Terrorist terminology: what to call our enemies

Syrian refugee family arriving in Greece -- not our enemy

Syrian refugee family arriving in Greece — not our enemy

In the wake of the recent Paris attacks, the long-running debate about what to call our terrorist enemies has been renewed. This language battle also has strong political overtones.

Those on the right seem to have no problem using broad terms, which can discredit the entire religion of Islam. Their current preferred terminology is “radical Islam.” For example, Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio says “we are at war with radical Islam.” Likewise, fellow candidate Lindsey Graham says that “the whole world is a battlefield and radical Islam is everywhere.” Graham even said, after last January’s Charlie Hebdo attack in France, that “we’re in a religious war.”

Morever, Donald Trump wants to extend the right’s religious war by barring Syrian refugees, by “watch[ing] and study[ing] the mosques” in the U.S. and by creating a database to track Muslims in America. Marco Rubio went further, saying:

It’s not about closing down mosques. It’s about closing down any place — whether it’s a cafe, a diner, an internet site — any place where radicals are being inspired.

Fellow Florida Republican Jeb Bush says that America should favor Christians when deciding which Syrian refugees to accept. However, when pressed to explain how such refugees could prove they are Christian, Bush wasn’t too clear:

I mean you can prove you’re a Christian…. I think you can prove it. If you can’t prove it, you err on the side of caution.

And don’t forget that Republicans have been claiming for years that President Barack Obama is a secret Muslim (which presumes that they think being a Muslim is a bad thing), in an attempt to “otherize” the president.

Democrats and progressives tend to use more specific terminology so as not to attack Islam. For example, they previously referred to America’s war against al Qaeda, and now refer to  ISIS or ISIL. In a 2014 address to the nation, President Obama said: “ISIL is not Islamic…. And ISIL is certainly not a state.” Back in 2010, then Homeland Security Advisor (and now CIA Director) John Brennan explained that the Obama administration would not describe our enemies as “jihadists” because:

Jihad is a holy struggle, a legitimate tenet of Islam, meaning to purify oneself or one’s community, and there is nothing holy or legitimate or Islamic about murdering innocent men, women and children.

However, Obama recently stated that “I think we all recognize that this is a particular problem that has roots in Muslim communities.” The distinction drawn by Obama is that “we do ourselves a disservice in this fight if we are not taking into account the fact that the overwhelming majority of Muslims reject this ideology.”

The recent Democratic presidential debate, which took place just 24 hours after the Paris attacks, was instructive as to the terminology of terrorism. Bernie Sanders referred to “this barbarous organization called ‘ISIS.'” Sanders also said that other Muslim nations in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan and Iran, must help defeat ISIS. Hillary Clinton used more descriptive but similar terminology as President Obama, saying that we must:

root out the kind of radical jihadist ideology that motivates organizations like ISIS, a barbaric, ruthless, violent, jihadist terrorist group.

When Hillary Clinton was asked about Marco Rubio’s use of the term “radical Islam,” she said:

I think that you can talk about Islamists who clearly are also jihadists, but I think it’s not particularly helpful to make the case that Senator Sanders was just making, that I agree with, that we’ve got to reach out to Muslim countries, that we’ve got to have them be part of our coalition, if they hear people running for president who basically shortcut it to say we are somehow against Islam.

When Martin O’Malley was asked about ISIS at the same debate, he also used the term “radical jihadis.” However, O’Malley likewise stressed that “our Muslim neighbors” are not our enemy, but rather, they are allies in the fight against “this brutal and barbaric group” which is “perverting the name of a great world religion.” Thus, when Democrats such as the presidential candidates and President Obama invoke Islam, unlike the Republicans, they do so in a very limited way.

Photo by Daniel Etter, supplied by Oguzhan Ali under Creative Commons license. http://is.gd/gw7nC0


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