of radical jihadism.” Although she went further than President Barack Obama in addressing the issues at hand, she also took several jabs at Republicans for obsessing about “a clash of civilization or repeating the specific words ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’”

The White House has shown a particular allergy to making any link between extremist violence and the religion that the terrorists claim to espouse. In his press conference in Antalya, Turkey, at the G-20 summit last week, Obama emphasized that the Islamic State “does not represent Islam. It is not representative in any way of the attitudes of the overwhelming majority of Muslims.”

But is that sufficient to answer people’s questions and anxieties — and are Democrats, whether the president, administration officials, or presidential candidates, accurately diagnosing the problems facing the Middle East?

It’s ironic that while U.S. officials and Democratic politicians refuse to say “radical Islam,” these very words, in fact, are commonly used in Arabic across the Middle East: Islam mutatarrif. When I asked a handful of friends in Beirut — Muslim and non-Muslim alike — what they thought of Democrats refusing to use those two words to describe what drives militant groups like the so-called Islamic State, they seemed puzzled by the apparent obfuscation.

So I asked a number of experts from the region who are based in the Middle East or in Washington if the Democrats are being too politically correct and if there is a potential downside to their rhetorical choices. This isn’t a comprehensive survey, but I was struck by the consensus around three key points.


  1. No one envies Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, or any Democrat trying to come up with smart answers on this issue amid the current atmosphere.


“The Democrats are fumbling, as we saw in the debate,” said Mokhtar Awad, an analyst at the Center for American Progress whose work focuses on Egyptian Islamists. “They’re not sure what to say, out of fear of being politically incorrect.”

But it is, of course, about more than just being politically incorrect. Whether it’s creating a permissive environment for anti-Muslim attacks in the United States, or feeding anti-Americanism in Muslim countries, which can increase the potential for attacks against Americans or U.S. embassies, there are many consequences to using loose terminology.

“This is a tricky one for non-Muslim Westerners to get right,” said Faysal Itani, a resident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. “I can understand why non-Muslims would want to delink the ideology from the religion, to discourage anti-Muslim bigotry and avoid alienating Muslims from the West, which would feed the jihadi narrative of ‘the West vs. Islam.’”

To be fair, despite the fear-mongering today among many GOP presidential candidates, the last Republican president spoke out against using jihadi violence as an excuse for anti-Muslim bigotry. “America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens, and Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country,” Bush said shortly after 9/11. “Muslims are doctors, lawyers, law professors, members of the military, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, moms and dads. And they need to be treated with respect. In our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect.”

Most people outside the United States will not differentiate between statements by various Republicans or, say, Democrats and administration officials. It will all be conflated as the current U.S. attitude toward the Middle East, with the consequence of putting Muslims on the defense. Still, the Democrats’ approach also has downsides.


  1. Tiptoeing around the word doesn’t help, whether in describing the militants, the ideology, or the groups using violence.


Itani warned that taking the word “Islam” out of the discussion “makes the conflict appear much less complicated than it is, which in turn makes it easier for Western governments to pursue shallow policies toward jihadist Islamism.” This has been seen so far, he said, by a U.S. strategy that seems to consist largely of airstrikes “with no thought to the milieu in which [jihadis] operate, as if they are some anomaly from Mars that has nothing to do with the dire state of Muslim civilization.”

The discussion about the state of Muslim civilization is already much more audacious in small pockets of the Middle East than any discussion being had in the United States, including by Muslim-Americans. From a small but growing trend of atheism to Egyptian preachers like Islam al-Buhairi, who openly defy the strict austere interpretation of the Quran, to television anchors daring enough to call attention to the content of sermons by Saudi preachers, there is no shortage of candid voices on the issue. After a string of attacks against Shiite mosques in the kingdom earlier this year, Saudis even openly debated the role of clerics in stoking sectarianism with extremist religious rhetoric. Saudi commentator Ibrahim al-Shaalan tweeted in Arabic, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State, Daesh, that the group’s “actions are but an epitome of what we’ve studied in our school curriculum. If the curriculum is sound, then Daesh is right, and if it is wrong, then who bears responsibility?”

Hassan Hassan, a fellow at Chatham House and coauthor of the bestselling book ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, said that debate should have been encouraged by governments and religious authorities. Instead, governments in the region silenced it by insisting that the violence — whether in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, or Syria — had nothing to do with Islam. Countries like Jordan and the United Arab Emirates also pushed allies, including the United States, to stop using the term “Islamic State.”

French officials and increasingly Obama administration officials have obliged. Both have taken to using the word “Daesh” to describe the organization, not wanting to use terminology that includes the word “Islamic.” But nothing peeves Arabic speakers more as a useless exercise in semantics, because Daesh is simply the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — al-Dawla al-Islamiyya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham. In other word, it incorporates the term “Islamic” as much as the English-language acronym.

While terminology can be important in efforts to delegitimize an organization, this argument isn’t going to make a dent in the Islamic State’s reputation for its members or sympathizers. More crucial is what the group is called in Arabic on popular television stations, such as Al Jazeera, which uses the term “Organization of the Islamic State” (Tanzeem al-Dawla al-Islamiyya), conferring some legitimacy to it.

Hassan believes that the best way to delegitimize the organization is to actually call it by its chosen name, “the Islamic State,” and describe its state as a caliphate. If you avoid using these words, Hassan said, “it’s as if you’re saying that an Islamic State is much purer than what ISIS is trying to do. We need to make sure that what they’re doing, the horrible things they’re doing to people inside the region, remains associated with [the idea] of an Islamic State.”

Otherwise, Hassan warns, we’re not dealing with the root ideology and even if the organization is defeated, the idea will remain, and someone else will try again to define and impose his own vision as the true, pure version of Islam in a caliphate.

By playing along with some Arab governments’ denial of the existence of a problem with the ideology of those on the fringes of Islam, Nadia Oweidat, a lecturer of Islamic thought at Georgetown University, argued that the Democrats’ approach can actually backfire on religious reformers. The tactic “can potentially alienate those who want to reform Islamic thought,” she said. “[If] the problem is viewed as non-Islamic, then you don’t need to address Islamic thought.”


  1. Democrats should call Islamist extremism what it is and encourage debate.


The experts I spoke to all came up with variations on the same terms to describe militants using violence to achieve their aims: “jihadist Islamists” or “Islamist extremists.” This helps narrow the description to what is a very specific modern political ideology and, according to Awad, to make sure that the “starting point in the debate is not the average Muslim, practicing his five pillars of the faith.”

It is still not up to the United States or any Western country to call for reform within Islam, argued Itani. “Western criticism of Islam — even of its fringe jihadi forms — may simply make Muslims even more defensive and less likely to have an honest debate about their religion,” he said.

But Oweidat believes that the United States and Europe do have a role in sparking a conversation on this issue. “Western strategy, whether explicitly or quietly, must be to help those who are trying to further the debate about freedom of conscience, freedom to debate religious issues,” she said.

That’s a tricky proposition, because it can be seen as interference in domestic affairs. Saudi Arabia, for example, has pushed back hard against any criticism of the jailing and flogging of Saudi blogger and dissident Raif Badawi, who was convicted by a Saudi court of “insulting Islam.” In another shocking development, Ashraf Fayadh, a Palestinian poet living in Saudi Arabia and a leading member of the country’s nascent art scene, has just been sentenced to death for apostasy. His friends believe he is being punished for posting a video of religious police lashing a man in public.

Whether the president is a Democrat or Republican, the nature of U.S. alliances with some Middle East countries, as well as massive arms deals, remains an obstacle to tough conversations about matters of faith. In a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations, Clinton touched on the issue by saying that “the Saudis, the Qataris, and others need to stop their citizens from directly funding extremist organizations, as well as the schools and mosques around the world that have set too many young people on a path to radicalization.” That may be a fine statement for a presidential candidate — but probably not a conversation that a sitting U.S. president would have with the Saudi king.

But for Democrats, whether Obama or the presidential candidates, the best way to set themselves apart from the Republican approach of appealing to fear isn’t to pooh-pooh people’s anxieties or to obfuscate and dismiss the problem. Rather, the best strategy is to name it accurately, explain it to the public, and lay out smart, comprehensive strategies that go beyond a bombing campaign.

Photo credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Correction, Nov. 30, 2015: Mokhtar Awad is the name of the analyst at the Center for American Progress. A previous version of this article misspelled his first name. 

Kim Ghattas is a BBC correspondent covering international affairs and a senior visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She is the author of "The Secretary: A Journey With Hillary Clinton From Beirut to the Heart of American Power." Twitter: @BBCKimGhattas

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