Britain’s National Association of Muslim Police (NAMP) want law enforcement to drop the term “Islamist terrorism” and “jihadis.” Their proposal offers alternative language including “faith-claimed terrorism,” “terrorists abusing religious motivations” and “adherents of Osama bin Laden’s ideology,” when describing attacks by those who identify as Muslims.
However well intentioned, these language modifications are damaging to counterterrorism work.
While calling for “Islamist terrorism” to be removed is not a total cancellation of the term Islamist, it is a policy-based shape-shifting of reality that funnels open exploration into a narrow margin for the following reasons:
1. Obfuscating language damages public trust
As David Toube, director of policy at Quilliam, points out:
“The police operate as one agency within a network of other public bodies … That network has its own language that it uses to categorize and describe terrorist attacks, and the term ‘Islamist’ is generally the term that they employ.
“The term is [also] used by the Commission for Countering Extremism to describe a category of extremism. It is employed by police and national security agencies, worldwide.
“What that means in practice is that, if the police decide to stop using the term ‘Islamist’ in public, they will continue to use it within their discussions within the state anti-terrorism network.
In other words, this would result in the police using the term ‘Islamist’ in private, while refraining from doing so in public.
The policies around extremism need to be shaped by experts in the preventing and countering violent extremism sector, whether that is from academics or field agents. A policy set on the foundation of identity groups and their biases is not helpful toward reaching our mutual goals.
Anonymous sources within the counterterrorism sector also point to how the far right will exploit language modifications, blaming the police for succumbing to political correctness.
2. The debate is a waste of precious time and resources
Preventing violent extremism expert Liam Duffy is frustrated with the language debate. Writing on this issue for The Spectator, Duffy shares how,
“In 2014, precious time and energy that could have been used to save the lives of innocent aid workers, journalists, religious minorities and civilians living under the jackboot of ISIS – or indeed stopping hundreds of our own citizens joining the frenzy – was instead spent debating whether or not we should call the group ‘Daesh,’ or the ‘un-Islamic State.’”
In the fall of 2016, I said the same before a House Homeland Security Committee on Radical Islam, underscoring that a group like ISIS didn’t care what we thought of them or how we spoke of them; ISIS is going to carry on doing what ISIS does.
The work of counterterrorism officials is undermined not only by the wild-goose chase of finding the perfect unoffensive, untriggering language, but also because we’re here at this question in part because there is still so much obscurity about violent faith-based ideology rooted from a distortion of original Islam.
Duffy clarifies this well when he adds,
Islamism is the particular name for a political ideology which seeks to establish an Islamic state. Its adherents range from those working within democracy to those willing to murder civilians to achieve this aim.
3. The term ‘Islamist terrorism’ is accurate precisely because the religion informs the political ideology. That needs to be acknowledged
Adding to the call for delineation, Duffy writes,
“According to critics of the word, ‘Islamism’ should be dropped because it conflates religious belief with terror. But the term ‘Islamism,’ rather than ‘Islamic’ is intended to draw a distinction between the political ideology and the religious beliefs of more than two million Brits. It is important though to understand how religion informs the political ideology. Which it does, significantly.” [my emphasis]
Possessing a rare sharp eye at the intersection of culture, policy and extremism, Duffy was present at the recent police meetings over the term Islamist. He was frustrated by what he witnessed, as are many of his peers within the counter-extremism circuit. Duffy writes,
“[I] was disappointed that the use of the term ‘Islamism’ was framed in the context of the current discussions on race. This made it near impossible to make a dispassionate case in an entirely separate debate. Islamism is not just a made-up term, or a relic of a more racist past to be expunged like a statue or American Football team name. It is a necessarily precise and accepted term to describe the ultimate objective of both al-Qaeda and, as the name suggests, Islamic State.
“When innocent people are gunned down in European capitals and minorities are persecuted in the Middle East, it is of the utmost importance to understand why this is happening. We need to know that we are not simply dealing with a band of malcontents or the vulnerable, but a distinct and coherent violent program which, as repugnant as it may be, should be respected and understood as an opponent.”
4.Contrary to being an anti-Muslim phrase, the term Islamism is native to the Arabic language
Addressing the cry of naysayers who claim Islamism is an anti-Muslim phraseology, Toube references Sir John Jenkins who points out how Islamism is a term native to the Arabic language. Toube also points out how the term is used elsewhere within British Muslim media and academic work, including in a magazine called Islamism Digest founded by the UK chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood as well as in a Quilliam-produced paper titled “Mainstreaming Islamism,” presented to the Commission for Countering Extremism.
The Counter Extremism Group details Islamist actors who describe themselves as Islamists:
“There are also examples of Islamist actors who self-define their agenda as “Islamist,” separating themselves from other, often secularist, Muslim sects or factions.
“For example, U.S. public policy institute Brookings conducted an interview series in 2016 entitled ‘Islamists on Islamism Today,’ featuring leaders from prominent mainstream Islamist movements: Tunisia’s Ennahda Party; Pakistan’s Jamaat-e-Islami; and various Arab branches of the Muslim Brotherhood.
“The project allowed Islamists to offer ‘their own perspectives’ on their political strategy, conceived in the spirit of open discussion and ‘constructive’ dialogue.
“One interviewee, Omar Mushaweh of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, stressed the need for an ‘Islamist alternative’ to address the ‘extremists’ of ISIS. Another, Jamaat-e-Islami leader Asif Luqman Qazi, said that ‘a reversion to an Islamic ethos’ can serve as an antidote to the ills of contemporary society, and a path to ‘salvation in the hereafter.’
That is why Islamists of all stripes are resolute that their socio-political outlook sits in accordance with normative, authentic Islam and criticism is viewed or framed as an assault on private faith and personal identity.
5. The term reminds us that Islamism is not the only form of Islam
Toube correctly notes that using the term Islamism reminds us that we do not need to play along, meaning “Islamism is clearly not the only reading of Islam.”
In fact, this is where the argument in favor of Muslim reformers comes in. Coined as the anti-venom to Islamist interpretations of the religion, new narratives and counter-arguments rooted in the same faith and ethics that Islamists exploit add depth to the dialogue.
In the case of language medication, an argument rooted in reform is that the right to speak without censorship or modification falls under the umbrella of religious freedom. If you cannot fight passion with logic, you can flank the opposition with a mirror opposite of itself: an orientation of Islam rooted in truth and human dignity.
For more on Islamism, tune into our conversation with Liam Duffy. Duffy is a UK-based expert in preventing violent extremism who weighed in against eradicating the term “Islamist terrorism.” We discuss:
- How abuse against Muslim Reformers gave Liam the courage to speak openly against the ideology of violent jihad
- The fetishizing of minority communities is an obstacle to overcoming some of the issues revolving around Islamism and jihadism
- Why are people who’ve grown up with democratic ideals adopting an 8th century ideology?
- The romanticization of 9/11 by Islamists
- Beyond identity politics: A look at what bonds people in a secular state
- How to counter public denial and naivete about Islamist extremism?
- Is it possible to fight for preventing violent extremism without fighting Islamism?
- The problem with pigeonholing radicalization as a vulnerability problem
- Managing expectations in deradicalization
- Tell the better story: Storytelling as a response to the ideological challenge of Islamism and other challenges posed by Islamist groups to liberal democracy. Counter narratives and counter messaging