Words Matter, the Right Words Matter Most
“Words matter, the right words matter most: they ground expectations and help set strategy.” I could not agree more with this sentence by Marc LiVecche, the managing editor of Providence. It is because of this agreement on the importance of the right words that I must continue to disagree with Dr. LiVecche (and now also Katherine Gorka) about the use of the phrase “radical Islam.”
Ms. Gorka, Dr. LiVecche, and I agree on much, I believe. We agree, in our current exchange, that among the present enemies of the United States of America there are many individuals, organizations, and movements who are motivated in their enmity by their understanding of the religion of Islam. (And we agree that not everyone supporting the occupation of the Oval Office by Donald Trump is motivated by racial or religious bigotry.)
We also agree, I presume, that the primal guide to American political life—in domestic as in foreign affairs, in the administration of peace as in the practice of war—is the Constitution of the United States of America (the first amendment to which secured freedom for religion as a foundational aspect of the American experiment in constitutional democracy).
What we disagree on is whether the phrase “radical Islam” constitutes, in substance and in this moment, “the right words”—whether this phrase is adequate and appropriate insofar as it might “ground expectations and help set strategy.” My complaint against the phrase “radical Islam” is somewhat like the Woody Allen joke: “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible … and such small portions.” The qualifier “radical” points us in the wrong direction to identify the kind of Islam that motivates America’s enemies and in addition is too vague to accomplish the defining and limiting that is needed for the grounding of expectations and the setting of strategy.
What does “radical” mean? In popular usage, “radical” means “extreme.” We call people—or they call themselves—“radical” to indicate that they take a particular position to its furthest limit, to its most complete implications. Etymologically, “radical” means from or to the roots—starting out from the point of origin. If words matter then “radical Islam,” in its substantive meaning, points us to forms of Islam in which Muslims seek to take their devotion to Allah, their commitment to the teachings of the Koran, back to the roots of their religion, and to live out of these roots with whole-hearted zeal.
The most significant problem with using “radical Islam” to identify the Muslim enemies of America is that there are a great many Muslims, with a considerable diversity of beliefs and practices, who seek to go back to the roots of their religion and then live out of those deep sources whole-heartedly … and millions upon millions of these Muslims are not enemies of America. Seeking to live a thoroughly Muslim life, seeking to be “radical” in one’s Islamic beliefs and practices, does not make one an enemy of America.
The great challenge facing America with regard to Islam in the 21st century is finding a way in which to persuade a large enough majority of the world’s Muslims that “radical Islam”—lives devoted to Allah and committed to the teachings of the Koran—is compatible with the protection of human rights, respect for religious pluralism, the practice of constitutional democracy, and the coexistence of a diversity of nation-states in a peaceable international order. This is an enormous challenge, one that will take more than one generation to accomplish, and one in which success cannot be presumed.
And yet, what is the alternative to such persuasion? Preventing terrorist attacks and destroying the military capabilities of those waging war against the United States is difficult but necessary, and morally warranted—but, at best, provides symptomatic relief. The slaughter and subjugation of entire Muslim populations would be monstrous. The conversion of such populations from Islam is not the mission of America. Struggling to somehow persuade Muslims that they can be both radical in their religious commitments and friends of the United States (and of certain American ideals) must therefore constitute the greater (if quieter and slower) part of the long-term strategy of America with regard to Islam.
If such a struggle must constitute American strategy in relation to Islam, the coopting of the phrase “radical Islam” by Donald Trump—a man whose public statements clearly demonstrate both a low regard for First Amendment rights and an ignorance (or willful disregard) of just war doctrine—so taints the phrase that it cannot be used by those who would see all of America’s freedoms secured, by force of arms if unavoidably necessary, by force of persuasion if at all possible.
How, then, might we with clarity and accuracy speak of America’s Muslim enemies? Might the “right words” to “ground expectations and help set strategy” not be “Salafi Jihadist”?
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: By Almas Baig, via Flickr.