In recent weeks, U.S. President Barack Obama has come under fire for his repeated use of the term “violent extremists” instead of “Islamic extremists.” Pundits and politicians alike are outraged that Obama refuses to acknowledge that the Islamic State, a terrorist group gaining power in the Middle East, is in fact connected to Islam. Maybe I’m reading the news articles wrong, but I don’t think that’s what’s going on right now.
Do not be mistaken: I am not a foreign policy expert. I peruse CNN and The Washington Post at leisure. I may not be the next U.S. Secretary of State, but it seems that Obama using the term “violent extremists” is the best option. If Obama were to use “Islamic extremists,” doesn’t that help the Islamic State’s cause?
First, let’s get our facts straight. Last month, the Christian Science Monitor reported that globally, 325,000 Muslims are “at risk of becoming radicals.” Note the phrase, “at risk,” meaning that right now, they aren’t radical. Additionally, just because someone has radical beliefs does not mean that they will act on them. According to the Pew Research Center, 1.6 billion people across the globe identify as Muslim. After doing some higher-level mathematics (called “division”), we see that about 00.02 percent of all Muslims have a chance of becoming radicals. That’s 2 out of every 10,000 Muslims.
Just looking at these numbers, we should realize it’s ridiculous to lump all Muslims together as “extremists.” Now, you probably agree with this idea, but you’re still wondering, “What’s wrong with calling the Islamic State what it is: an Islamic extremist group?”
The problem, my dear reader, is that language is the most powerful weapon we possess. It can be stronger than any soldier and more frightening than nuclear war. Language has the power to shape opinions and move mountains. If Obama concedes and begins using the term “Islamic extremists,” the implications could be huge.
An excellent article in The Atlantic points out that if Obama switches phrases, it would exclude any extremists who are not Muslim. Surprisingly enough, those people do exist. By limiting his language, Obama would reinforce incorrect notions about extremism in America. Often when he addresses the idea of extremism, he’s not talking selectively of the Islamic State. Wouldn’t we rather be focusing on violent extremism as a whole instead of honing in on one subgroup of extremism?
In addition to supporting the wrong stereotypes, using phrases like “Islamic extremists” draw even more attention and focus to the Islamic State. The group, which has held at least 23 foreign aid workers hostage to date, is infamous for its violent beheading videos and other ruthless acts across the Middle East. The media, myself included, has made sure to give the group plenty of media attention. At this stage, “Islamic State” is a household phrase. What legitimizes a group more than their name coming out of the U.S. president’s mouth? It will only add fuel to the fire, giving more power to a group that is already taking hostages and raiding villages.
Furthermore, if Obama started to use terminology like “Islamic extremists,” Americans probably wouldn’t respond too well. While some believe that Islamophobia, or an irrational fear of Muslims, is not a real threat, the statistics prove otherwise. Sorry for all the numbers, but as the Post reported, since 9/11, about 100 to 150 cases of hate crimes against Muslims have been reported each year. This is about six times the pre-9/11 levels. If Obama were to specifically target the Islamic State in his addresses, it might encourage anti-Muslim sentiments and hate crimes. As fun as bigotry is (heavy sarcasm), we’re supposed to be working toward a better society, not regressing.
Additionally, the spike in anti-Muslim sentiments in the United States would only aid the Islamic State’s cause. It’ll give them 100 more examples to point to and say, “Look at how much they hate us and our culture.” The best way to create a movement is to define an easy-to-hate, nuance-free enemy. The more we foster hatred of Muslims in this country, the easier it becomes for the Islamic State to find recruits in the Middle East.
It’s important to note that while crimes against Muslims are intolerable, other groups face similar, if not worse, discrimination. Black people make up the plurality of all hate crime victims, and Jews are the targets of the majority of religious hate crimes.
Ultimately, my point is this: language is powerful. There’s obviously a plethora of reasons that the president of the United States is choosing to use the phrase “violent extremists.” To discredit this as “cowardly” or “poor policy” is to only hear half of the conversation.
Amazing. Let’s ignore reality is what you are really recommending.
A beheading in Woolwich, a suicide bomb in Beijing, a blown-up marathon in Boston, a shooting in the head of a young Pakistani girl seeking education, a destroyed shopping mall in Nairobi – and so it continues, in the name of Islam, from south London to Timbuktu. It is time to take stock, especially on the left, since these things are part of the world’s daily round.
Leave aside the parrot-cry of “Islamophobia” for a moment. I will return to it. Leave aside, too, the pretences that it is all beyond comprehension. “Progressives” might ask instead: what do Kabul, Karachi, Kashmir, Kunming and a Kansas airport have in common? Is it that they all begin with “K”? Yes. But all of them have been sites of recent Islamist or, in the case of Kansas, of wannabe-Islamist, attacks; at Wichita Airport planned by a Muslim convert ready to blow himself up, and others, “in support of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula”. “We cannot stop lone wolves,” a British counterterrorism expert told us after Woolwich. Are they “lone”? Of course not.
A gas facility in southern Algeria, a hospital in Yemen, an Egyptian police convoy in the Sinai – it’s complex all right – a New Year’s party in the southern Philippines, a railway station in the Caucasus, a bus terminal in Nigeria’s capital, and on and on, have all been hit by jihadis, with hostages taken, suicide belts detonated, cars and trucks exploded, and bodies blown to bits. And Flight MH370? Perhaps. In other places – in Red Square and Times Square, in Jakarta and New Delhi, in Amman and who-knows-where in Britain – attacks have been thwarted. But in 2013 some 18 countries got it in the neck (so to speak) from Islam’s holy warriors….