Religious 'Radicals' and 'Extremists': Are They Appropriately Labeled?

Eraser deleting the word Radicalism
Eraser deleting the word Radicalism

Recently, one of my colleagues, Professor Vernon Schubel, posted a blog entitled, "What's in a Name: What's Wrong With "Radical Islamic Extremism" (Huff Post Religion, December 11, 2015). I share his disagreement with the politics of insisting that the president or any other person utter certain shibboleths (or sibboleths) to indicate a genuine repudiation of those who are bent on using the instruments of terror. I also agree with the spirit and thrust of Professor Schubel's argument: the actions of a few should not determine the identity and valuation of an entire religious tradition. However, I wish to point out some issues with the argumentation he employs and the conclusion he reaches against the use of the terms "radical Islam" and "Muslim extremists."

Professor Schubel's main line of argument against the use of "radical Islam" is that radical's etymology proves that it means "root" or "essence." From this, he concludes the term "radical Islam" suggests that Islam is, at its core, violent and intolerant. The problem with this reasoning and its conclusion is that the meaning of a word is not restricted or exhausted by its etymology. Definitions of radical in the Merriam Webster online dictionary run the gamut from relating to or growing from the root, to characterizing the root of a word, to relating to any activity designed to remove diseased tissues (prostatectomy and mastectomy for example), to advocating and desiring fundamental changes, to expressing extreme views and employing extreme measures to effect changes.

In my estimation, many who use the terms "radical Islam" and "Muslim extremists" are merely referring to the views of some Islamists and their embrace of extreme means--violence and acts of terror--in their campaigns to institute those views as the basis for religious practices, social life, and political governance. Of course, many in the US hold Islamophobic views and see Islam in purely negative terms, but that in no way indicates that all who use the terms "radical Islam" and "Muslim extremists" are doing so to impugn the essential character of Islam or Muslims in general.

What is interesting about the meaning of radical suggested by Professor Schubel is that it more aptly describes the worldview of the Islamists. Islamists are likely to insist that their interpretation and practice of Islam represents its original, pure, "radical" essence. Hence, the problem with Professor Schubel's definition lies in the fact that it probably more accurately represents the perspective of those who present themselves as the only authentic purveyors of the pure version of a religious tradition than with those who repudiate that view. In contemporary usage, many employ "radical Islam" and "Muslim extremists" to distinguish those who resort to terrorist activities in the name of Islam from the majority of Muslims.

As far as we know, most Muslims seek to align their lives to their understanding of Islam without any desire and design to impose forcefully their traditions on others. Therefore, the terms radical and extremist are intended to designate militant, conservative Islamist groups, such as Al Qaeda, ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, also called ISIS), Boko Haram, Al Shabaab, and the Taliban. These employ extreme, often violent, means against both Muslims and non-Muslims alike, who refuse to adopt their views and submit to their restrictive ethics.

While Professor Schubel is correct that the 30,000 fighters of ISIL constitute a few drops in the enormous ocean of 1.6 billion Muslims, this minority (and the numerous others who subscribe to similar outlooks) is not insignificant in the world, and certainly not in Islam. Al Qaeda's acts before and after 9/11 have forever changed air travel and security concerns around the world. ISIL alone has significantly disrupted life in the Middle East through its capture of land, summary executions, and displacements of people from various religious communities. Whatever their numbers, ISIL and ISIL-inspired persons are committing egregious acts of violence and spreading fear in North Africa and, most recently, in Europe and North America.

Yes, I proclaim with Professor Schubel that we should not define a whole community by its deviants. We do not define Christianity in the US by its fringe actors who advocate violence, assassinate doctors who perform abortions, and shoot up or bomb clinics and Planned Parenthood offices. However, Christians and Muslims must admit that there are extremists among them, and that these extremists draw inspiration (probably incorrectly) from elements of their traditions. In a world where people of multiple ethnicities, cultures, and religious persuasions have to interact regularly, those who abandon civil discourses and reasoned exchanges and seek to impose their vision and will by terrorist acts that kill, maim, and spread fear are justifiably and appropriately labeled "radicals" and "extremists."