Not All Islamists Are Out to Kill Us
And other lessons about the GOP's overblown, dangerous rhetoric about radical jihadi terrorism.
The challenge tweeted by Donald Trump’s military advisor, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, in the hours after the horrific Nice massacre was clear and direct: “In next 24 hours, I dare Arab & Persian world ‘leaders’ to step up to the plate and declare their Islamic ideology sick and must B healed.”
The same day, Newt Gingrich told Fox News that the United States must immediately take action to prevent similar attacks: “We should frankly test every person here who is of a Muslim background, and if they believe in sharia, they should be deported.”
Let’s think about that for a second. The “expert” advising the presumptive GOP presidential nominee wants the world’s Muslim leaders to denounce their own religion. And the man who could have been his vice president wants all Muslims who believe in the texts upon which their religion is based to be deported.
Ignorance or political expediency? Hard to say which is worse — or more dangerous.
It appears likely that the mass murderer in Nice, an emotionally unstable Tunisian-born Muslim, was somehow inspired by the blood-soaked ideology of the Islamic State. Thus, French President Francois Hollande’s comment that his nation remains under the “threat of Islamist terrorism” is understandable. But the problem with the term is that, as Flynn and Gingrich so readily demonstrate, it’s a short step from there to conflating the tiny minority of extremists with the rest of the world’s 1.7 billion Muslims.
Let’s concede it’s probably too much to expect politicians to convey a sophisticated understanding of the global religious landscape in a tweet or 10-second campaign soundbite. But perhaps we could move the bar right down to the lowest notch and agree that “Islamic,” “Islamist,” and “sharia” are not actually dirty words.
Something is “Islamic” if it has to do with Islam. Pretty straightforward.
An “Islamist” is someone who believes Islam is both a religion and a political movement that strives for the incorporation of Islamic teachings in national governance. That does not automatically equate to militancy. Plenty of American allies across the Muslim world fit that description. Relatively few American Muslims would consider themselves Islamists (much less extremists). A recent poll found that, like their Christian countrymen, the majority do not believe their religion should influence U.S. law.
And sharia, which roughly means “the Path,” isn’t a license to cut off heads. It’s a term used for the individual and societal mores derived from the texts upon which Islam is based: the Quran, the core holy book, and the Hadith, accounts of the Prophet Muhammad’s life and teachings. To ask Muslims to disavow them is like asking a Christian to renounce the Bible.
That’s kind of an important point.
“The Quran contains the rules by which the Muslim world is governed (or should govern itself) and forms the basis for relations between man and God, between individuals, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, as well as between man and things which are part of creation,” according to M. Cherif Bassiouni of the DePaul University College of Law. “The Sharia contains the rules by which a Muslim society is organized and governed, and it provides the means to resolve conflicts among individuals and between the individual and the state.”
In other words, there is a world of difference between a Muslim following the teachings of the Quran and the Hadith in her or his everyday life and wanting them to be the primary law of the land. That’s the case in only a handful of Muslim-majority countries, primarily Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf. More commonly in the Muslim world, Islamic law governs only in family courts or more generally serves as a moral compass for civil law, much as Judeo-Christian values do in the United States.
Trump has made much of the refusal of President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to use “radical” (or “militant”) and “Islam” (or “Muslim”) in the same sentence. It made them easy prey for the presumptive GOP nominee. He beat that dead horse again in the wake of the Nice tragedy on Thursday, even though they had abandoned the pretense in June.
“There’s no magic to the phrase ‘radical Islam.’ It’s a political talking point. It’s not a strategy,” Obama said dismissively the morning after the Orlando massacre. “Not once has an advisor of mine said, ‘Man, if we use that phrase, we’re going to turn this whole thing around.’”
Refusing to link the two words was an agonizing bit of verbal gymnastics. Supporters of the Islamic State, al Qaeda, and the like are Islamists and they are radicals. Even many American Muslims — including Islamists — use those terms to differentiate themselves from the violent extremist minority.
“To truly understand the world Islamist extremist movement, one must realize it is not just a social phenomenon,” says an online primer on Islamic radicalism by the Islamic Supreme Council of America, “but is a full-fledged ideological war of words and weapons alike.”
Unfortunately, as Clinton and Obama seem to understand, in today’s hyper-inflamed political landscape, the distinction between an “Islamist extremist,” an “Islamist,” and a “Muslim” quickly gets lost in the fog of ill-informed cable news soundbites.
“Islamism is a political and theoretical philosophy that commands its adherents to wage violent jihad to murder or forcibly convert all infidels,” Ted Cruz once told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “And by infidels, they mean every one of the rest of us. Islamism is our enemy.”
Actually, no. But such thinking would justify the patrols of Muslim neighborhoods that Cruz called for back in the spring and Gingrich and Trump continue to support. “You know, in the old days, we would have uniforms, you knew what you were fighting,” Trump told Bill O’Reilly on Fox the day of the Nice attack. “We are allowing people into our country who we have no idea where they are, where they’re from, who they are, they have no paperwork, they have no documentation, in many cases.”
Defining the enemy, and the friend
“Words matter.” That was the opening sentence of a 2008 Department of Homeland Security memo created with input from American Muslims. “[E]xperts counseled caution in using terms such as, ‘jihadist,’ ‘Islamic terrorist,’ ‘Islamist’ and ‘holy warrior.’” The purpose of the document, titled “Terminology to Define the Terrorists,” was to both avoid offending Muslims and to ensure U.S. government spokespeople did not glamorize the militants.
The document was written long before a tiny handful of Muslims in America joined the jihad, before Europe was infiltrated by lethal Islamic State networks, and before opportunistic politicians tapped a xenophobic vein in the American body politic. Not since the immediate aftermath of 9/11 has the phrase “Islamic terrorism” — and its many variants — been so much a part of the national narrative. Or fear of terrorism been so great.
That’s why it is more important than ever to avoid throwing all Muslims into a political blender and producing a toxic Islamophobe smoothie. Hence Clinton’s response to Nice, condemning “radical jihadists who use Islam to recruit and radicalize others in order to pursue their evil agenda.” This isn’t about political correctness, it’s about differentiating the many threats and winning allies in the war against extremism at home and abroad. Or at least not making things worse.
Because at the end of the day, words shape perceptions, which shape policy, which often determines whether people live or die.
So, yeah, it’s important.
Scores of militant groups with wildly different agendas, all claiming to serve Islam, have been spawned since the first attacks on the United States in the early 1980s. Yet from the campaign trail to Capitol Hill, politicians are discussing the ever-growing threat with all the sophistication of a middle-school social-studies class.
Lt. Gen. Flynn, for example, called for Iranian leader “Khomeini” — who died in 1989 — to condemn the Nice attack. Perhaps it was a slip of the tongue: He probably meant Ayatollah Khomeini’s successor, Ali Khamenei, but we’re talking about a national security expert who is advising the man who might be the next president.
A Senate bill to have Egypt’s Islamist Muslim Brotherhood declared a terrorist organization, introduced by Cruz, is a vivid example of what happens when the complexities of Middle East geopolitics are lost in a flurry of anti-Muslim campaign rhetoric.
“This is an issue to me that, just knowing their history, is a no-brainer,” says Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart, a Florida Republican who introduced an identical bill in the House. Only if your history book was written in Texas. The Brotherhood’s history, which Díaz-Balart “knows” so well, includes winning Egypt’s first democratic election, gaining support from the White House, then being ousted in a military coup. “The Brotherhood’s stated goal is to wage violent jihad against its enemies,” Cruz said when he introduced the bill. Actually, it isn’t. The Brotherhood is a hugely complex organization. There are what most Americans would consider “good” guys and “bad” guys within the organization’s ranks. Kind of like the GOP.
As one might imagine, the military coup that ousted Egypt’s first freely elected president and the subsequent massacres and mass jailing of Brotherhood members soured some of them on the whole democracy and peaceful protest thing. Even the experts can’t agree whether the Muslim Brotherhood these days is “a terrorist organization or a firewall against violent extremism,” Marc Lynch of George Washington University recently wrote.
Then there’s all that really complicated stuff about recognizing that not all bad guys who act in the name of Islam are the same.
“If we lump together the Paris bombings [claimed by the Islamic State] and the Peshawar school attack [by the Pakistani Taliban] we get seduced by the commonalities and ignore the reality that they are carried out by very different groups for very different reasons,” an Arab diplomat at the UN told me. “The challenge [the West has] with concepts is the same as with language.”
Folks in the Muslim world certainly recognize that not all bad guys come from the same mold. Reporting on a rally by an anti-American political alliance, Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper described it as a “lashing together [of] reactionary and millenarian forces” that included “jihadists, sectarian warriors, orthodox mullahs [and] Islamic revivalists.”
You don’t hear those subtleties on the campaign trail.
As Alberto Fernandez, former State Department coordinator for strategic counterterrorism communication, has written, “the unhelpful and superficial rhetoric that exists today, including from high-level political figures,” is a “significant obstacle to developing coherent policy to face a very real threat.”
What we lost in the fire
Nice, Orlando, and San Bernardino remind us that operatives on the violent fringe of Islam, and disturbed individuals inspired by their propaganda, do exist inside Western democracies. But policies and rhetoric that target all Muslims on the pretext of neutralizing those few are counterproductive.
What is lost in such an approach is the fact that moderate Islamists have credibility among fellow Muslims. They have the potential to undermine the message of the radicals in ways American anti-extremist Twitter feeds never will. Painting them with the same brush as the militants because they’re all Islamists is just bad policy.
The point here is that it’s complicated. Muslims, even radical Muslims, come in many stripes. But our political and media narrative skews toward the aforementioned black and white. It’s neither helpful nor illuminating when, after the San Bernardino massacre, the New York Post headline screams: “MUSLIM KILLERS.”
There is no simple answer to the conundrum of Islam and language. The extremists are carrying out violence in the name of Islam; they do represent some subset of the religion. To ignore that would — as the denizens of right-wing talk radio constantly remind us — take political correctness to an unacceptable extreme and undermine America’s security.
But a narrative that transforms Islam into a derogatory epithet is equally dangerous.
“USG officials should continually emphasize a simple and straightforward truth: Muslims have been, and will continue to be part of the fabric of our country,” that 2008 DHS guidance memo advised. “Muslims are not ‘outsiders’ looking in but are an integral part of America.”
Amid the perfect storm of campaign rhetoric and Islamic State atrocities, that message is sounding pretty hollow.
Photo credit: ALBIN LOHR-JONES/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images
Correction, July 21, 2016: A previous version of this article omitted words from Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart’s full quote and misidentified the relationship between his bill and Sen. Ted Cruz’s bill.