I am convinced, based on the evidence I’ve seen, that there is nothing that rises to the level of an ideology that is held by those self-labeled Muslims who do not wish to destroy us and our way of life.
This weekend I attended David Horowitz’s Restoration Weekend in Florida. One of the panel discussions was entitled “Islam vs. Islamism,” the purpose of which was to discuss the ongoing debate between Andrew McCarthy and Robert Spencer regarding the terminology we should use to refer to those who, today, pose a threat to us and our way of life, along with the ideology that motivates them.
Over the years we have seen the enemy’s ideology referred to using a variety of terms: “Islamism,” “Radical Islam,” “Militant Islam,” “Political Islam,” “Islamic Totalitarianism,” and “Islamic Supremacism,” among others. The primary motivation for using such terms, instead of just saying “Islam,” is to acknowledge the fact that only a minority of those who call themselves Muslims wish to kill us or destroy our way of life.
I’ve discussed the issue off and on, over the last few years, with Bosch Fawstin, who wrote this essay about it. After hearing the panel presentations by Robert Spencer, Andrew McCarthy, Bosch Fawstin, and Baroness Caroline Cox this weekend, followed by a couple hours of discussion with Bosch Fawstin and Robert Spencer, I’d like to explain the issue as I currently see it and invite your input.
The goal is to use only terms that will help us to think about the issues ourselves, and to communicate the truth to others. The focus should be on the facts of reality — what actually needs to be identified and conceptualized — and, as a secondary consideration, whatever is required for clarity in communication. In choosing terms, we must not sacrifice honesty or accuracy. The context here is that of war, where we need to properly identify the enemy so that we will take those actions necessary to eliminate the threat.
With respect to the terminology that is motivating our enemies, I agree with Bosch Fawstin and others who think it is best to just say “Islam.” The reason for this, as Fawstin has argued for years, is that whenever you use another term, like those listed above, you are implying something about Islam itself that is not true: you are implying that Islam is either not supremacist, or not militant, or not totalitarian, etc. From Fawstin’s essay:
Imagine, if during past wars, we used terms such as “Radical Nazism”, “Extremist Shinto” and “Militant Communism”. Those who use terms other than “Islam” create the impression that it’s some variant of Islam that’s behind the enemy that we’re facing.
The only plausible counter-arguments I’ve heard to using “Islam” as the term have to do either with (1) the necessity of communicating with others who don’t share your context of knowledge; or (2) as Andrew McCarthy and others have argued, that such terms would give would-be-moderate or non-Muslim Muslims some “rhetorical space,” and that this is something that we either should give them, or even that we somehow owe them.
As for (1), a term like “rational self-interest” is an example of a term used by Objectivists to communicate to those who do not share our understanding of “self-interest”. Same with “individual rights.” Objectivists do not believe in a self-interest that isn’t rational, or rights possessed by groups or parts of individuals, and yet we use these terms to communicate with others who are under the (we think mistaken) impression that these things do exist. Because I think the terms other than “Islam” have not served us well in the ten years since 9/11 (and perhaps before that), I am starting to question even the use of these Objectivist terms, so I’d love to hear any input on that issue in general as well.
The reasons I’ve heard for giving would-be-moderate or non-Muslim Muslims some “rhetorical space,” are either that we want to do this to encourage moderation, which might, e.g., encourage them to help us in fighting the enemy, or because of an altruistic motive: we want them to have a nice religious life, to not think their religion is bad, etc. When I hear these arguments, I tend to wonder how much help we will actually get from these individuals anyway, and I certainly don’t think that we owe them this as a duty. We may choose to do this, as a matter of charity, but, particularly as an atheist, I worry that there will almost always be self-sacrifice involved. I also agree with a point made by Robert Spencer at the panel this weekend: of what value is “rhetorical space” if it is based on a lie?
The second issue is what term(s) you use to refer to Muslims, in order to distinguish those Muslims that wish to kill you and destroy your way of life from those Muslims who have no such propensity or desire. While there is not, in reality, a distinction between Islam and the ideology that motivates our enemies (see Robert Spencer’s work), it is true that only a small minority of Muslims are actively trying to kill us or destroy our culture. The majority do not seem to be rejecting this minority, unfortunately, but I think we still need to have terms to distinguish these groups of individuals.
The problem, then, is this: What term can we use to distinguish these two groups from each other, without whitewashing the nature of the ideology, Islam?
As for the terms I’ve heard, I like “Islamist” the best, simply because it adds no content to Islam. “Islamist” would refer to those self-described Muslims who are actively working to achieve the dominance of Islam and thereby destroy us and our way of life. But Robert Spencer thinks the majority in our culture already understand this term to imply that there are two different Islams and only one wants to destroy us. Spencer has sometimes used the word, “Islamic Supremacist,” which can be interpreted to mean the same thing, and other possible candidates are “Organized Islam,” which Fawstin prefers, and also “Fundamentalist Muslims,” which I believe I’ve heard from the Sultan Knish.
One might argue that any old term will do, because really the only concern in choosing a term to distinguish the people from one another, as opposed to the ideology, is that we might be worried that the use of such a term would mean to imply there is a separate ideology corresponding to each of the groups of people. But I am not: I am convinced, based on the evidence I’ve seen, that there is nothing that rises to the level of an ideology that is held by those self-labeled Muslims who do not wish to destroy us and our way of life. For more on that, I refer you to the writings of Robert Spencer at Jihad Watch. The only problem, then, is that most people (not even most Muslims, per Spencer) have not read the Koran, much less the writings of Spencer and other experts. For the sake of communicating with those who do not have this context of knowledge, I would want to use a term that conveys that there is a distinction, but that does not imply that there really are two essentially different, identifiable types of “Islam.”
My favorite, then, would be “Islamist,” because it draws a distinction without conveying additional content. Runners up for me would be “Organized Islam” (which refers to people) and “Fundamentalist Muslims.” Finally, while I owe much to Robert Spencer in terms of my knowledge of Islam, I myself would want to avoid using the term “Islamic Supremacist,” as use of the term might imply that there is something called “Islamic Supremacism” and that, therefore, Islam as such is non-supremacist. (To my knowledge, Spencer has not used the term “Islamic Supremacism.”)