A coalition of American Muslim groups is demanding that Sen. John McCain stop using the adjective “Islamic” to describe terrorists and extremist enemies of the United States.
Muneer Fareed, who heads the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), told The Washington Times that his group is beginning a campaign to persuade Mr. McCain to rephrase his descriptions of the enemy
“We’ve tried to contact his office, contact his spokesperson to have them rethink word usage that is more acceptable to the Muslim community,” Mr. Fareed said. “If it’s not our intent to paint everyone with the same brush, then certainly we should think seriously about just characterizing them as criminals, because that is what they are.”
“McCain pressed on Islamic terror label,” The Washington Times, 21 April, 2008.
This raises a few issues. As I see it, terrorists are a special class of criminal and should be referred to as such. I have my own issues with ISNA, but Fareed raises an important point on the issue of “Islamic terrorism.” This phrase is composed with several intentions. The ones that are most immediately apparent are, for the campaigner, the fact that it clearly differenciates the “enemy” from “us” and helps to produce an emotional reaction of fear on the part of voters, which better serves Republicans. Further, “knowing” thy enemy, whether or not this knowledge is correct or not, makes a candidate appear more certain and more prepared for leadership, as this gives the impression that he or she knows what direction they would like to take the campaign in (rightly or wrongly).
For specialists, as I have mentioned before, using the term “Islamic terrorism” sustains their relevance. Conceptualizing the “War on Terror” as a war between America (and/or “Western civilization”) and “Islamic” terrorists, or extremists, or whatever offers an existential threat, an epic battle that “has been going on since” before the Crusades and is continuing on today. In such a struggle, the role of the Arabist, Iranicist, or South Asianist is forever relevant. The Near East specialist is invaluable for a people at war with an “Islamic” enemy. Heightened relevance yielded heightened government grants and donations to major research institutions, think tanks and university area studies programs. It pays for galas of exquisite quality and audiences with the nation’s most influential eyes and ears. It raises the prestige of bookworms, and inflates the egos or men with multiple degrees in medieval philosophy and poetics.
There are two questions this topic raises, for me. Firstly, what is so special about “Islamic” terrorism? Terrorism is a problem on all continents. It takes multiple forms and is used as a tactic by many non-Muslim organizations and peoples. For example, since 1975 there have been something on the order of 145 terrorist attacks targeting American interests in Greece. Of the 500 terrorist attacks in the EU in 2006, 424 were by Basque or Corsican separatists. September 11 focuses most Americans on Islamist terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda, but if Mr. McCain wants to continue to wage the “Global War on Terrorism” (which in itself is a rather odd idea; why have not guerrilla groups declared a “Global War on Frontal Assaults”?), it makes no sense to make the enemy “Islamic” terrorism alone. This deceives other governments with terrorist problems that are not Islamic into believing that their struggles will be backed up by the United States. And what of narco-terrorism whose major flash points are much closer to the American hinterland than those of the “Islamic” threat?
The second question deals with this quote, which has manifested itself in the statements of many politicians and scholars who use the label in recent years.
“Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda represent a perverted strain of Islam at odds with the great many peaceful Muslims who practice their great faith peacefully,” Mr. Schmidt said. “But the reality is, the hateful ideology which underpins bin Ladenism is properly described as radical Islamic extremism. Senator McCain refers to it that way because that is what it is.” [Emphasis added.]
The sincerity of this statement is questionable, if even existent. However, my question is this: If bin Ladenism represents a “perverted strain of Islam,” how is this Islamic? To pervert is variously defined as to lead astray morally, to lead into mental error or false judgment, to misconstrue or misinterpret, to turn to an improper use, to cause to turn away from what is right, proper, or good, and most interestingly:
“to turn someone aside from a right religious belief to a false or erroneous one,” from O.Fr. pervertir, from L. pervertere “corrupt, turn the wrong way, turn about,” from per- “away” + vertere “to turn” (see versus). The noun is 1661, from the verb. Replaced native froward, which embodies the same image. The noun is attested from 1661, “one who has forsaken a doctrine or system regarded as true, apostate;” psychological sense of “one who has a perversion of the sexual instinct” is attested from 1897 (Havelock Ellis), originally esp. of homosexuals. Perv, short for sexual pervert (n.), is first recorded 1944.
A perversion of something Islamic is not Islamic. Many scholars, Bernard Lewis, Daniel Pipes, and so forth, describe “bin Ladenism” and other forms of Islamism as “perversions” of Islam, but then backpedal and label these as forms of “extremism” or “radicalism,” which implies that they are rather the opposite of perversions. That bin Ladinism is “extreme” Islam means that it must be an especially rigorous Islam, that it is still Islamic. It thus implies that it is a valid set of Islamic beliefs practiced especially hard, and deviates from the norm. Bin Ladinism cannot be both perverted and extreme or radical simultaneously. It is either un-Islamic or it is drastic Islam that is not especially favored by most Muslims. It cannot be both.