The recent attack on the Westgate mall in Kenya is a sickening example of the senseless, criminal violence that occurs when a conflation of ignorance, thuggery, and murdering impulses becomes justified by a self-righteous and perverted distortion of religion. Al-Shabab is a militant terrorist group that has been empowered by decades of chaos in Somalia, including (according to Jeremy Scahill) the results of U.S. interference in the country. But instead of calling al-Shabab what they are -- extremist terrorists -- media outlets across the political spectrum have been referring to them as "Islamists" and even "jihadists."
Using blanket terms like "Islamist" to describe any non-secular Muslim group or individual is a lazy way to simplistically term an enormous spectrum of people and attitudes and philosophies and histories. Moreover, it is also prejudicial, because it is unfailingly used in only negative contexts, which perpetuates negative images of Islam. Yet the difference between, for example, between Turkey's democratically elected coalition-building government, which is described as "Islamist," and al-Shabab murdering terrorists, also described as "Islamist," should be apparent to the meanest intelligence.
The mild "Islamism" of Turkey's government, however, is no more religiously motivated than some of the presidential candidates we have had lately in the U.S.; banning abortions and regulating or even banning contraception are suggestions that have been and continue to be on political agendas of American politicians. But these people are not called "Christianist," because there is a tacit acknowledgement that not all Christians would agree with them. There is no such restraint when it comes to calling any Muslim political figures, except the rigidly secular ones, "Islamist." And certainly the media doesn't care that Muslims are just as varied in their beliefs as Christians or anyone else.
Calling al-Shabab and other terrorists "Islamist" is particularly offensive, as well as ludicrous. The very term implies that they commit murder and terrorism because they have "Islamic" agendas. Yet, terrorism has been prohibited by Islamic law since the very beginning. Murder has been prohibited by Islam since its inception. Killing civilians and arbitrarily destroying property has always been prohibited by Islam. Clearly, the al-Shabab actions at the Westgate Mall in Kenya cannot be "Islamic" or "Islamist." They violate the most basic tenets of Islam.
Neither are al-Shabab fighters "jihadists." Journalists who call terrorists "jihadists" obviously cannot have even a fundamental understanding of the term. I have explained the rules of jihad in a previous post on this site. But here it is in a nutshell: jihad is the taking up of arms in self-defense or to overthrow an oppressor. It is not "holy war." It is simply the only kind of war that is allowed by Islam. Wars for territory are not allowed. Wars for oil or other resources are also not allowed. Only wars in self-defense or to overthrow an oppressor. And there are many further limitations on even this definition. Clearly, al-Shabab is not exercising jihad in attacking civilians at the mall, because attacking civilians and murdering them violates numerous rules of jihad.
All sorts of groups use religious terminology in attempts to justify their criminal actions. Why should we help them by using religious terminology to describe them? When members of the Hutaree Christian Militia, a Michigan-centered group planning on murder and the overthrow of the U.S. government as part of their battle against the anti-Christ, were arrested and charged, journalists (rightly) did not refer to them as Christianists" or said they were waging "Christian holy war." Yet Muslim terrorists are routinely labeled "Islamists" and "waging jihad."
Calling terrorists and murderers and other criminals "jihadists" and "Islamists" simply plays into their hands by legitimizing them and making it easier for them to recruit more terrorists. And it also perpetuates the stereotypes (spiraling out of control and funded by a multi-million dollar industry), of Islam as a violent religion and Muslims as barbarians. The U.S. government has made a decision to not call terrorists jihadists. It's about time that the media also stopped using these simplistic, blanket, catchall terms.