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Islamic terrorism

On not calling things by their right names

Observer columnist Nick Cohen is confused about nomenclature. He writes:

Franco Frattini, the EU’s Commissioner for Justice, Freedom and Security, has already banned the use of the phrase ‘Islamic terrorism’ to describe Islamic terrorism. ‘You cannot use the term “Islamic terrorism”,’ he insisted. ‘People who commit suicide attacks or criminal activities on behalf of religion, Islamic religion or other religion, they abuse the name of this religion.’

I was brought up as a democratic socialist and abhorred the crimes committed in the name of the left. But I would always agree that Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were inspired by a version of socialism, just as the most liberal American Christian would accept that fundamentalists who bomb abortion clinics are inspired by a version of Christianity.

Yet the EU wishes to deny that political Islam inspires terrorists to blow up everything from mosques in Baghdad to tube trains in London, even when Islamist terrorists say explicitly that it does. You should always pay your enemies the compliment of taking them seriously. The EU can’t understand what its enemies are saying, because it won’t call them by their right name.

You may notice that the comparisons are subtly rigged. Cohen insists on saying “Islamic terrorism” all right, but he will only allow that Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot were “inspired” by “a version of” socialism, and abortion-clinic bombers by “a version of” Christianity. To be consistent, he should demand that Stalin be named “a socialist dictator” tout court, and the abortion-clinic bombers be named “Christian terrorists”. But he doesn’t write those phrases down.

What is odd is that Cohen, almost as if by accident – or as though he doesn’t actually know the difference – actually uses the correct term on the way to demanding the wrong one. He refers in passing to “Islamist terrorists” who claim inspiration from their religion. “Islamism” (whose adherents are “Islamists”) is the term that scholars of Muslim thought use to describe a tradition that seeks to apply (some interpretation of) the teachings of Islam rigorously to the political sphere. It contains a militant strain of violent rhetoric and action that goes back to the writings of the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb in the 1950s. It now rightly describes the rhetoric and action of such organisations as Al Qaeda.

Cohen, on the other hand, appears to think that it matters little if he describes Islamists, alternatively, as being inspired by “political Islam”, a construction implying that when Islam gets into politics, its only issue will be murder. That there have been, and are, political Islams that abhor wanton killing is not a very obscure fact, but it is not allowed to get in the way of the incontinent generalization. And the language of “Islamic terrorism” works in a similar way . . .

Cohen makes his plea to be able to say it as part of a courageous stand in favour of being able to insult religion. But refusing to use the phrase “Islamic terrorism” is not about being scared to insult religion. Worshippers of omnipotent sky-gods should be able to take a little teasing. On the contrary, it’s about acknowledging how things really are: how there are different competing “versions” of Islam, just as Cohen will admit there are of socialism or of Christianity.

It is plain, for example, that George W. Bush is “inspired” by “a version of” Christianity. Nevertheless, it would obviously be senseless for us to describe the invasion of Iraq as a “Christian war”. Not because that would insult Christians, who after all are enjoined to turn the other cheek, but because it is inaccurate. Nor may we suppose that Cohen would recommend the phrase “Judaic terrorism” to describe the massacre committed by Baruch Goldstein in Hebron in 1994, even though Goldstein was purportedly “inspired” by “a version of” Judaism. It is worth noting, too, the way the phrase “inspired by” itself can be turned to weaselly purposes. To say that a murderer is “inspired by Islam” is perilously close to saying that, in the final analysis, his actions were the fault of Islam itself.

So, if we would not say “Judaic terrorism” or “Christian war”, to insist on saying “Islamic terrorism” is incoherent – or worse. The phrase is empirically inaccurate, because the killers in question represent a tiny splinter-group in the context of Islam in general. Of course, they often claim to be representing Islam in toto. Nick Cohen offers the macho wisdom that “You should always pay your enemies the compliment of taking them seriously.” Unfortunately here he appears to be paying them the compliment of believing whatever they say, which is not quite the same thing.

The issue of accuracy is not the only one, once we turn to the consequences that words have in the world. The phrase “Islamic terrorism” is also actively prejudicial: it encourages us to think that suicide bombers are the proper ambassadors by whom a globe-spanning culture should be judged. It is, bluntly, the kind of language that foments fear and racism.

Cohen wants us to call things by their right name. Very well. One “right name” for the violence committed by one embattled, paranoid, minority offshoot of Islamic thought is “Islamist terrorism”. There are others, but “Islamic terrorism” is certainly not one of them. 

  1. 1  dsquared  May 16, 2006, 9:58 am 

    Not quite sure about your last paragraph; there are a few people like Yusuf al-Qaradawi (who is an Islamist in the sense of being a prominent theorist of the Muslim Brotherhood, pan-Islamist, hardline sharia jurist etc) who would self-describe as Islamists, but don’t recommend terrorism except in the context of the Occupied Territories in Palestine, where they are at pains to maintain that it is the political dimension of the conflict that justifies violence, not the religious nature. There are a couple of Islamist governments left in the world who don’t necessarily endorse terrorism.

    On the other hand I suspect that to be overly concerned with the nuances of what Qaradawi and Hassan al-Turabi believe is going beyond Unspeak into mere pedantry.

  2. 2  Steven Poole  May 16, 2006, 10:05 am 

    Hi dsquared,

    You have a good point, though: of course not even all Islamists (let alone all “Islamic” people) do justify terrorism in general. I have changed the last line to reflect this more clearly.


  3. 3  Sohail  June 6, 2006, 11:52 pm 

    To say that “Islamic terrorists” should call themselves “Islamic terrorists” is so embarrassingly circular as to render the whole analysis pretty meaningless. It’s like saying black people should call themselves “niggers” because that’s in effect who they are! Anyone with a few functioning brain cells can work that one out.

    FYI, the term “Islamist” is a meaningless concept in Arabic. It only has currency in English and some European languages. To describe Qaradawi or Sayyid Qutb as “Islamists” is a term which means absolutely nothing to them. They are Muslims who happen to be adherents of the Muslim Brotherhood (ikhwaanul muslimoon). UBL is a Salafi. Ahmedinejad is a Iranian Shiite. Zarqawi is probably an exponent of the militant wing of Muslim brotherhood. Saddam is a secular Muslim Baathist. With a bit of effort, we can start using terms that actually mean something rather lumping everything into vacuous labelsl like Al Qaeda, “terrorists”, ragheads, fundamentalists, fanatics, and yes: Islamists.

    In fairness to Frattini, he has probably understood (far better than you) that it is unfair to link terrorism to the faith of 1.5 billion people. It’s like calling the invasion of Iraq a secular democratic occupation!

    In short, speakable nonsense!

  4. 4  Steven Poole  June 7, 2006, 12:19 am 


    I have here a book, perhaps you know it: it is a biography of Ayman al-Zawahiri by Montasser Al-Zayyat, translated into English by Ahmed Fekry. In this translation, both al-Zayyat and the writer of the Preface, Ibrahim M Abu-Rabi, are given as using the terms “Islamism” and “Islamists”. Are these people, not to mention numerous other Anglophone and European scholars, just members of the “restricted media circles” you speak of?

    To prefer to say “Islamist terrorism” rather than the outrageous “Islamic terrorism” does not mean, of course, that we cannot and should not then go on to make finer distinctions, as you do.

  5. 5  Sohail  June 7, 2006, 7:16 am 

    These are hardly fine distinctions. They’re massive. No special expertise is required here. I mean to say the difference between UBL, Ahmedinejad, Sadddam and Qaradawi is fine betrays a frightening ignorance of the kind we’re too comfortable with. It’s like saying Blair, Berlusconi, Chavez, and Gerry Adams are all Christian leaders. It’s the sort of vacuous nonsense that incidentally could easily be heard among the sloppiest elements in the Arab media.

    The Fakry book you have doesn’t prove a thing. It’s incredible you want to use as a linguistic basis for discerning the entire spectrum of political opinion in the Arab/Muslim world. Look, the sad thing is that even Arab commentators end up using those terms too probably because many feel this is how discourse is organised in English. That doesn’t mean the terminologies have legitimacy in broader circles or are in anyway representative. What do you know about how you might be represented in Arabic and the Arab world? I mean let’s say I picked up a preface of Thomas Friedman’s latest book (translated into Arabic) and used it as a basis to devise a topology of political opinion in the entire Western world. It would be dismissed as being totally off the wall by any self-respecting commentator on middle eastern affairs.

  6. 6  Steven Poole  June 7, 2006, 9:53 am 

    I never said I thought your distinctions between Saddam and Ahmedinejad etc were fine: they are, of course, shatteringly obvious. I suppose it might make sense for you to insist on them if I had ever in fact written that Saddam is an Islamist. But of course I never wrote such a thing.

    The Fakry book, along with many other books, proves quite easily that the term “Islamism” has wider currency than you claimed. But when did I ever claim to “disern the entire spectrum of political opinion in the Arab/Muslim world”? I fear you are just ranting now.

  7. 7  Sohail  June 7, 2006, 11:23 am 

    Look, well done for reading Fakry – totally inconsequential far as I’m concerned! But clearly reading him has become a sort of rite of passage for you and obviously qualifies you as an expert now. My point is simple and straightforward: yours is more of the same sort of mindless lumping that goes on day after day. You add nothing to clearing up the tiring “Unspeak” in the media at least in this case; you simply add to it [though, admittedly, some of your other stuff is actually quite good].

    Now, you can dismiss this all as ranting but it sounds to me like an attempt to dissuade by stealth. So here’s a direct question for you that you have notably skirted around:

    What is an “Islamist”?

    Here’s something to consider should you have a crack at this: What would a “Christianist” be? Or a “Judaist”? Or a Protestantist? Catholicist?



  8. 8  Steven Poole  June 7, 2006, 11:57 am 

    Dear Sohail,

    The al-Zayyat/Fekry book was merely the first one I took off my shelf as an example. The terms “Islamism” and “Islamist” are also used, as you must know, by, eg, Gilles Kepel, Richard Falk, Jason Burke, and the English website of al-Jazeera.

    An “Islamist”, according to such writers, is a person who thinks that his or her interpretation of Islam should be the supreme and only source of law in the political sphere. Some (by no means all) Islamists recommend violence to accomplish this aim.

    I do agree with you that, unfortunately, the term “Islamist” might sound prejudicial to people unaware of its scholarly usage. A word ending in “-ist” often sounds nasty in English – like “terrorist”. “Islamist” is a better term than “Islamic” in the context Cohen was writing about, but it is not the only term available.

    By the way, Andrew Sullivan in the US is actually advocating the use of the word “Christianist” to describe people who want the country to be guided by their own distorted, clearly un-Christian notion of Christianity. ;-)

  9. 9  Sohail  June 7, 2006, 1:34 pm 


    Thank you for this. I can’t resist noticing that you seem to have shifted from Fakry to Wikipedia.

    Admittedly, I didn’t know about the Sullivan usage of “Christianist”, but you at least acknowledge this particular term is being used (or advocated) as a term of self-description which is clearly not the case with “Islamist”. Islamist is never in my experience employed as a term of self-description. It may occassionally be the case but only in the since that some black people willingly use the term “nigger” as a term of self description. The bottom line is “Islamist” often tends to be used from an adversarial/critical standpoint both in and outside the Arab/Muslim world. The term definitely has baggage.

    The -ist bit you refer to is designed to evoke fear, militancy and terrorism not to put things in their neutral empirical context. This is persuasion by stealth if any thing is.

    The most extensive treatment I know of representations of Islam in the Western media is by the late Edward Said in his book, “Covering Islam…” by Verso. You may know about it. It’s most sophisticated analysis of the vilest unspeak you can imagine about Islam, Arabs and Muslims.

    Perhaps you might consider putting an Amazon link to it on your website.

  10. 10  Steven Poole  June 7, 2006, 2:38 pm 

    Wikipedia? Oh, please. ;) I have actually read Kepel et al, and they all work with this definition. (A similar definition is offered in Fekry’s Translator’s Note.)

    I never said, however, that Islamists actually call themselves “Islamists”. (It is, after all, an English word.) Sullivan doesn’t offer “Christianists” as a self-description, either: he doesn’t think Christianists are going to call themselves Christianists, since after all they won’t admit that their idea of Christianity is perverse. Of course there is often a tension between self-descriptions and descriptions by others. A suicide bomber might call himself a “martyr”, for instance, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to do the same.

    We agree on the problem with “-ist” sounding negative, but I don’t believe that is the motivation of the scholars who use the word – some of whom (like al-Zayyat), after all, are not unsympathetic to some forms of Islamism.

    I’ll try to get hold of that Said book: thanks for the recommendation.

  11. 11  Steven Poole  June 7, 2006, 3:07 pm 

    PS: in “Covering Islam”, Said too uses the terms “Islamism” and “Islamist”, as here from page 3:

    “At the very least one should say that in the contest between the Islamists and the overwhelming majority of Muslims, the former have by and large lost the battle.”

    Amazon’s “search inside” facility is quite useful. ;)

  12. 12  Sohail  June 7, 2006, 5:08 pm 

    Briefly, I didn’t find “Islamism” or its cognates on page 3 in my personal hardcopy; neither does it appear in the extensive index.

    Also don’t quite follow the logic behind the term being English and hence the assumption that all “Islamists” are supposed to speak Arabic or some other “Muslim majority language”. The guys behind 7/7 spoke English just like you or anyone else. Nonetheless, we all know sections of the media sneaked in the notion of “Islamic terrorism” to piss off the entire community. They could have said Muslim terrorists, or Muslim extremists, fanatics… But they went after “Islam” instead of a few misguided Muslims in order to suggest that there is something inherent in Islam that fuels these extremes.

    I agree with you regarding the problem of self-descriptions, but the issue you raise is totally irrelevant in this case. In fact, in this case instead of crediting the perpetrators with positive aspects of their own self-descriptions, what is happening here is the entire Islamic world is being held to account by association. We never hear people talking about Christian armies in Iraq even though Blair and Bush have pretty much invoked God and how He’s supposed to be on their side.

    BTW, do you remember back in 80s when the west was funding a jihad against the soviets. In those days, the term mujahideen had positive connotations. Reagan even went as far as to call the Afghan mujahideen the moral equivalent of the founding fathers. Of course, the term muhajideen is derived from the noun “jihad”. Nowadays, those same people who believe they are fighting a jihad against the West are labelled by large sections of the same mainstream liberal media as “jihadists”. This curious latter term is designed to arouse fear and hatred. It’s not a self-description of any sort.

    Glad you will buy Said’s book.

    I want to buy yours. I picked it up the other day in Dubai before visiting your site. It looked good. I like what you’re doing.



  13. 13  Steven Poole  June 7, 2006, 7:40 pm 

    Perhaps you don’t have the same edition of Covering Islam that Amazon is selling. You can do the search yourself here:

    Check it out if you don’t believe me.

    I’m afraid I will have to ask you if you actually read all of my post. You say “We never hear of Christian armies in Iraq”: I think you’ll find that I originally wrote the same thing. Same with your criticism of “Islamic terrorism”: this is exactly why I wrote the post in the first place.

    Go tell it to Nick Cohen. I’m on your side.

    I agree “jihadists” is also a bad word to use generically, for many reasons, among which, according to my limited understanding, war is only the “lesser jihad”, and a Muslim might be on a lifelong jihad – in the sense of the “greater jihad” of trying to be virtuous – without ever killing anyone.

    But you’re wrong on “Islamist”: it’s used in the proper sense I gave by Edward Said, as well as by everyone else I have been citing.

    Glad you think the book looks interesting. Let me know when you’ve read it. ;)


  14. 14  Sohail  June 7, 2006, 11:04 pm 

    Regarding the bit about Christian armies, perhaps I should qualify what I meant by adding that the notion is not used with anything like the same currency as say Islamic terrorism. It’s basically fringe stuff if that. Islam and terrorism however have become inseparable in the public mind in a way that Christianity and war are not and this is incredibly the case despite being indoctrinated at school (in my London days) to sing “Onward Christian soldiers marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus…” Don’t know how old you are but all this was done without so much as batting an eyelid.

    On Said’s use of “Islamist”, you are evidently right, but stubborn as I am I still don’t think you do the term any justice without delving into the totality of the book’s argument. [Sorry if I’m beginning to sound like Blair] I mean Said for instance even takes issue with the use of the term “Islam” in the West let alone “Islamism”. And I totally agree with him when he says that what is known about Islam in the west is basically a stupid cliche’.

    About your book, I will buy it – inshAllah!

    BTW, what do you make of the media’s latest use of the term “bomb factory” in the wake of the intelligence balls-up at Forest Gate? What precidely is a bomb factory? Does it mean anything? Of course it’s meant to arouse fear and beyond that it means very little. Interestingly, it’s being used with suprising consistency in British press.



  15. 15  Steven Poole  June 7, 2006, 11:31 pm 

    From the sentences that the Amazon search reveals it doesn’t look like Said is attacking the term “Islamist” in particular, just using it in the ordinary sense I gave earlier, and obviously in distinction to “the overwhelming majority of Muslims”. But I’ll read the book. ;)

    Meanwhile, I think that the phrase “bomb factory” should be reserved for the places, presumably actual factories, where they make things like the Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb or the cluster munitions that the US drops all over Iraq.

    Calling the Forest Gate thing a “bomb factory” is merely designed to alarm, you’re right. It reminds me of John Ashcroft’s claim that Saddam’s weapon scientists were engaged in “evil chemistry” and “evil biology”.

    Best wishes,

  16. 16  Sohail  June 14, 2006, 8:36 pm 

    Just got this and it covers some common ground:

    EU Drafts Lexicon on Islam

    Austria, the current holder of the EU’s rotating presidency, has drafted a document of common vocabulary on Islam as part of linguistic efforts by the 25-member bloc to issue the first public communication lexicon aimed at avoiding stigmatizing terminology in dealing with the other. “Unintended stigmatization resulting from an ill-considered choice of words may have serious negative psychological effects and thus contribute to the process of radicalization,” says the text’s preamble cited by Agence France-Presse (AFP).

    The document warns European governments and officials against the use of religious language or interference in any religious debate. It said such interference “may discredit the efforts of mainstream Muslims to curb extremist interpretations of Islam.” It urges EU governments to “ensure that they do not inadvertently and inappropriately impose a sense of identity solely linked to religious affiliation.”

    Since taking over the EU’s presidency in January, Austria has hosted conferences involving experts on Islam, religion and linguistics, hoping to finalize the document by December. The 25-member bloc has been trying to define a “common vocabulary” to differentiate between Islam as a religion and individuals hijacking the Muslim faith. For the European Commission, the EU’s executive body, the common vocabulary’s aim is to help all those who have no special knowledge of Islamic culture. “It’s not a question of being politically correct but rather a small tool among many others for reducing incitement to radicalization,” said the commission’s justice affairs spokesman Friso Roscam Abbing.

    Rather than dictionary-style definitions, the EU lexicon tries to place words in their cultural, historical and political context to inform users and give them a better idea of how their use could be misunderstood. The common lexicon, for the moment, consists of just three terms: “Islamist”, “fundamentalism” and “jihad”.

    The document ruled out “Islamic terrorism,” because it brackets Islam as a religion with terrorism. It further has reservations about “Islamist terrorism” though the suffix -ist links terrorism to a distinct political ideology, not to a religion as a whole. Most Islamists, the lexicon goes on, do not use violence to achieve their political goals and indeed the difference between Islamist and Islamic might not be obvious to the average European. “As a rule of thumb, a reference to the name of the group or individual responsible for a terrorist attack, or the location of a terrorist attack, is a good choice,” reads the text.

    Or alternatively: “terrorism that invokes an abusive interpretation of Islam.” The lexicon also advised the Europeans to steer clear of the offensive “Islamic fundamentalism.” The term “fundamentalism,” according to the lexicon, refers to beliefs and convictions which do not always have immediate political repercussions and when it is coupled into “Islamic fundamentalism” could be offensive to Muslims. The third term is “jihad” which is commonly used in the media to mean “holy war”. The lexicon explains that the word refers to an intellectual, social or other kind of personal exercise — “great jihad” — or to a war in defense of Muslims; “little jihad.” “The latter is either regarded as a collective duty or as an individual obligation incumbent on any capable Muslim,” says the document, adding that the word’s misuse can also cause offence.

    The UN Commission on Human Rights adopted in April last year a resolution calling for combating defamation campaigns against Islam and Muslims in the West. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said that seeing Islam as a “monolith” and distorting its tenets are among the many practices that now make up the term Islamophobia.

    The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the largest US Muslim civil liberties, has called for issuing an annual report on Islamophobia across the world on a par with the global anti-Semitism report.

  17. 17  Steven Poole  June 14, 2006, 11:05 pm 

    Thanks for that, Sohail: useful stuff.


  18. 18  arbuthnotite  June 19, 2006, 8:24 pm 

    FYI, Tariq Ali also talks about “Islamists” here:

  19. 19  Sohail  January 1, 2006, 1:00 am 

    To say that “Islamic terrorists” should call themselves “Islamic terrorists” is so embarrassingly circular as to render the whole analysis pretty meaningless. It’s like saying black people should call themselves “niggers” because that’s in effect who they are! Or Pakis are just Pakis. And chinks are just chinks. Anyone with a few functioning brain cells should be able to work out how not only groteque this is but how patently stupid it is also.

    FYI, the term “Islamist” is a meaningless concept in Arabic. It only has currency in restricted media circles in English and some European languages. To describe Qaradawi or Sayyid Qutb as “Islamists” is a term which means absolutely nothing to them. They are Muslim jurists/activists who happen to be adherents of non-miltant wing of the Muslim Brotherhood (ikhwaanul muslimoon). UBL is a militant Salafi. Ahmedinejad is an Iranian Shiite rooted in Iranian revolution. Zarqawi is probably an exponent of the militant wing of Muslim brotherhood. Saddam is a secular Muslim Baathist. With a bit of effort, we can start using terms that actually mean something rather lumping everything under vacuous labels like Al Qaeda, “terrorists”, ragheads, fundamentalists, fanatics, and yes: Islamists.

    In fairness to Frattini, he has probably understood (far better than you) that it is grossly unfair (and emotive) to link terrorism to the faith of 1.5 billion people. It’s like calling the invasion of Iraq a secular democratic occupation!

    In short, unspeakable nonsense!

  20. 20  [spam name]  October 9, 2006, 2:02 pm 

    Hi people! I’m a new member here and I like this forum, I think its a good and a reasonable forum with ejucated let put a term for the word(Terorrism):terrorism is the use of power agains civilians to achive a political goal.this defenotion was constructed by america and great britain in the 1960,s.that means that every action and again every action and everybody body besides his relegion who act such a thing is considered to be a,lets be realistic,no one accepted what happened in 11-9-2001,nor the other actions that happened after it.but to say that terrorism is a muslim property thats absolotley not true.if a muslim did such a thing that doesnt mean that islam is a terrorism relegion.what really i think that when israel killed over 1000 civilians and usa killed in iraq over 1 million civilian,and we all know the 14 years old girl that was raped in a barbarious way and killed with her family,and we all saw what happened in abu greb prison of sicological and physical tourtchment to prisonrs to get information from them.those actions r terrorism…a proffisional terrorism by a state who declares every day that it want to carry democracy to the middle east!!!! by this way????? so before we talk about terrorism lets talk what r the reasons of this terrorism.iam not defending terrorism and their actions no I whould do that but lets be realistic,arent those actions of the usa is the main reason for the so called islamic terrorism???? when holy quran is being dropped in bath and islam is being hemeiliated and prophet mohammad too,do we expect them to just hug us and say hello democracy!!!?? now is that democracy?? thats terrorism.the solution is that Usa and israel should stop lyuing and terrorisming the world.USA always says that iran has a nuclear bomb,and that is a disaster if iran used it,but we all know that the only country and the first country that used nuclear weapons-against civilians- and i repeat:against civilians is USA.i think that USA should disarm it self from nuclear weapons to make the world safer and want to make a nuclear weapon when that happen coz the reason that the countries r racing to build a n uclear weapon is that they r fearing usa ones.thx a lot,my friends :)

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