"The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name." ―Confucius
Political pundits and policymakers are divided on everything from what ISIS is, to what their intentions are, who created them, where they will strike next, what to do with Assad in Syria, and even how to treat the refugees from Syria seeking asylum in Europe and America. While the confusion that follows any terror attack the magnitude of Paris is to be expected, certain reactions in these moments can have dire policy implications on the efforts to contain terror globally. It appears that there is one issue where policymakers and politicians almost unanimously agree; the idea of Muslim Extremism. Methinks it might be a dangerous consensus. Let me explain.
Since 9/11, the United States and her allies on the War on Terror have engaged in a subtle doublespeak: George Bush and Barack Obama agreed that the enemy in the war is not Islam. Obama further declines to portray ISIS as Radical/Militant Muslims, a stance that has irked some who deem him a Muslim sympathizer, thus insincere in his anti-terror efforts. On the other hand, Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, and several policy makers globally, do not yet appreciate the incoherence of the term "Radical Islam", with Hillary only publicly changing her position as late as this year.
This is the policy misnomer that plagues the war on terror and risks worsening socioeconomic and historical factors that already complicate the efforts to root out terrorists. There are two problems with the terms "radical Islam" and "Muslim extremism": on the one hand, the terms create legitimate associations for terrorists and imply an understanding of, or the justification for their cause, implying by extension that the war on terror is against religious dissidents. On the other hand, these terms blur the enemy in the now globalized war on terror, throwing Muslims in a quandary between practicing their faith and declaring loyalty to governments that paint their religion as inherently dangerous. Definitions and terms are not small things in the international arena; the ethnic cleansing in Rwanda ran its course because the world refused to apply the term "Genocide" even when it was obvious.
While political scientists and policy gurus are divided on the definition of terrorism, there are a few points of general convergence: most agree that terrorism is politically motivated, violently executed, ideologically sustained and publicity reliant. This is what Daesh is. This is Anders Behring Breivik, Boko Haram, Al Shabaab, Ashin Wirathu, and Pierre Nkurunziza. These are the markers of their activity immaterial of their religion or ideology; they are terrorists, plain and simple. They are similar in their action, immaterial of their belief systems.
However, those quick to blame Islam for terrorism pose an interesting question, ex-Muslim Roy Abbas phrases it this way: "The issue should not be that all Muslims are terrorists, it should be why most terrorists are Muslims." If we were to make choppy analogies, I would reply to this school of thought by pointing out that perhaps the logic holds because we do not count the funders of terrorism, and the United States. The US still allies with such counties as Saudi Arabia and Qatar for strategic reasons on the one hand, while pointing fingers at them with the other. Therefore, yes, the majority of terrorists look like Muslims because we do not include the creators and funders of terrorism in that definition. It is like posing that the issue should not be that all white supremacists are Christian, but why most of them are. The sweeping generalizations are just absurd. We know the logic falls flat on its face and so Christian-affiliated terrorists such as Anders Behring and the Klan are quickly labeled lone rangers who do not represent Christianity. Heck, if we want to go back into history we can point out that slavery and abolition were both argued from biblical scripture, and yet we don't see a shunning Christianity because its scriptures were somehow abused to achieve means that we now know to be completely unrelated to Christianity.
Nevertheless, there is another logical fallacy lurking here, the insinuation that the terrorists are devout Muslims, and therefore representative of the ideals of Islam. This draws into the idea that Islamic scripture, whether the Quran, Hadith or the Sunna are in and of themselves promoters of violence and thus Islam is inherently violent. This theory holds little water when juxtaposed to the evidence, let us use recent suspects of the Paris attacks as examples: suspects include Hasna Aitboulahcen, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, and Brahim Abdeslam. How do these people corroborate the evidence of their supposed Islamic piety? Well, it turns out Hasna was a party girl whose friends consider more a lost soul than an Islamic radical, she drank too much, smoked and had multiple sex partners, her brother reports she never read the Quran and had little, if any interest in Islam. How then did she blow herself up for a religion she barely understood? Abdelhamid and Brahim are no different, the former is reportedly some level of alcoholic, and the latter's ex wife reports that he was more a marijuana smoker than a mufti by any stretch of imagination. Worse still, those quick to point to the violence of Islam, usually have very little to say about why the whole Islamic world has not gone to war against western ideals if indeed Islamic scripture is as bloodthirsty as they would have us believe. Why don't we have a billion suicide bombers?
Islam is not a monolith and the fact that ISIS exploits superficial religious teachings of Islam does not make their motivation Islamic in any way. There is little policy substance to be found in propagating this narrative on their behalf; it does more harm to the innocent civilians caught in the middle. The intention to excuse imperialist policy that created, aided, and abetted terrorism in the Middle East and Africa cannot morph into a selective labeling without affecting innocent adherents of Islam. At any rate, the oversimplifying of Muslims into the terrorist label will push Muslim youth into the hands of terror organizations because labels tend to come to life in extreme situations; this is how Al Shabaab recruits under the nose of Kenyan intelligence agencies and this is how Boko Haram exploits ethnic divisions in Nigeria. What will stop ISIL from taking the same advantages when their enemy keeps offering?