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On the Usage of “Radical Islam”

Via Vox:  I worked in the CIA under Bush. Obama is right to not say “radical Islam.”

When I directed the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the CIA in the early 2000s, I frequently interacted with senior Bush administration policymakers about how to engage Muslim communities and, when doing so, which words and phrases to use to best describe the radical ideology preached by al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. Always, the aim was to distinguish between radicals and extremists and the vast majority of mainstream Muslims, and to make sure the latter understood that we were not lumping them in with the former.

Like the Obama administration, the Bush administration correctly judged that the term “radical Islam” was divisive and adversarial, and would alienate the very people we wanted to communicate with.

[…]

the next administration — I expect it will be the Clinton administration — will continue the policy the Bush administration began of referring to terrorists by the names of their organizations: Hezbollah, Ahl al-Bayt, the (Iranian) Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Quds Force, ISIS, and so on.

Using such terms avoids demonizing majorities of Sunni Muslims who just want to follow their faith, devoid of politics or activism. Simple terms like “terrorists,” “killers,” and “criminals” are also quite effective.

Because it ends up that governing is complicated and simplistic declarations are not helpful.  (And the silly bickering over this term underscores a profound lack of understanding of the world and how it has to be navigated).

I recommend the whole piece.

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About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. gVOR08 says:

    And the silly bickering over this term underscores a profound lack of understanding of the world and how it has to be navigated

    Sorry, can’t agree. The GOPs understand this perfectly well. They know that Hillary and Obama, as responsible leaders, can’t use the term and they don’t care that they themselves are undercutting the countries interests.

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  2. Jenos Idanian says:

    That’s why I prefer “Fundamentalist Islam.” The Islamic terrorists are acting very much in accord with both the words and actions of Mohammed.

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  3. @Jenos Idanian: I take it, then, that you didn’t read the piece or, if you did, you think you know more about this subject than a clear expert.

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  4. Jenos Idanian says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: I’m not talking to Muslims directly, and I have no authority to speak on behalf of anyone besides myself. So I use the language I find more appropriate. Regardless of any other concerns, “fundamentalist Islam” is accurate.

    And while the number of fundamentalist Muslims is small, they are not being restrained by their fellow adherents. Either they have the tacit approval of many others, or have them cowed in vast disproportion to their numbers. In either case, I am not overly concerned with their feelings.

    One mark of maturity is to ignore being called names you don’t like (something I tend to experience around here a lot). If one is so sensitive that the usage of a technically accurate term will profoundly affect your own moral stance, then perhaps one should not even pretend to be a mature, functioning adult.

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  5. Jenos Idanian says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: I recall a conversation I had with a senior policymaker in which he asked me to explain “Wahhabism.” Since he had very limited time, I told him, “Wahhabists are akin to Southern Baptists.” That is: They read the holy text literally and are intolerant of other religious views.

    I don’t recall the last time Southern Baptists set out to kill Methodists or Lutherans or Mormons or Catholics, so I see a certain limited utility of that analogy.

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  6. Gustopher says:

    Even if Obama referred to “radical Islam”, the people who complain about it would just invent a new word or phrase that he would have to say if he were a Real American.

    I miss “Islamofascist”, but given how popular fascism is these days, how about “Islamanazi”? One might demand that it be pronounced to rhyme with “BENGHAZI!!!!”

    Or a compound — “Anticolonialist Islamofascism”? Or is that one a little too close to the truth?

    “Radical Right Wing Extremists” is actually correct, but would offend some people domestically.

    “Theocratic Thugs”?

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  7. MarkedMan says:

    @Jenos Idanian:

    I don’t recall the last time Southern Baptists set out to kill Methodists or Lutherans or Mormons or Catholics

    That is mostly, but not entirely fair. Up until a few decades ago Southern Baptists held huge picnics where they lynched Catholics and Blacks who had dared to cross some imagined line. They would have pictures taken of their families with the bodies dangling in the background. Especially big events would be celebrated with their own postcards. (Don’t believe me? Google “Family pictures at lynchings” and “Postcards of lynchings”). As recently as 1980 a friend of mine returned from a hike along the Appalachian trail with a picture of a town limit sign in the Blue Ridge that said “No Jews, Catholics or N*ggers Allowed After Dark”. As recently as the 90’s entire church communities kept the hideout of Olympic terrorist bomber Eric Rudolph secret and actually supplied him with food and clothing. These were bible belt towns that insisted their actions were based on religious principles. Perhaps we should extend your calls to end political correctness to cover these Southern Christians? Is it not apparent that their religion twists them into horrible actions and they are irredeemable? Shouldn’t we call them Radical Christians? Should we bar them from interstate travel until we understand what is going on here?

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  8. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Jenos Idanian: And yet you insist on the term anyway…Click.

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  9. Jen says:

    @Jenos Idanian:

    I don’t recall the last time Southern Baptists set out to kill Methodists or Lutherans or Mormons or Catholics, so I see a certain limited utility of that analogy.

    And not all Catholics were part of the Spanish Inquisition.

    Which is why Nakhleh goes on to say:

    But more likely, the next administration — I expect it will be the Clinton administration — will continue the policy the Bush administration began of referring to terrorists by the names of their organizations: Hezbollah, Ahl al-Bayt, the (Iranian) Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Quds Force, ISIS, and so on.

    Using such terms avoids demonizing majorities of Sunni Muslims who just want to follow their faith, devoid of politics or activism.

    Using the actual names of the actual terror organizations, whether it’s ISL or any other group, including any crazy ones we’re growing locally in the US, is not only smart but more accurate. Painting an entire religion with a broad brush is not just bad practice, it’s dumb and alienates those who would help us.

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  10. anjin-san says:

    A lecture on maturity from Jenos – yet another nugget of unintentional comedy gold :)

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  11. Jenos Idanian says:

    @MarkedMan: For some reason, I find myself having to constantly say “this is not History, this is Current Events.” Because today a radical Baptist means someone who says “sorry, but I won’t bake you a cake,” while a radical Muslim embraces diversity — he (occasionally she, but most he) will shoot you, stab you, stone you, behead you, throw you off a roof, blow you up, or any of a bunch of other creative solutions.

    @Jen: That sounds like a fair compromise. But let’s skip the abbreviations — Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Islamic State in the Levant, just plain Islamic State, Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic Jihad, Party of Allah, and so on. That better?

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  12. Jenos Idanian says:

    @anjin-san: Were I a fundamentalist Muslim, this would be the expected response. But since I’m not, I think a bored-sounding “sod off, Swampy”

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  13. Kylopod says:

    @Jenos Idanian:

    That’s why I prefer “Fundamentalist Islam.” The Islamic terrorists are acting very much in accord with both the words and actions of Mohammed.

    That shows an ignorance of the development of what people call radical Islam, which is very much a modern phenomenon that departed in important ways from the traditional teachings of Islam. For example, in traditional Islam suicide is forbidden; the modern radicals had to engage in wild reinterpretations of the texts to justify suicide bombings, terming it “martyrdom” rather than “suicide.”

    Ironically, you are correct that this could accurately be called “Fundamentalist Islam.” But that’s only because fundamentalism in all religions involves reinterpretation of traditional texts. Fundamentalist Christians and Jews, whether violent or not, have created entirely new sets of beliefs and practices that would have been bewildering to their forebears just a few centuries ago, let alone more than a millennia in the past.

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  14. Jenos Idanian says:

    @Kylopod: That shows an ignorance of the development of what people call radical Islam, which is very much a modern phenomenon that departed in important ways from the traditional teachings of Islam.

    Actually, your remarks show either an ignorance or dishonesty. I spoke of the “fundamentals” of Islam, as in the actual words and deeds of Mohammed. You chose to speak of the “traditional teachings,” which (by definition) came after Mohammed.

    You also use the exclusive term “the,” as in “the traditional teachings of Islam,” when there are several different traditions.

    And finally, “fundamentalists” share the common element of attempting to return to the fundamentals of their faith, going back to the original texts and teachings. In this case, they are very much following the example of Mohammed, “the perfect man.”

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  15. bill says:

    so i guess this feeble attempt at “creating dialogue” isn’t working all that well? we really don’t need to kiss any ass over there anymore as we can produce as much/more oil and have nothing left aside from our ally Israel and a few shattered ones that we let fall apart?
    taking the high road isn’t working when the strikes keep coming in more and more brutal. it’s not like sheetheads were all that nice about blowing up innocents previously, but now they’re enjoying being on tv/social networks even more.
    leading from behind is not a great strategy here.just my $.02.

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  16. Tillman says:

    @Jenos Idanian:

    Actually, your remarks show either an ignorance or dishonesty. I spoke of the “fundamentals” of Islam, as in the actual words and deeds of Mohammed. You chose to speak of the “traditional teachings,” which (by definition) came after Mohammed.

    Technically what you’re doing is buying into the fundamentalist’s reading of Islam instead of the scholarly or popular reading of how it was practiced.

    And while the number of fundamentalist Muslims is small, they are not being restrained by their fellow adherents.

    Sam Bee covered this topic this past Monday. This is a disingenuous point. And seeing as how you’re so insistent on framing fundamentalists as being the true successors of Muhammed, referring to him off-hand as “the perfect man” elsewhere, and we’re discussing terrorism, I can only surmise that you have a problem with them that goes beyond a well-reasoned position.

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  17. Lounsbury says:

    @Jenos Idanian:
    That’s why you’re a drooling idiot.
    @Jenos Idanian:
    Fundamentalist is of course merely a variation on the same term depracated – and your gross ignorance (why should we expect any different on this than any other subject you troll on) is duly noted.

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  18. Lounsbury says:

    Leaving aside the troll-hijacking idiocy (which ignores, either illiteracy or pure trolling) the article is spot on.

    If one wants a word, it’s Takfiri (i.e. the Apostasy delcarers) as contra other phrases no-one outside of the extremist al-Qaeda types sees anything positive in the idea, indeed historically declaring as al-Qaeda and the DAESH types do takfir willy-nilly was considered an enormous sin. (historically the Islamic world cared very little about doctrinal variations, in contrast with Christendom).

    Of course that would not cover some organisations the USA dislikes – notably the Iranian tied Shia militant organisations, etc. but covers nicely the nihilistic and unmanageable terror groups. Groups like Hamas are unpleasant but they are rational political actors. DAESH and al-Qaeda are fundamentally another problem.

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  19. Jenos Idanian says:

    So, why do Muslims get this special consideration and respect, when Christians don’t? Why is it not only acceptable, but considered almost de rigeur?

    I know the answer — because it’s safe to insult Christians. They won’t try to commit mass murder when you mock them and their beliefs. It’s been quite a while since any Christian faith has actually killed anyone for apostasy or heresy.

    I’ll go even further. In the month of June, more people were killed by Islamic fundamentalists than all the abortion doctors killed by Christian terrorists in the US in the last 30 years.

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  20. Jenos Idanian says:

    @Lounsbury: I’ve read the Koran, and I’ve read about the life of Mohammed. By contemporary standards, he was a sociopath, a psychotic, and a pedophile. Also, he quite possibly had delusions.

    And I don’t think that those standards are so out of touch that it’s unfair to apply them to him.

    The biggest problems we have with today’s Muslims is with the ones who are trying to live up to his example. Those who are trying to reform Islam are the ones trying to find a plausible reason to move away from his example.

    To repeat an observation I’ve made way, way too many times: we need more Christians who follow Christ’s example, and a hell of a lot fewer Muslims trying to follow Mohammed’s example.

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  21. anjin-san says:

    @Jenos Idanian:

    bored-sounding

    I’m curious, how do you tell if you are bored? Listening to you, it sounds like making toast is the most interesting thing you ever do.

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  22. anjin-san says:

    @Jenos Idanian:

    They won’t try to commit mass murder when you mock them and their beliefs.

    They will start a war with a country such as Iraq over fictional WMD and kill 100K+ innocents and not lose any sleep over it.

    I guess the constant demonizing of Muslims helps with the whole “taking a hard look at ourselves in the mirror might be painful” thing.

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  23. Jenos Idanian says:

    @anjin-san: Here’s a good argument against the legalization of pot: I really think that you’re so baked, you actually believe your own bullshit.

    Go ahead, make the case that Christians, acting in the name of Christ, started the war in Iraq as their religious obligation and for the glory of God. Because in the real world, it was Americans of all faiths (and none), political affiliations (and none), who supported that war. Hillary Clinton and John Kerry were among those who voted for it.

    Go sleep it off. I know it’s Saturday on a holiday weekend, but you’ve had way, way, way too much already.

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  24. wr says:

    @Jenos Idanian: “To repeat an observation I’ve made way, way too many times: we need more Christians who follow Christ’s example”

    Well, here’s a thought — why don’t you start?

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  25. Matt says:

    @Jenos Idanian: It’s only “safe” in certain situations. I guarantee you that you will receive a mighty beating if you start talking shit about Christianity in my home town. Just look at the history here of how so called Christians behaved when they thought they could get away with it (KKK and more). It’s only because they don’t believe they’ll get away with it that they don’t still kill non believers here. Hell I had a dude in one of my college classes threaten me because I wasn’t showing proper respect for Christianity during a class discussion. The professor had to stop the conversation and the dude ended up being removed from the class for the semester. The whole event was amazing to me as usually people are intimidated by my size but this fellow didn’t care.

    Declaring yourself an atheist is also a great way to get beat up and potentially killed.

    You have no idea what real oppression is. Just because I want to live free of your primitive dogma doesn’t mean I’m oppressing you…

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  26. Matt says:

    @Jenos Idanian: Oh and about that apostasy statement. Christians are still killing people for that in Africa and apparently some South American countries.

    One of the big ones that hit the news relatively recently.
    http://www.cnn.com/2014/05/16/world/africa/sudan-christian-woman-whats-next/

    http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/05/28/which-countries-still-outlaw-apostasy-and-blasphemy/

    Pretend all you want but your cult is barely different from the cult of Islam.

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  27. Kylopod says:

    @Jenos Idanian:

    I spoke of the “fundamentals” of Islam, as in the actual words and deeds of Mohammed. You chose to speak of the “traditional teachings,” which (by definition) came after Mohammed.

    You are playing semantic word games and revealing quite plainly that you don’t know what you’re talking about. Suicide is strictly forbidden in the Koran itself, including in a direct quote from the Prophet. This fact isn’t even disputed by Islamists who justify suicide bombing; they simply claim that what the suicide bombers are doing isn’t suicide. That isn’t “acting very much in accord with both the words and actions of Mohammed,” it is twisting the words of Mohammed to fit a contemporary agenda. Just like the fundamentalists of other religions do.

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  28. Steve V says:

    Every time I hear the right complaining about “naming the threat” or whatever, it immediately gives way to ranting about how Islam itself (and not the radical distortion of it) is the problem. This is exactly what we do not want to do. And now Jenos comes along here to make crystal clear that indeed Islam itself is the problem.

    The sad thing about all this is that if his side were actually in power, they’d be doing exactly what we’re doing now. This whole thing is just so much oppositional bullsh**.

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  29. anjin-san says:

    @Jenos Idanian:

    “Freedom is on the march in this world. I believe everybody in the Middle East desires to live in freedom. I believe women in the Middle East want to live in a free society. I believe mothers and fathers want to raise their children in a free and peaceful world. I believe all these things, because freedom is not America’s gift to the world, freedom is the almighty God’s gift to each man and woman in this world.”

    GW Bush 2004

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  30. Lounsbury says:

    @Jenos Idanian:
    It is more than plainly evident right here that you’ve not “read”the Quran – although like most Wiki-bigot-Theologians you’ve done your pre-selected ‘reading, but in any case this trolling is merely boring.

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