Naming ISIL’s ideology does not help defeat it

HA Hellyer considers the words we use to describe extremism

President Barack Obama stops to greet guests at a picnic held for members of Congress. Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP Photo
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It seems as though after every atrocity carried out by a Muslim, the discussion around violent extremism in the name of Islam comes up. One aspect in that discussion is a very basic one – what do we call it?

Last week, Donald Trump goaded his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton for not using the term radical Islam. She replied that she had no problem with using the phrase “radical Islamists” – which isn’t quite the same thing.

President Barack Obama, however, launched a broadside attack against Mr Trump for the criticism, arguing that the usage of the term “radical Islam” would simply play into the narrative of ISIL that the United States was fighting a war against Muslims at large.

It’s not purely a semantic discussion. Mr Trump’s argument is that things need to be described by their names – otherwise, we can’t understand them properly, and thus we are hindered in our efforts to combat them. In that regard, his argument contains something of a red herring, because no one doubts the US knows precisely whom it is fighting. ISIL is being targeted, and no one is waiting for the right label.

A counterproductive term

But there is a larger question here about the label used – and it is important precisely because Mr Trump and his populist ilk have sowed such misunderstanding into the debate that we have to be even more precise and careful about how we describe violent extremism.

Otherwise, we will indeed fall into the trap of needlessly generalising, stereotyping and marginalising. Of course, that is part of the point of Mr Trump’s rhetoric: marginalisation to the point of legally excluding an entire faith community from the US (as per Mr Trump himself) or monitoring Muslim-Americans en masse (as right wing Republican leaders have argued).

Against that backdrop, using the term “radical Islam” is counterproductive, because it stigmatises an entire faith and its followers. That faith community suffers the most, by far, from the likes of ISIL. A simple death toll comparison of Muslims and non-Muslims due to ISIL can show that.

One might want to argue that when the term “radical Christian” is used to describe groups like the Ku Klux Klan, those in the West generally don’t make the mistake of associating Christianity writ large with the KKK. That’s true, but that’s because the West is predominantly Christian, and knows better. The level of popular misconceptions about Islam negates the comparison.

Political differences

How then does one describe the phenomenon of ISIL and such groups? Using the specific word Islam in this regard is deeply problematic – partly because of the repercussions on Muslims more generally, but also because it is inaccurate.

The neo-religious ideology that underpins groups like ISIL is related to Islam, but only in so far as it is a rejection of normative Islamic thought.

One might make the argument that while Islam is not appropriate to use as a descriptor, perhaps Islamism is. Earlier this year, the main Islamist party of Tunisia, Ennahdha, distanced itself from the term, preferring to use the term Muslim democrat. In that regard, Ennahdha implicitly admitted that “Islamist” was problematic in content, not simply for PR purposes.

Might there then be a case for using the term “radical Islamist”? Perhaps – but “radical” doesn’t always mean something bad. One can be radically compassionate, for example. Radical doesn’t always have a negative connotation.

There might even be those who aim to use the word “jihadi” – but that takes us into another minefield, in that the notion of “jihad” is deeply embedded within Islamic tradition. It is certainly not the jihad that ISIL and their ilk promote but use of the term probably creates more problems than it solves.

Extremist Islamism, particularly since extreme is used in Arabic, may work – but then there is the issue of the broad diversity within Islamism. Certainly, Islamism is a useful term, if only because it ensures there is a differentiation between Islam as a religion, and Islamism as a modern political ideology.

Objections to using it at all are somewhat dubious, considering that at least in Arabic, Islamists use the term themselves. At the same time, it remains important to ensure there is an awareness of the diversity in Islamism – it can range from ISIL to Ennahdha to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and they are all rather different from each other.

Ideally, one could use neo-Islamist Extremist – but no term that has used “neo” has really stuck in public discourse. The most realistic and accurate term would be “extremist Islamism” – hopefully making it clear that ISIL and Al Qaeda represent a minority of Islamists themselves.

The reality is that those who are making the most fuss about using them, are not interested in linguistic accuracy.

When Mr Trump makes this argument, he’s making a political statement, rooted in extremist populism. One can say many things about Mr Trump, but a concern around linguistic accuracy isn’t one of them – while, alas, furthering the stigmatisation and marginalisation of Muslims more generally in society is.

We may have to use terms like “extremist Islamism” – but when we do, we should be aware that we will still have to qualify what that means, and continuously re-evaluate it. Or, to use another phrase Mr Trump is fond of, “remain vigilant”.

Dr HA Hellyer is a non-resident senior fellow at Atlantic Council’s Centre for the Middle East in Washington, DC and at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

On Twitter: @hahellyer

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