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Why Naming Matters in Ideological Warfare

By Ejaz Thawer, Department of Political Studies, Queen’s University
Originally Published: 9 April 2018

Of the innumerable criticisms US President Donald Trump has levied against his predecessor, the accusation that Obama’s refusal to use the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” stifled the country’s counterterrorism efforts is particularly contentious. While Trump’s position on counterterrorist rhetoric is by no means flawless, recognizing radicalization-prone ideologies that inspire violent extremism is integral to success in the War on Terror. As this war is won on the ideological battlefield, naming and confronting “Islamist” radicalism equips Muslim allies and reformers with the literary tools to challenge extremist ideologies that run antithetical to Islamic values.

Debate surrounding the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” has pitted those who claim effective counterterrorism efforts necessitate its use, against others who believe it produces a false equivalence between terrorism and the religion of Islam. Unmistakeably a representative of the former position, President Trump has stated that to successfully combat terrorism, “you have to be able to state what the problem is, or at least say the name.” While his policy-based counterterrorism strategy includes the erroneous proposal of a ban on immigration from certain Muslim-majority countries, Trump’s rhetorical approach to combating terrorism logically manifests itself in the prolific use of “radical Islamic terrorism.” Opposition to the all-too-controversial president’s unsurprisingly controversial perspective on terrorism is well intentioned. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Trump’s own national security advisor, H.R. McMaster, have all expressed the importance of ensuring terrorist organizations aren’t viewed as representative of the broader Muslim community. In their eyes, rhetorically associating categorically un-Islamic terrorism with Islam may not only inspire anti-Muslim bigotry, but also substantiate the extremists’ vision of a war between Islam and the West.

Despite these admirable concerns, failing to acknowledge the ideological dimension of the War on Terror is at best disingenuous, and at worst, a fatal mistake. According to Carlo Caro, ignoring the ideological underpinnings of Islamist terrorism actually obstructs Muslim allies and reformers in their quest to confront misinterpreted doctrines that incite violent extremism. Radicalization-prone ideologies, namely Salafism, often serve as quasi-religious justifications for terrorist acts — a reality echoed by some of the Middle East’s most distinguished religious leaders, including Sheikh Aadel al-Kalbani. If these destructive doctrines remain uncontested, extremists will continue to enjoy a monopoly over the discourse surrounding genuine Islamic values. By delineating Salafist ideology and its brethren as extremist dogma vulnerable to exploitation, we create an environment conducive to critical discussion and counter-messaging. Given this distinction, liberal reformers in Islamic spheres can honestly challenge teachings detached from the principles of Islam, and disseminate religious counter-narratives geared towards deradicalization.

In addition to disempowering Islamic allies and reformers, an unwillingness to identify and address the ideologies exploited by extremists is, at its core, indicative of a greater problem: The failure to both understand and adapt to the changing character of warfare. In 2006, former US President George W. Bush characterized the so-called War on Terror as the “decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century.” This conflict’s ideological character presents a unique challenge to counterterrorism forces in the form of enduring, persistent, and consistently reappearing extremist groups. As the landscape of warfare changes, so do the mechanisms by which it is fought. According to Philip Gorden, while traditional warfare would dictate victory on the basis of triumph on the battlefield and political agreement, lasting victory in the War on Terror requires that the ideology underpinning Islamist extremism lose its appeal. In essence, ultimate success in the War on Terror necessitates success in the war of ideas — a prospect as difficult to attain as it is to measure. However complex it may be, in order to win the ideological war, we must collectively recognize and challenge the doctrines rooted in gross misinterpretations of Islamic values.

Is all this to say that President Donald Trump was actually right? Surely his many critics would characterize this finding as a proverbial blind squirrel finding a nut.

Although Trump is onto something when he claims — albeit less eloquently — that effective solutions are predicated on an accurate identification of the problem, his pursuit of accuracy is thwarted by a failure to distinguish between two key terms: Islamic and Islamist. What on the surface seems like a trivial modification actually proves that when determining one’s adversary in an ideological war, the devil is truly in the details. More than a mere two-letter revision, this distinction isolates the religion of Islam and its many peaceful followers from Islamists, or individuals who wish to impose a particular understanding of the religion on the rest of society. Author and activist Maajid Nawaz, himself a former Islamist, praises this dichotomy as a means by which we can identify extremist ideologies without escalating Islamophobia or anti-Muslim discrimination. The benefit of making the Islamic-Islamist distinction when naming extremist ideologies is two-fold. On a societal level, the general public — who may be susceptible to associating terrorism with Islamic values — is provided with the tools to differentiate between the religion of Islam and its selective extremist misinterpretations. Within the Muslim community itself, liberal reformers and allies are empowered against the Islamists, who have dominated the war of ideas as limitedly contested determinants of the true values of Islam.

While President Donald Trump’s phraseology was undoubtedly — and perhaps unsurpringly — flawed, his effort to accurately define the ideology underpinning Islamist extremism was not without merit. In ideological warfare, naming matters. Beyond recognizing the inherent ideological character of the War on Terror, distinguishing Islamists as agents of extremism bolsters the voices of mainstream Muslims in the war of ideas — a battle that can only be won with an arsenal of intellectual firepower. As both scholars and religious leaders agree, Islamist extremism will only be defeated once radicalization-prone doctrines exploited by fundamentalists are discredited. Providing Muslim allies and reformers with the language to challenge those who espouse values contrary to Islamic teachings is integral to their success on the ideological battlefield. As such, sustained success in the War on Terror is down to the power of our voices, not our guns.



The CIDP is part of the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s University and is one of Canada’s most active research centres on international security.

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Centre for International and Defence Policy

The CIDP is part of the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s University and is one of Canada’s most active research centres on international security.