Leading Republicans criticize the President because he will not describe acts of terrorism committed by Muslims as “Radical Islamic Terrorism”. The President insists that using the term “Radical Islam” does not actually affect how the war on terror is waged and in fact, impugns the religion of Islam and the vast majority of peace loving Muslims who practice their faith.
Ironically each side is both right and wrong. The President's description of terrorists as violent extremists is broad and nonspecific. The description is meaningless and creates a see no Islam evil mindset. Witness the initial transcripts of the shooter’s calls to 911 released by the Justice Department. The terrorist’s remarks on allegiance to ISIS were redacted and the transcript was scrubbed of Allah, substituting God in its place.
Unwillingness to attribute terrorism to Islam does have consequences. Designed to prevent prejudice against decent Muslims, dancing around an unpleasant reality creates the impression that criticizing Muslims is wrong. Hence a witness does not report suspicious behavior of the San Bernardino shooters out of fear that she will be labelled an Islamaphobe. This same mindset was behind the categorization of the Fort Hood shootings as workplace violence instead of Islamic terrorism, thereby denying soldiers wounded in the attack of additional benefits.
The Republicans make a different mistake. Their use of the phrase “Radical Islamic Terrorism” misidentifies the religious ideology of the terrorist and that phrase does indeed impugn all of Islam. The phrase implies that the terrorists practice an extreme form of modern day Islam. As David Brooks states, “people don’t start out practicing Islam and then turn into terrorists because they become more faithful”. Modern Islam is a vastly different version of the religion of ISIS. The theological roots are the same, but the religious ideology and practices have little overlap.
ISIS adheres to medieval Islam practiced 1300 years ago by the first two Caliphs of Islam. ISIS rejects all subsequent innovations and modernizations to the religion as a corruption of Islam. Among numerous barbarities, medieval religious practices allow terrorizing infidels into submission using beheadings, crucifixions, rape and enslavement.
The great attraction to ISIS flows from its perceived religious legitimacy, the establishment of the caliphate. Unlike other terrorists groups where recruits pledge loyalty to a cause, ISIS recruits undergo conversion and pledge their lives to the Caliph, the representative of Allah on earth.
Religious conversion is powerful stuff. It provides deep meaning and purpose and is rapturous to the disaffected, alienated, or marginalized. It is not economic justice that drives these recruits to ISIS but the search for meaning, purpose, and positive identity. Similarly, religious conversion explains why recruits who show no history of violence are able to commit the most heinous acts. They are acting for the glory of Allah to purify the world of subhumans in accordance with the Prophet Mohammad.
The phrase “Medieval Islam” clarifies for the average Joe how a religion of peace creates monsters. Medieval Islam has parallels to Medieval Christianity where non-believers were tortured and burned at the stake during the Inquisition. It is a small step from there to accept that modern Islam is as peace loving as modern Christianity.
Sharing the same terminology to describe and understand terrorists can promote meaningful policy dialogue between Republicans and Democrats. Take the refugee issue as an example. Muslim countries that practice medieval Sharia law reflect social and cultural values that are unamerican. This recognition changes the dialogue on refugee immigration from issues of prejudice to issues of enculturation. How do we (and can we) select refugees that will accommodate to and accept a very different culture and, if so, how to assist refugees in the assimilation process? Here, American Muslims can play a pivotal role in guiding these policies.
Words reflect perceived reality and influence actions. Without a common perspective on reality, dialogue is fruitless. We end up talking at or past each other rather than to each other. Goodness knows we've done enough of that already.