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Searching for Common Ground: Are Muslim Terrorists Islamic or Islamist?

Written by Dr. Sarah Sayeed
March 27, 2015

by Dr. Sarah Sayeed
Islamic. Islamist. Muslim. People use these words to modify the nouns “terror” or “terrorism.” Media describe Boko Haram’s kidnapping of Nigerian girls by using “Islamic” and “Islamist.” There is controversy over the 9/11 Memorial Museum’s use of the term “Islamist” to describe Al Qaeda. Some may reduce these differences to semantics, but in actuality, Muslims distinguish these terms.
One disconnect is that journalists, policy makers, and academics are using English and European terms to describe people who understand their religion through Arabic. The vast majority of Muslims around the world, including me, are not native Arabic speakers. But because I recite Arabic in my prayers and read the Arabic Quran, my own understanding of Islam and its rituals is partly shaped by Arabic words. In the Arabic of the Quran, Islam is the word used for the religion. Muslim is the word used to describe a person who follows the religion. It can also be used as an adjective to describe objects, actions and groups.
On the other hand, “Islamic” is an English word. Placing the suffix “-ic” at the end of a noun forms an adjective meaning “of or pertaining to,” in this case, the religion.”Islamisme,” originally Voltaire’s word to refer to the religion, stopped being used when people learned the Arabic word “Islam.” It came back into vogue in the 20th century. “Islamist” is now used by some to mean an academic expert on Islam, and by others to refer to Muslim political movements that emphasize Islam as central tosocial and political as well as personal life. Academic and journalist academic usage of “Islamist” spans widely, describing violent extremists as well as changing centrist movements in countries such as Egypt. But while the word “Islamic” has a similar word in modern Arabic or similar languages such as Urdu, it does not appear in the Quran. “Islamist” has no exact Arabic counterpart, either in modern Arabic or the Quran. In addition, the majority of Muslims around the world are not educated in American and European universities and therefore unfamiliar with the term “Islamist.”
A problem develops when people use “Islamist” or “Islamic” to refer to terrorism, fanaticism, and extremism. Muslims hear the word “Islam” embedded in these words and conclude the religion is being insulted. Like any other group, when Muslims perceive their religion being attacked, they become defensive. Critics then accuse Muslims of evading responsibility for terrorism; they cite freedom of speech and say people should have a right to criticize Islam. This is an unproductive and polarizing conversation. Not only that, when we use words that single out the religion, we reinforce the perception that Islam is being attacked, exactly the perception that Muslim violent extremists want to evoke.
If it is important to describe religious identity, it could be helpful to make a simple shift to greater use of the word “Muslim” to describe people, rather than “Islamic” or “Islamist.” Boko Haram and Al Qaeda don’t describe themselves as Islamist. Rather, they identify themselves Muslims and that’s how it’s best to describe them. This usage is also consistent with the Arabic. Some Muslims would argue this label is inaccurate since we need to distinguish the faith from its political manifestations. But I believe using the word “Muslim” places responsibility for extremism on the shoulders of Muslims, which is where it belongs. Islam exists as an ideal in the hearts of devout Muslims, but the way it presents in the world depends on Muslim interpretations and practice. Muslims have to assume responsibility for how we and our co-religionists interpret the faith; no one else can do it for us.
Others argue that we should actually blame Islam because the Quran has verses that speak of warfare. They say that Islam inherently promotes hatred and brutality and that it is a violent religion. What people are not communicating is that Islam can be seen as neither pacifist nor belligerent and that it is somewhere in between the extremes: It advocates for peaceful approaches to conflict, but allows for armed warfare and defines the circumstances that warrant it, after all other non-military avenues are exhausted. Moreover, the vast majority of Muslims read verses about war in their historical context and this majority has an unshakable consensus that the Quran forbids terrorism against innocent civilians and random attacks on people of different faiths. Muslims can be and are outraged at Boko Haram and Al Qaeda, but their reverence for the Quran endures. Some devout Muslims also believe Islam itself can help us address the causes and perpetrators of terrorism.
Terrorism rightly breeds anger, grief, fear and anxiety, emotions that don’t make for effective communication in any situation, much less across cultures. This is why it’s important to collectively work harder to be compassionate with each other and to speak in ways that don’t deepen divides. An honest dialogue about terrorism using the words “Islamist” or “Islamic” is just not possible when these words are likely to be interpreted as insults. The most compelling reason to stop using “Islamic” and “Islamist” to talk about violent extremism is to help disrupt the Al Qaeda myth that the “West” and America want to insult and humiliate Islam. In addition, making Muslims allies in the cause against terrorism requires using mutually understood terms to define the problem. In an age when wars are as much about military strength as about winning hearts and minds, words matter.
Published with the author’s permission.