“Words matter, the right words matter most: they ground expectations and help set strategy,” writes the managing editor of Providence, Marc LiVecche, for the Philos Project. Yes, words really do matter. Sometimes they are a matter of life and death.
You may or may not be familiar with the story recounted in Judges 12, which tells of the Israelite tribe Ephraim invading Gilead. The people of Gilead repelled the Ephraimite invaders, and then waited in ambush at the river Jordan for anyone trying to escape from the rout. In the King James Version the story concludes as follows:
And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay; Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan.
In the worst mass shooting in the US to date, Omar Mateen murdered 49 people partying at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida on June 12. Many of the victims were Latino; most of them were gay. In the 911 call he made during the attack, Mr. Mateen connected the murders to his admiration for violent Muslim political organizations like ISIS and Al Qaeda. Subsequent reporting suggests that he may also have been motivated by a sense of self-disgust connected to his own experience of same-sex attraction and his belief that these attractions are sinful.
Responding to the shootings, Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican candidate for president of the US in this year’s election, criticized his Democratic opponent, Hilary Clinton, and the current president, Barack Obama, for failing to name the shooting an act of “Radical Islamic Terrorism.” Here in the pages of Providence, Joseph Loconte offered a similar critique, writing that “President Obama called the shooter’s rampage ‘an act of terror’ and ‘an act of hate’— but not an act inspired by the ideology of radical Islam.” “The president’s many allies, in politics and the media,” according to Prof. Loconte, “treat the Orlando assault … as if religious belief played no role in the modern world.” “Thanks to the Obama administration,” claims Prof. Loconte, “our national security officials are not trained in the teachings of radical Islam. … [The] intellectual deceit of the Obama administration—the refusal to admit that a religious ideology linked to Islam lies at the center of the terrorist cancer—puts the United States at great risk.”
In his article for the Philos Project, Marc LiVecche, argues that, “Obama is worried that to call the terrorists radical Islamists is to paint with a wide brush. Quite the opposite is true: to define the terrorists for what they are is to make distinctions, it is to separate the beasts into their own fetid coral, it is to rightly limit the menace to the relative few. Obama, in his ignorance, renders a disservice to America’s Muslim neighbors of goodwill. … [In] failing to make distinctions between Muslims of goodwill and the terrorists, Obama also occludes the fact that there is an internecine struggle within the Muslim world.”
In this instance I must disagree with Prof. Loconte and Dr. LiVecche in their insistence on the phrase “radical Islam,” and agree with Shadi Hamid, who has written on Twitter that, “[regardless] of whether ‘radical Islam’ was appropriate, Trump has appropriated it as stand-in for anti-Muslim bigotry.” To insist on the shibboleth of “radical Islam,” at this moment in the political history of America, can no longer be a matter of insisting on rhetorical accuracy. To insist on this shibboleth, now, is to provide, intentionally or unintentionally, cover for those who are emboldened in their religious and racial bigotry by Mr. Trump’s rhetoric. Prudential wisdom, at the very least, would demand that those of us concerned for the human rights and religious freedoms that are foundational to the American political experiment make every effort not to provide such cover.
Yes, Omar Mateen explained his act of terror by claiming inspiration from ISIS. Yes, “a religious ideology linked to Islam lies at the center of the terrorist cancer” of which ISIS is the most vivid current expression. Yes, “there is an internecine struggle within the Muslim world,” and it is necessary to make distinctions between violent terrorists and others in that world. But insisting on the shibboleth phrase “radical Islam” when it has been coopted in the service of religious and racial bigotry—and thereby aiding and abetting the presidential ambitions of Donald Trump—is not to serve the national security interests of the United States of America.
Gideon Strauss is a Senior Fellow of the Center for Public Justice and Associate Professor in Worldview Studies at the Institute for Christian Studies.
Photo Credit: The Qu’ran by adnan ali via Flickr.