Islam, Islamism, and Islamophobia: Why Words Matter

We need to have a productive conversation about terrorism

News of a terrorist attack in Brussels Tuesday morning meant the usual onslaught of bigots, apologists, and a disheartening unwillingness to discuss any nuance that may exist between the two was bound to unfold.

The problem is this: terrorism is going to get worse before it gets better. The need to have an honest conversation about the growing danger of Islamism, the militarization of the world’s jihadists, and the link between belief and behavior, has become a necessity. Our usual response — in this case, the trending hashtags #StopIslam and the equally unhelpful #StopIslamophobia — can no longer be tolerated.

British journalist Douglas Murray published a piece in The Spectator that sums up what we can come to expect in the wake of a terrorist attack:

The standard response now goes as follows. First the body parts of innocent people are flung across airport check-ins or underground trains. Briefly there is some shock. On social media the sentimentalists await the arrival of this atrocity’s cutesy hashtag or motif and hope it will tide them over until the piano man arrives at the scene of the attack to sing ‘Imagine there’s no countries’. Meantime someone will hopefully have said something which a lot of people can condemn as ‘inappropriate’.
… By at least tomorrow the story of a savage ‘backlash’ (consisting mainly of stares and horrible things written on social media) will be being talked-up by all mainstream Muslim leaders.
By Thursday no one will be talking about the victims.

Whenever a terrorist attack occurs, many of us appear to fall into one of two camps: we either unfairly blame the actions of a few violent jihadists on the 1.6 billion Muslims living in the world (e.g. Donald Trump), or we assert that there is absolutely no connection between Islam and violence — declaring that jihadists are not Muslims at all and Islam is ‘a religion of peace.’

Both of these assertions are incorrect and unhelpful, and the complicated truth about the role Islam plays in jihadism requires a level of sophistication and complexity that cannot be easily condensed into an 140-character Tweet.

A few reasonable voices did manage to cut through the madness as Muslim reformer Maajid Nawaz attempted to steer the conversation in a more constructive direction with a few Tweets:

Islam is a religion. Islamism, also known as political Islam, is a “reform movement advocating the reordering of government and society in accordance with laws prescribed by Islam” or more simply, the desire to impose some iteration of Islamic law on society. Jihadism is “the use of force to spread Islamism.” Therefore, it is not Islam that we should seek to oppose, but Islamism.

Maajid has spoken at length about the differences between Islam, Islamism, and Jihadism, and he has dedicated his life to fighting against Islamic extremism via the Quilliam Foundation; but Maajid has also spoken out against the term Islamophobia which has increasingly been used to shut down virtually any critique of Islam as being ‘bigoted’ — even when the critiques come from Muslims themselves. Asra Nomani, Raheel Raza, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Irshad Manji — these are just a few prominent Muslim reformers who have been labeled Islamophobes in their attempts to reform their own religion.

Many refuse to include any iteration of the term ‘Islam’ in describing those responsible for a terrorist attack because they believe doing so is to somehow equate all Muslims with terrorism. Statements like ‘terrorism knows no religion’ and ‘ISIS is not Islamic’ send out the misleading and unproductive message that there is no link between Islam, Islamism, and Jihadism, and allows for the right-wing bigots and Islamist extremists of the world to dominate the dialogue.

Maajid explains the importance of calling Islamism by its name:

The danger of not naming this ideology is twofold. Firstly, within the Muslim context, those liberal Muslims, reformist Muslims, feminist Muslims, gay Muslims, dissenting voices, minority sects, the Ismailis, the Shia — all these different minorities within the minority of the Muslim community — are immediately betrayed.
How are they betrayed? Because you deprive them of the lexicon, the language to employ against those who are attempting to silence their progressive efforts within their own communities.
You surrender the debate to the extremists…

The sad irony is that in mis-characterizing Muslim reformers and critics of Islam as Islamophobic, and lumping them into the same category as anti-Muslim bigots, we are turning our backs on the very liberal and moderate Muslims around the world who we purport to defend. Maajid refers to these Islamic apologists as the Regressive Left, or well-intentioned liberals who pander to Islamists and tolerate illiberal principles in the name of multiculturalism.

It is important that we are able to critique Islam and its tenets without it being assumed that we are making blanket generalizations about all Muslims. Islam is after all just a religious ideology, and like any other religious ideology, it should not be above scrutiny.

To say there are some tenets of Islam that promote violence does not mean all Muslims are violent. Like any other holy book, the Quran is full of problematic passages that can easily be interpreted through a violent lens and we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that Islam is incapable of having followers who do bad things in its name.

The first step to having a productive conversation about terrorism is to call it by its name. The words we use matter and it’s a shame that #StopIslamism wasn’t the trending hashtag of the day.

Perhaps by the next terrorist attack we will have made some progress.


Follow Savannah L. Barker on Twitter or contact her directly here.

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