On Islamic terrorism

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.

22 thoughts on “On Islamic terrorism

  1. I disagree; something can be both an extreme example and a perversion.

    Radical or Extremist Islam is a perverted form of Islam because its adherents are “especially rigorous” in their literal interpretations of various parts of the Qur’an and the Haddith.

    AS for McCain – he’s right in what he says! Islamic terrorists are the enemy of the US, not Basque or Corsican separatists.

  2. I agree with Nouri’s assessment on this one, jonolan. he dictionary definition is irrefutable, and if we hold these people to their literal word, then I don’t see how they can have their cake and eat it too.

    After all, people who, say, bomb abortion clinics may consider themselves Christian, but I doubt most Christians would, or even those with the strictest or most literal reading of the Bible (I challenge you to point me to something in there that unequivocally and unmistakably commands those people to do that).

    Finally, on your last point, I think the US itself would be forced to agree with you. Those “other” terrorists are the enemies of US allies, and per NATO, they’re our enemies too. I think Bush himself might even be forced to admit that.

  3. Yikes – a correction, please:

    “I think the US itself would be forced to agree with you.”

    should read:

    “I think the US itself would be forced to DISagree with you.”

  4. When respectable Islamic mainstream scholars like Qadarwi say that suicide bombing is okay, or that its okay to target american civilians because their tax money supports the war, they Islamically justify terrorism.

    In which case, calling it “Islamic terrorism” is perfectly okay.

  5. all the talk and so forth..but the simple truth is…those extemeist could be stopped if their neighbors in their home countries would step up and do…they do not, because they don’t want to…

    i agree with the painted face man….

  6. My point was that a religion – Islam in this case – can be “perverted” by being too “extreme.” It’s not an either / or situation. There are a lot of passages in the Qu’ran and the Haddith that can be literally interpreted to allow for- and even require terrorism by Muslims against the kafir – that’s the rest of us.

    A literal and zealous following of these instructions is both “extremism” and a perversion of Islam’s overall message as interpreted by the bulk of its scholars.

    As for the scope of the war on terrorism, I haven’t heard of our allies asking for US assistance against it’s own non-Islamic terrorists.

  7. Eh, this kind of collapses into a matter of semantics, especially since the more I look into it, perversion has a very subjective meaning with myriad applications. In this case, the problem arises when an ideology utilizes large portions of its parent ideology, but differs in significant and important areas to such a degree as to render it a new ideology altogether.

    After all, even if in the places where the Qu’ran instructs believers to kill unbelievers, it doesn’t specify Americans, and certainly all Americans are not unbelievers. I my view, if I adopt, say, the Bible as my religious text and then create something distinctly extra-Bible as the cornerstone of my religious practices, am I still a Christian? What if I founded a movement based on the Leviticus passage on stoning the homosexuals to death, and proceeded to target homosexuals indiscriminately? At what point is this no longer a Christian ideology? Should I always be characterized as a Christian terrorist, regardless of my actions?

    I think we can both agree bin Ladinism takes extraordinary license with interpreting religious text, and worse, any action – or collateral damage – can always be justified under such interpretation post hoc. Since any plan – any measures – are all possibilities for interpretation and implementation of this ideology, I don’t see how we can fit this into to the structure of Islam. Further, I think that likening bin Ladinism to, say, a really strict strain of Christianity plants a false mental shortcut for most people who don’t have the time or energy to carry out *this* exercise, and we all know what happens when these people vote out of the resultant fear.

    On your last point, whether the US *fears* Basque separatists or whether Spain asks for our help, the US position on these non-Islamic terrorists sounds in contract. We don’t get to pick and choose when it comes to terrorist attacks on our allies; an attack on them is an attack on us, ideology notwithstanding.

  8. I am 100 % Algerian and agree.
    They are islamist terrrorists. And this is not a new behaviour.
    Islam has been spread with the sword.

    In Algeria Islamist terrorist is an euphemenism. We call them
    green fashists.

    Muneer Fareed Is looking for a black cat in a balck room when the cat is not even there.

    Muneer Fareed if couragous he needs to fight these islamists
    and recognise that they are the devil inpersonated.

    You can not ask for respect. Respect you earn it.

  9. With respect, why not say ‘Islamic Terrorism,” as we would say:
    Italian Fascism
    Chinese Communism
    Tibetan Budhism
    Jewish settlers (extreme religious-zionism)
    Christian Fundementalism
    British Capitalism
    French Republicanism
    Arab Nationalism
    Basque Seperatism

    In all these cases what we are talking about is something (fundementalism), happening in the context of a certain framework, a cultural group, a nation, a state. It is important for us to understand that these phenomena are happening in this context, although it does not mean that everyone or even the majority of people who belong to the framework support it. When we talk about Christian fundementalism we are talking about a phenomenon that is connected to Christianity and is happening within the framework of Christianity. If we want to talk about fundementalism in general, that would be another discussion. The question whether Christian Fundementalism is in fact a prevertion or just an extreme version of Christianity is irrelevant. It is a theological question which would require us to start asking what is ‘real’ christianity (or Islam), which is a pointless discussion. The important thing here is the context, which is Christian.

    All this is true of Islam too, although it seems to me that the phenomenon of Islamic extremism and terrorism are more influential in the Islamic world than Christian fundementalism in the Christian framework.

    In any case talking about Islamic terrorism is one thing. Talking about terrorism, i.e. the fighting technique, in the abstract, are two different things. It seems to me that people are reluctant to make a blanket condemnation of terrorism as a method because sometimes people/countries support the goals of groups who employ terrorism as a method, or at leas do not wish to oppose them to vocally. Presumably most countries would not want to get involved in every place where terrorism is used, but only in situation when the terrorism is used in a framework that is relevant to the country in question.

  10. The issue with “Islamic terrorism,” as I see it, is that there is a difference between what is “Islamic” and “Islamist”. The connotations (and meanings) of these terms are different; one implies a civilization, a people, a religion. The other is a political ideology, a world view (which is not always congruent with Islamic world views), and so on. Islamic terrorism is an emotional term that give other Islamic thing a negative connotation, in a country where many people do not know what to call Muslims (many people call them “Islamics” or “Islams” even elites). Islamism is a term that accurately describes the ideology and movement driving the kind of terrorism to which “Islamic terrorism” actually refers to.

  11. I agree with Micha.

    The truth is muslims do not ask themselves what is tolerable and what is not unless they are the victim.

    The truth is muslims do not ask themselves what is acceptable and what is not unless they are the victim.

    Every muslim will tell you that is acceptable to kill a muslim who converts from islam to another religion.
    Terrorism starts there.

    Muslims need to convey when message to the terrorists:
    “Not in my name” for the world to take them seriously.

  12. “It is a theological question which would require us to start asking what is ‘real’ christianity (or Islam), which is a pointless discussion. The important thing here is the context, which is Christian.”

    Okay. And you don’t think that the tension between modern worldviews, religious text, and interpretation are at the very heart of the matter? While an exercise that attempts to determine whether something is authentically Christian or Muslim seems pointless to *me*, I can hardly deny that this discussion is ongoing and very important to adherents of these religions where fundamentalism is a problem.

    “… although it seems to me that the phenomenon of Islamic extremism and terrorism are more influential in the Islamic world than Christian fundementalism in the Christian framework.”

    Sure. So what? I’m not clear on what your point is here.

  13. “I agree with Micha.

    The truth is muslims do not ask themselves what is tolerable and what is not unless they are the victim…”

    This was not what I was saying. What I’m saying is that Islamism, or radical islamism, or extreme islamism (and the terrorism involved) is a socio-political phenomenon happening in the muslim world. This does not mean that it is Islam or reflects on all Muslims or has always and wil always be part of Islam. But it is happening in Islam, and I think Muslims should own to it and deal with it, just as other cultural frameworks have their own issues that they have to deal with.

    “Islamic terrorism is an emotional term that give other Islamic thing a negative connotation, in a country where many people do not know what to call Muslims (many people call them “Islamics” or “Islams” even elites). Islamism is a term that accurately describes the ideology and movement driving the kind of terrorism to which “Islamic terrorism” actually refers to.”

    I understand the distinction. Both are good for me, since they both indicate that there is something happening that is happening in the framework of Islam. However, I’m not sure if the term Islamist is good for you, if people don’t know what to call Muslims. For the distinction you want to make a phrase like radical, or extreme, or ultra would serve better.

    “I can hardly deny that this discussion is ongoing and very important to adherents of these religions where fundamentalism is a problem. ”

    I take it for granted that every religion can be and has been interpreted in more or less tolerant ways, more flexible and more extreme ways, and so forth. It is pretty obvious that many religion had to re-interpret themselves to adapt to modern attitutes of pluralism and tolerance. It is also clear that the fundementalistic tendancies we see in islam, Christianity, Judaism and Hindyism is a reaction to these modern pressures. Obviously, I’d prefer if each one of those religions leans more toward the more liberal interpretations and interpreters. I don’t know and don’t care which if any of the interpreters, liberal or fundementalist is representing the ‘real’ version of their religion. From an historical perspective they probably don’t, since people in the past were less pluralistic and liberal than people today. But at the end it is a theological question they have to work out on their own. If it helps a liberal Musllim, or Jew or Christian to say to himself that he represent the ‘real’ religion to be liberal, good for him. As far as i can tell you can justify both liberal attitudes and fundemtalist but looking to scripture, so both are and neither are ‘real’.

    ““… although it seems to me that the phenomenon of Islamic extremism and terrorism are more influential in the Islamic world than Christian fundementalism in the Christian framework.”

    Sure. So what? I’m not clear on what your point is here.”

    I’ve made the analogy between Christian fundementalism and Islamic extremism to make a point. However, if we are to have a serious discussion about either of these phenomena we have to be aware of the differences as well as the similarities. The effects and manifestations of Islamism in the Islamic world are different than those of fundementalism in Christianity both with the level of violence and with the level of support.

  14. “The effects and manifestations of Islamism in the Islamic world are different than those of fundementalism in Christianity both with the level of violence and with the level of support.”

    What is the purpose of a comparative tack here?

    According to you, the “manifestations of Islamism” is a subject best left to Muslims in Muslim countries. If it is irrelevant for us to even consider on what grounds they diverge, converge, or reflect codified religious text, then I’m not sure what “serious discussion” we will be having when we see how Islamism in practice differs from fundamentalist Christianity.

    “It is also clear that the fundementalistic tendancies we see in islam, Christianity, Judaism and Hindyism is a reaction to these modern pressures.”

    Okay, so context *doesn’t* seem to matter. We should be able to study all of this, particulars notwithstanding, from the vantage point of modern v. traditional.

    I’m not trying to split hairs – I don’t think anything you said is particularly *wrong* – but I’m always wary of arguments that have roots in this very generalizable social world. *I’m* staunchly un-religious, but I see no harm in having an open discussion about how changing interpretations of religious doctrine can open up the issue of what is true and not true. I mean, why not? It’s hardly scientific, but it’s certainly *relevant*.

  15. “According to you, the “manifestations of Islamism” is a subject best left to Muslims in Muslim countries. ”

    That’s not what I said. What i said is that the question of whether Islamism is ‘real’ Islam or not is a question Muslims have to figure out on their own, or rather they have to decide if it is or isn’t.

    “Okay, so context *doesn’t* seem to matter.”

    That’s not what I’ve said either. That fundementalism is a reaction to modernism is in interesting aspect of fundementalism made noticeable by comparison, but I didn’t say that you can reduce the particular fundementalist movements to this explanation. Like I said, there are similarities and unique aspects.

    Look, here is my point. If I was discussing the 16th century reformation I might talk about the social, political, economic, ideological, theological aspects of protestanism. But no Historian would go about dealing with the question of whether protestanism or catholicism is or is not ‘real’ Christianity. First, because both groups draw on Christianity but neither is pure Christianity even if we could determine and agree what constitutes real christianity. but more importantly because such discussion would be irrelevant. Saying that protestanism isn’t real would not make it any less of a movement in Christianity supported by millions who considered themselves Christians. The same logic applies to a discussion of Islamism today. It is a movement, and not a fringe one, that exists in Islam.

    The only reason to get into the discussion of whether Islamism is real Islam is to score some political points. But even in this capacity I don’t think it’s worth much for a western politician to say that. For devout muslims such a statement would probably be perceived as an intrusion into internal religious matters, and would most likely only cause a negative reaction. For people who are concerned about prejudice toward Muslims or policies with regards to Muslims, such a statement would seem like empty words. They would care more about the policies. (Bush can say that Islamism is distortion, but it won’t make him any more popular). And for people who are concerned about radical muslim terrorism such a statement would seem like hollow political correctness obfuscating the undeniable fact that there is a major movement inside the Muslim world supported by Muslims that is practiocing terrorism.

  16. I’m guess I’m on board with the first part of what you wrote … sort of. Okay, fine. We can move on. But your last paragraph …

    *I* don’t have any magic answers, and yes, this is something only adherents to Islam can decide (or never decide, whichever is the case). Still, I see no harm in having the discussion, even if you happen *not* to be a Muslim.

    Finally, the original post concerned how McCain was calling these terrorist “Islamic”. Whether us Western atheists can debate the finer points of Islamic doctrine, surely we can see that, implicit in calling these terrorists Islamic, there exists an attempt to create a shortcut for the electorate. If we are not distinguishing between people and things that are Islamic and a very specific terrorist group that is Islamic in its underpinnings, then I consider this a problem.

    So is it cool to use these adjectives to describe anything than emanates – in any manifestation or perversion – from a parent ideology, or should we use more descriptive language?

  17. “Still, I see no harm in having the discussion, even if you happen *not* to be a Muslim.”

    On the basic philosophical level I just don’t believe there is such a thing as real Islam or real Christianity or real Judaism, only different interpretations at different times, or different places by different people. Secondly, even if we decided that real Islam is Islam as practiced by Muslims at the time of the prophet, I doubt any one of us would like living according to these morals. So it is disingenuous for us to speak of real Islam. But more importantly, I think that theological arguments actually increase conflict. I’d rather base them on the principles of pluralism, tolerance, mutual respect, mutual interests, compromise and ‘if you attack me I’m going to hit back hard’.

    “If we are not distinguishing between people and things that are Islamic and a very specific terrorist group that is Islamic in its underpinnings, then I consider this a problem.”

    I think there is a middle ground between presenting all Muslims and all Islam as terrorists and pretending that the extremists who employ and support terrorism are some fringe group that has nothing to to do with anything Islamic.

    After all, we are not talking about one very specific terrorist group but about a major influential trend in the Muslim world.

    I think we should expect ourselves and people in general to understand the connection between Islamism and Islam just as they understand the connection between WWII Japanese government and Japanese culture and people in general, which are respected by most people despite the events of WWII.

    “So is it cool to use these adjectives to describe anything than emanates – in any manifestation or perversion – from a parent ideology, or should we use more descriptive language?”

    It is difficult to find the right term to this phenomena. Unlike Fascism or Communism or Racism they have not provided us with a name. Instead they themselves try to present themselves as the definition of Muslim. But I think adjectives like extreme or radical or fanatic should be sufficient to make the necessary distinction between Islam and Islamism. Had McCain said Radical Islamic Terrorism it should have been enough.

  18. “Still, I see no harm in having the discussion, even if you happen *not* to be a Muslim.”

    On the basic philosophical level I just don’t believe there is such a thing as real Islam or real Christianity or real Judaism, only different interpretations at different times, or different places by different people. Secondly, even if we decided that real Islam is Islam as practiced by Muslims at the time of the prophet, I doubt any one of us would like living according to these morals. So it is disingenuous for us to speak of real Islam. But more importantly, I think that theological arguments actually increase conflict. I’d rather base them on the principles of pluralism, tolerance, mutual respect, mutual interests, compromise and ‘if you attack me I’m going to hit back hard’.

    “If we are not distinguishing between people and things that are Islamic and a very specific terrorist group that is Islamic in its underpinnings, then I consider this a problem.”

    I think there is a middle ground between presenting all Muslims and all Islam as terrorists and pretending that the extremists who employ and support terrorism are some fringe group that has nothing to to do with anything Islamic.

    After all, we are not talking about one very specific terrorist group but about a major influential trend in the Muslim world.

    I think we should expect ourselves and people in general to understand the connection between Islamism and Islam just as they understand the connection between WWII Japanese government and Japanese culture and people in general, which are respected by most people despite the events of WWII.

    “So is it cool to use these adjectives to describe anything than emanates – in any manifestation or perversion – from a parent ideology, or should we use more descriptive language?”

    It is difficult to find the right term to this phenomena. Unlike Fascism or Communism or Racism they have not provided us with a name. Instead they themselves try to present themselves as the definition of Muslim. But I think adjectives like extreme or radical or fanatic should be sufficient to make the necessary distinction between Islam and Islamism. Had McCain said Radical Islamic Terrorism it should have been enough.

  19. Well, I am not familiar enough with the global feelings of the Muslim communities around the world to judge on the actual “religiosity” or theological purity of the Bin Ladenists. But on a semantic level, I totally agree with tren and Nouri. I don’t know if English languages actually distinguish the two (as tren suggests), but in French at least there could be no ambiguity. Using the words “Islamic terrorists” as McCain does in public would be regarded as racist (and probably be illegal under anti-racist laws). Even right wingers like Le Pen are keen on using “terroristes islamistes” (islamist terrorists) to differentiate the religion which should be respected as a cultural expression from the political ideology. In French, words ending in “iste” refer to the ideology of a person (like “communiste”). This allows people with at least some basic education to avoid any unsound ambiguity.

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