Radical Islam-ophobia

Discussions of “Radical Islam” are back in the news along the terror attack that was suffered in Orlando. Anyone who has paid attention to politics over the last several years has an idea of how infused with meaning this phrase has become. It has taken two words that, when  combined, mean absolutely anything and therefore absolutely nothing. Or, more precisely, it means different things to different people.

For a great breakdown of the phrase and its origins, read The New York Times article:

Shadi Hamid, a scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said that before the controversy began, he did not use the phrase “radical Islam” much, but neither did he find it overly objectionable. After two years of politicization, though, Mr. Hamid and other analysts say the phrase has worrisome connotations, potentially maligning all Muslims or Islam itself.

“Why would you feel such a need to use this particular combination of words, when the vast majority of us agree that this is terrorism and that it should be stopped or countered?” he asked. “These terms are being used as dog whistles.”

And, indeed it has become a dog-whistle phrase. But it is a dog whistle that points to a different argument than  you might think.

Throughout late 2014, as the group, also known as ISIS and ISIL, conquered much of Iraq in a campaign of shocking violence, Americans struggled to discern what role, if any, religion played in its ideology. Because only 38 percent of Americans personally know someone who is Muslim, according to a 2014 Pew poll, most have little firsthand knowledge to go on.

That, to me, is a shocking statistic, but it also demonstrates why it was so easy to hijack an entire religion.

President Obama, in an attempt to prevent the entire religion from being targeted by people who didn’t understand anything about the religion, refused to use such an undefined phrase. But by not using the phrase “Radical Islam”, it became defined — by a certain group of people — to represent the perceived weakness of President Obama and the Democratic party toward terrorism.

The New York times article continues:

When I asked Mr. Hamid [if “Radical Islam” was accurate or not], he countered with a different question. Given how many labels already exist to describe terrorists that draw on Islam, why insist on this one?

He listed several — “radical jihadists, Salafis, Islamist extremists, jihadis, jihadi-Salafists” — none of which, he said, carry the baggage of “radical Islam.”

While the phrase “Radical Islam” might be mostly a product originating from (and used in) the United States, there are different phrases that have taken on a similar connotation in various parts of the world. Many of them don’t have anything to do with religion. They have to do with something else.

In every case, the debate is framed as one of pluralism versus security. Pinning terrorism on “multiculturalism” or non-secularism or foreign values or “radical Islam” all portray inclusiveness as somehow threatening and exclusiveness as safer.

For a country that has always prided itself on being the great melting pot of the world, this is indeed radical.


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I am a writer of words, a thinker of thoughts, a changer of genders, and a queerer of life. I am an antagonist of the ordinary; and while I do tolerate it, I also look at it with contempt.

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