What's in a Name: What's Wrong With "Radical Islamic Extremism"

It has been fascinating to watch the discussions of Islam and Muslims in the current political context. One very popular "meme" on the American political right attacks President Obama for not using some form of the phrase "Muslim extremist" or "radical Muslim extremism" to refer to groups like ISIS or al-Qaeda or the perpetrators of the recent horrific mass shooting in San Bernadino. After all, the argument goes, how can you defeat "them" if you can't even call them by their proper name? At first blush it seems a somewhat silly argument.

Why does calling al-Qaeda and and ISIS Islamic extremism make developing and implementing strategies against them any more (or less) effective? But as an academic I am convinced that words do matter and I think it is crucial that we choose our words when labeling our enemies (and our friends) with great care. In my opinion, the term "Radical Islamic Extremism" is both so inaccurate and so loaded that we would be best advised to drop it from our vocabularies.

To say someone is a "Muslim extremist" implies that he or she takes the religion of Islam to its extreme. The same is true for the term "radical Islam." A radical is someone who takes his or her ideology back to its root, its essence. (Do you remember back in math class how a square root is placed under a radical sign?) Thus to say that a Muslim extremist is someone who is misogynistic, legalistic, puritanical, intolerant and violent implies that at its core Islam is defined by these characteristics. Whatever "moderate Islam" might be Islam taken to its extreme--its ultimate end--looks like al-Qaeda or ISIS. Similarly, to hold up as examples of Muslim radicals Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik implies that at its root Islam is violent and hateful. When Robert Dear committed an act of domestic terrorism by killing people in a Planned Parenthood very few people called him a Christian extremist or a radical Christian. To have done so would been clearly unfair to the religious tradition of Christianity. If you were to ask me to name a radical Christian I would name Saint Francis of Assisi or Martin Luther King, not the Westboro Baptist Church. Similarly when I think of radical Muslims I think of Ibrahim ibn Adham the medieval king of Balkh who walked away from his palace to live a life of poverty and devotion or Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi whose poetic masterpiece The Masnavi describes Islam's essence in terms of radical and revolutionary love.

It seems to me that those voices that demand "we" call those Muslims who engage in horrific acts of violence "radical Muslim extremists" do so because they wish to label Islam as something at its heart violent and intolerant. They wish to somehow prove that the root cause of violence committed by people who identify as Muslims is Islam itself and paint Islam as fundamentally and irreparably flawed as a world religion. I would suggest that people who are tempted by this argument take a look at the sociologist Charles Kurzman's recent book The Missing Martyrs where he argues that rather than ask the question "Why are there so many Muslim terrorists?" we should ask ourselves instead "Why are there so few?" After all, in a world of 1.6 billion Muslims, the presence of perhaps 30,000 ISIS fighters represents a tiny percentage of the Muslim community. If Islam is--as its critics imply--at its very core a religion of violence, why have so few Muslims engaged in acts of politically motivated violence or even showed support for such violence? The answer is quite simple. Muslim terrorists are no more representative of "radical Islamic extremism" than Robert Dear is a representative of "radical Christian extremism." Unless we wish to associate all people of faith with these kinds of violence, we should stop using this terminology.