In June 2016, a 29-year-old man carried out a terrorist attack on an LGBT nightclub in Orlando, Florida, killing 49 people and injuring dozens more. It was the deadliest mass shooting in recent U.S. history. Shortly before being killed in a police shootout, he made a 911 call pledging allegiance to ISIS.
Then, in December, an off-duty Turkish policeman shot and killed the Russian ambassador to Turkey at an Ankara art exhibit. The gunman then shouted in Arabic, “God is great! Those who pledged allegiance to Muhammad for jihad. God is great!” He then spoke in Turkish and said, “Don’t forget Aleppo, don’t forget Syria!”
Texas has experienced its own confrontation with terrorism when two men tried, unsuccessfully, to carry out an attack in May 2015 at an event center in Garland which held a “Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest” before both being shot and killed by police.
It’s time for us to acknowledge the role that religious interpretations – interpretations of Islam specifically – play in terrorist attacks like these and to name the ideology behind them. ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram and those who carry out attacks on their behalf quote religious scripture and use religious language in their justifications.
This is not to say that these attacks have everything to do with Islam, as many on the far right believe, but that they have something to do with Islam.
On one hand, many on the right judge all Muslims by the actions of a few and want to ban them from this country, as President Donald Trump is infamously known for saying. On the other hand, many on the left say ISIS has nothing to do with Islam. Both conclusions are ignorant and wrong. We must advocate for a middle ground between the two extremes.
The ideology that ISIS, Al-Qaeda and Boko Haram abide by is “Islamism,” which is the desire to impose any interpretation of Islam onto a society – according to liberal Muslim reformer Maajid Nawaz in his memoir, Radical: My Journey out of Islamist Extremism.
Jihadism is the violent form Islamism takes. Its goal is to create an Islamic theocracy by using strict interpretations of the words of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam and literal readings of the Qur’an.
Islam, like any religion, has many interpretations. All Muslims follow Islam, but not all Muslims are Islamists, just as not all Christians are equivalent to the Westboro Baptist Church. Fundamentalist interpretations of any religion need to be ideologically challenged and named – whether it is Christianity, Judaism, or Buddhism – and also separated from the religion as a whole and its adherents at large.
When white supremacist Dylann Roof, who was condemned to death on Jan. 10, professed to have brutally gunned down nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina in the name of white supremacy to start a race war, nobody would ever think of questioning his motives.
We rightly condemn Roof’s inhumane, vile interpretation of white identity and utter hatred of black people and believe his justifications for why he did it. Why, then, should we ignore the words and obfuscate the ideology behind what Muslim terrorists profess?
There are different shades and manifestations of terrorism. There are two types that draw more attention than others for good reason. There is right-wing terrorism, which has been carried out by Dylann Roof, the KKK, Neo-Nazi groups, anti-government and anti-abortion extremists. Then there is Islamist or jihadist terrorism.
It does not help to just use “terrorism” in the general sense. It’s important that we distinguish between different kinds of terrorism so that we can adequately address them at their ideological core.
The left’s reluctance to name Islamism may have been one of the factors that led to a Donald Trump presidency. By not distinguishing Islamism from Islam, the vacuum is left to be filled by those who blame Muslims altogether.
Then, people succumb to the Voldemort Effect, a term which Maajid Nawaz coined, which increases the hysteria. If we isolate the ideology of Islamism from Islam and Muslims generally – and realize that not all Muslims want to impose a version of their religion on others – then we can rightly address Islamist extremism without demonizing all Muslims and advocate for more progressive interpretations of the religion.
Liberals tend to ignore the religious component that helps inspire these attacks. They shy away from even mentioning Islam or Muslims in connection with terror for fear of giving ammunition to some on the far right that sometimes lends itself to anti-Muslim bigotry.
This is done with good intentions, of course. Barack Obama even made it a strict policy of his to not mention Islam. From his point of view, mentioning Islam or Muslims parallel with these terrorist attacks would “lump these murderers into the billion Muslims that exist around the world.”
But this is missing the point. There are Muslim terrorists just as there are Christian and Jewish terrorists. Religious extremism is let off the hook when this is obscured. We need to start calling a spade a spade and come to grips with the fact that extremism within Islamic discourse is there for all to see, and those who are most oppressed by Islamist extremism are other Muslims.
We have no basis to claim Islamists or jihadists are not Muslim. Just as we cannot claim that those who carried out the Crusades were not Christian. To ignore these terrorists when they profess to be Muslim is to do the same thing that ISIS does when they deem others untrue Muslims.
This tip-toeing over terms is detrimental to honest discourse and harmful to our future – for Muslims as well as non-Muslims – as we try and solve the problem of global terrorism. In not being clear, we let populist demagogues like Trump lead the conversation against Islamist extremism.
We need to retake the discourse from those who use it to fuel bigotry by forging an honest one, where we can isolate the ideology of Islamism from Islam and Muslims worldwide.