The BBC reports:
Radical Iraqi Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr is currently in Iran, an adviser to the Iraqi prime minister has said.
We see an awful lot of the description radical cleric these days. It certainly has a more exotic frisson than, say, turbulent priest. Should we espy a hint of orientalism in the fact that contemporary figures of western Christianity or Judaism are much less often called “clerics” by the media? (Of course, “cleric” and “clergy”, via Old French and Latin for “clerkship”, originally denoted members of the English Catholic orders.) As Sourcewatch points out: “Martin Luther King, Jr. could reasonably be described as a ‘radical cleric’ of Christianity.” But he is not often so described. ((Although in regard to another self-identifying Christian, Josh Marshall and atrios, among others, have offered the usage “radical cleric Pat Robertson”, which is amusing, but perpetuates the phrase’s implication of enmity, thus in a way reinforcing the “normal” loaded usage.)) Is there even in our contemporary use of “cleric” an implicit denial of legitimacy? If the media will grant other religious figures their own titles, such as vicar, priest, or rabbi, why do they not refer to al-Sadr’s title as that of “Hojatoleslam” or “Scholar of Islam”? (Perhaps there is only any appetite for adopting those Arabic terms that reinforce the impression of Islam as frightening.)
And what of “radical”? Etymologically it means having to do with roots. So is a “radical” someone who wants to go back to his roots – in which case “radical cleric” might be synonymous with “fundamentalist” – or someone who wants to change things at the very root? It is a similar inbuilt ambiguity to that present in the word “reform”, discussed in Unspeak. OED even notes the pleasingly complex, in some way paradoxical, term “radical reform”, first used as long ago as 1786 and gleefully exploited in recent times by Tony Blair and especially Gordon Brown. ((As I pointed out in my review of Brown’s collected speeches.))
In some cases thereafter “radical” could still mean “inherent in the nature or essence of a thing or person” or “original, primary”. So William James’s “radical empiricism” meant empiricism that went all the way down, taking nothing for granted. Nowadays, Ted Honderich’s theory of consciousness, “Radical Externalism“, appears to partake of both senses simultaneously: it is radical because it argues that consciousness is fundamentally not confined to your head; but it is also radical because it breaks with much tradition in the philosophy of mind.
But in political terms, “radical” eventually came to indicate, in OED‘s sense 3d, “any thorough political and social change [emphasis added]”; and then, even more generally (3e): “Characterized by independence of, or departure from, what is usual or traditional; progressive, unorthodox, or revolutionary (in outlook, conception, design, etc.).” Naturally, this raises the question of who is the guardian of what is considered orthodox, and thus of what is, by contrast, “radical”.
In our day, I would argue, “radical” is mainly a more or less vacant intensifier. It specifies nothing more than does “extreme” or “extremist”: it all depends on where you draw your implicit spectrum so as to place yourself in the orthodox or “moderate” centre. That “radical” is on its own an impoverished or void boo-word seems to be, at least, a lesson internalised by Christopher Hitchens, who in a piquantly vain effort of semantic amplification was recently driven to write of the “extreme radical evil” of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (yes, he is still banging on about that dead murderer and official bogeyman). Gosh, not just radical evil but extreme radical evil. How much more evil can you get? None more evil. ((It strikes me belatedly that perhaps not everyone has seen This Is Spinal Tap. Well, you should.))
So in the widely current phrase “radical cleric”, ((Thanks to SW for drawing it to my attention.)) we have one word that does no more than express comparative distaste, and a second word that appears to be largely reserved in current usage for scholars of Islam in particular. The phrase thus is used to mean “an Islamic person of whom we disapprove, who claims some form of religious authority or expertise about which we are ignorant or of whose legitimacy we are sceptical”. It’s a shame that there is no discernible echo of the alternative sense of “radical”, stemming from 1960s surf culture, to mean cool. A skateboarding Koranic commentator would make for a pleasing counterbalance in the news.