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The Case for Watching Our Language on Islamism: It's Important To Win the Cooperation of Muslims in Rooting Out the Few Radicals in Their Midst




By Andrew Coyne

February 21, 2015

The contrast has been noted between the language the Obama government uses to describe the target of its anti-terrorism efforts ("violent extremism") and the language of the Harper government ("jihadism"). And indeed, the habit of each is consistent in this regard, such as to suggest it is in either case deliberate.

What should be read into this apparent discrepancy in approaches, the one as scrupulous to avoid mentioning Islam in the context of terrorism as the other is to mention it? Is the Obama government, as its conservative critics charge, blind to the reality that al-Qaida, Islamic State - also known as ISIL or ISIS - and other terrorist groups are avowedly Islamic in inspiration and Islamist in their objectives? Is the Harper government, as its liberal critics charge, pandering to anti-Islamic sentiment? Both? Neither?

There are, it would seem, three questions to be answered: what is in fact the relationship, if any, between Islam and terrorism? What do authorities believe is the relationship? And what do they say they believe?

The peculiar insistence on the right that politicians insert the word "Islamic" before "terrorism" would appear to stem from a belief that anything else is an abdication from the "truth," that there is "something about Islam" that explains the proliferation of terrorist groups claiming to act in its name.

This takes us into murky waters indeed.

You can try to make a case that the particular origins of Islam, as a persecuted faith led by a warrior prophet, might predispose it to a certain militancy, or that certain passages of the Qur'an seem to endorse the use of violence against unbelievers and apostates, but you very soon run up against the reality that the practice of Islam, the tenets of the faith, its demands upon its followers and its place in society, differs markedly from country to country, if not from mosque to mosque.

Certainly a belief in the legitimacy of violence as an aid to proselytizing would not apply to more than a tiny minority of Muslims in this country.

Given this diversity, it is simply not possible to state with finality what "Islam is ..." or "Islam means ...," certainly not on such a vexed question as whether the religion itself has something to do with the willingness of some of its followers to commit mass murder on its behalf.

Much of what are commonly described as Islamic teachings, by followers and critics alike, turns out to be more related to the particular culture of a given locale, and while there is undoubtedly some causal interchange between religion and culture, it is exceedingly difficult to sort out which is the chicken and which the egg.

But then, we do not need to. It is not necessary to know whether there is "something about Islam" that explains Islamist terrorism. All we really need to know, as a practical matter, is that the terrorists themselves believe there is: that they are commanded by their faith to take up arms in its defence.

Of this there can be no doubt: they have said so, on a hundred different occasions, and we would be wise to take them at their word. They wish to establish a caliphate, an Islamic dictatorship based on seventhcentury legal principles, and while that is usually confined to a relatively circumscribed area stretching from Spain to western Russia, in their more ambitious pronouncements it extends to the whole world.

It is a common mistake to assume these groups are motivated by some more rational or achievable goal, something we ourselves might believe or at least comprehend, like "U.S. out of the Middle East" or "Palestine for the Palestinians" - a phenomenon known in intelligence circles as "mirroring."

Were those in charge of our security to believe such a thing, they would not merely have failed wholly to understand the terrorists' objectives, but also their strategy and tactics. It seems unlikely that they do, however, and we should not mistake what they say in this regard for what they actually believe.

On the surface, the insistence of U.S. President Barack Obama and other leaders that "this has nothing to do with Islam," would seem as odd as that of their critics, that it has everything to do with Islam. As David Frum writes on the Atlantic website, "it seems a strange use of authority for an American president to take it upon himself to determine which interpretations of Islam are orthodox and which are heretical." But there is a strong case for saying such things, even if you don't believe them - especially if you don't believe them - precisely in the service of fighting terrorism.

The one thing that could be predicted to cause more Muslims, here and abroad, to believe that violence against the West was justified would be if they were to become convinced that, indeed, there is "a clash of civilizations," that Islam was under attack, and that they themselves, as practitioners of the religion, were objects of suspicion and hostility. The phenomenon is often observed in other social groups that, rightly or wrongly, feel themselves besieged: they will close ranks, even with those with whom they might otherwise have no sympathy.

That would be a calamitous setback to efforts, largely successful, to win the co-operation of the Muslim community in rooting out the few radicals in their midst.

Which takes us to the rhetoric of the Harper government. Merely referring to "Islamic extremism" or "jihadism" would be unobjectionable in itself. But when coupled with recent, needless interventions in such volatile debates as whether the niqab may be worn at citizenship ceremonies, it suggests at best a troubling indifference to the importance of symbols and the need for those in power to go out of their way to reassure those in minority groups that they have not been targeted.

It may be good politics. But they are playing with fire.

A National Post original, Andrew Coyne's journalism career has also included positions with Maclean's, the Globe and Mail and the Southam newspaper chain. In addition, he has contributed to a wide range of other publications including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, National Review, Time and Saturday Night. Coyne is also a long-time member of the CBC’s popular At Issue panel on The National.