Words that kill: terrorism and “Islamism”

The issue of how to describe certain terrorists and their supporters is not a new one. It goes back at least to the attacks of 11 September 2001; I find myself writing about it more than ten years ago. But it’s still going, and it’s important. Words matter.

On that much, at least, I agree with Gerard Henderson, who addressed this question in a column in the Australian on Saturday. By picking on Henderson I do not mean to suggest that he is the only or the worst offender, but he is very explicit about his complaint:

In recent years there have been several apparent lone-wolf Islamist attacks on the US. Even so, President Barack Obama refuses even to use the word Islamist. This despite the fact the Islamists who have attacked the country in which they were born or in which they have settled have not denied their religious and ideological motivations.

To those who write about the politics of the Middle East, “Islamist” has quite a precise meaning: it denotes a political movement (or a supporter of such a movement) to apply the principles of Islam to public life, and in particular a family of political parties that have that aim, of which the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is the paradigm case.

The definition in the Associated Press style book is probably as good as any: “An advocate or supporter of a political movement that favors reordering government and society in accordance with laws prescribed by Islam.”

Islamist groups cover a broad range, from the AKP in Turkey and Ennahda in Tunisia, through to Hamas and Hezbolloah. The term can also be taken to extend to groups that reject democratic political participation entirely, such as the Taliban and ISIS/Da’esh. But to take these latter as representative of Islamism is a serious distortion.

For a comparison, assume we used a concept of “Christian political activism” that embraced such diverse groups as the Christian Democratic Union in Germany and the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. It would make a limited amount of sense – both are trying to apply Christianity to politics, after a fashion. But it wouldn’t be terribly useful, and it would carry the risk of some fairly gross misrepresentations.

And so with “Islamism”. Kept to a narrow range, embracing political parties in democracies or quasi-democracies, it’s a useful term, just like “Christian democrat”. Extended to terrorists, it becomes less a tool of analysis and more like a smear, implying that any introduction of Islam to politics is the equivalent of terrorism – or worse, that all Muslims are ipso facto potential terrorists.

The logical consequence of that, more or less openly embraced by some of Henderson’s ideological confrères, is the extension of “war on terror” to a general war on Islam. Which of course plays directly into the hands of the terrorists themselves, whose constant ideological refrain is that the west is at war with Islam and that therefore all good Muslims should enlist in the world Caliphate, or whatever the current fundamentalist project might be.

The demonisation of “Islamism” has already destroyed Egyptian democracy and given heart to autocrats across the Middle East; it now threatens to alienate the Muslims of western Europe, with who knows what consequences.

That’s why this is so much more than a semantic issue. The insistence on blaming Islam doesn’t just fail to promote clarity about the dangers of terrorism (although it does), it ends up by portraying all of the world’s billion and a half Muslims as the enemy – which really would confront western countries with the “existential threat” that Henderson, inexplicably, already insists Belgium and France are facing.

Perhaps the Christians/westerners would eventually win – there are more of them (us?), and they are richer and better armed – but by the time such a global religious war was over there wouldn’t be much left to show for it.

I don’t think that’s really what Henderson wants. Safe (like me and most readers) in a stable first-world society, he can speak the language of “existential threat” without facing what it actually means; it’s all just part of the domestic political game.

But not everyone has that luxury.


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