by Ahmed Humayun
“Mr. Obama's refusal to speak of “radical Islam” also betrays his failure to understand the sources of Islamic State's legitimacy and thus its allure to young Muslim men….Mr. Obama's refusal to acknowledge the real nature of the Islamist threat creates an opening for Mr. Trump's immigration ban. It suggests to Americans that the President is so hostage to political correctness that he might not be doing all he can to combat the threat.” Wall Street Journal, June 15, 2016.
If you follow the debate about terrorism, Islam, and anti-Muslim bigotry in America today, you will observe a small but strident faction fixated on American officials and leaders who do not use the phrase ‘radical Islam' to describe terrorist groups like ISIL, Al Qaeda, and others. This faction maintains that if you do not talk about terrorism through the prism of Islam, you are soft on terror, you lack moral clarity, and you are paralyzed by political correctness.
This is a heavy burden for one phrase to bear. The good news is that there is no evidence that American security and law enforcement agencies have been 'soft' on terror. Under the current administration, numerous operations have been conducted around the world to disrupt the operations of terrorist groups, even resulting in the capture of Bin Laden, the perpetrator of the September 11 attacks. The lack of use of the phrase ‘radical Islam' by our leaders has not prevented these operations from occurring or succeeding.
In fact, blurring the distinction between Islam and terrorism will hurt counterterrorism efforts rather than aid them. While it is true that terminology is important in this struggle, the Journal's editorial board has it exactly backwards. Consider that ISIL wants to be called the ‘Islamic State', and that it has previously threatened to cut the tongues out of people who refer to it as Da'esh. ISIL's leaders want the world to make no distinction between Islam and its brutish practices. They claim exclusive authority to speak on behalf of Islam, and they slaughter anyone else who has a different view. When we say that ISIL is Islamic, we concede their core contention at the outset. We can either deny our enemies what they want, or we can hand it to them on a silver platter.
In contrast, distinguishing between Islam and terrorism is a smart tactic that aids in countering terrorism. When American officials make this distinction, it suggests that Americans distinguish between the acts of nihilistic groups like Al Qaeda or ISIL and the rest of the Muslim community. It creates the opportunity for potential alliances against this threat across national, cultural, and civilizational boundaries.
Similarly, we should want Muslims to say that ‘ISIL is un-Islamic'. This position rejects the authority or legitimacy of terrorist groups to define the nature of contemporary Islam in our ongoing global debate. It distances mainstream Islam from the activities of these groups. It is similar to other types of disavowals. For example, when Americans say that a certain belief or action is ‘un-American' – such as, say, racism or bigotry – we recognize this as a positive thing.
But for the faction obsessed with using the phrase ‘radical Islam', this type of argument is mere political correctness and obscurantism. According to the Journal's editorial board, when American leaders don't use the phrase 'radical Islam', citizens allegedly become convinced that their government is failing to protect them and therefore will support extreme and discriminatory measures against Muslims. The Journal believes that if its preferred terminology isn't used, then not only will counterterrorism efforts be weaker, but support for anti-Muslim discrimination will inevitably grow.
Nothing, however, is inevitable. If support for illiberalism grows when there is fear, then we should strive to be less fearful. The fact is that terrorist acts carried out or inspired by groups like ISIL or Al Qaeda are terrible crimes against humanity, but these acts are by no means the most significant threat, even domestically. Terrorism is only one of many threats confronting Americans today. Addressing this challenge requires concerted effort by our law enforcement agencies and our communities – including Muslim American communities – but it is not an existential danger to America.
There is no necessary cause-and-effect relationship between fear and illiberalism. We have a choice in how we respond to legitimate fears, and this choice should not be obscured. America is a democracy, not an autocracy. We should strive to meet higher ethical standards – our own standards – and stand up for American values instead of sacrificing them.
The choice faced by Americans genuinely concerned about terrorism is not over the use of the phrase ‘radical Islam'. The real choice is whether to grant groups like ISIL enormous power over the nature of our society and the structure of our government – a power that they do not possess and will never be able to acquire on their own, but which we can voluntarily cede to them. If we become open to suspending parts of our constitution or our laws, or diverging from our values, then whether or not we use the phrase ‘radical Islam', the terrorists will win.