Radical, Jihadist, Terrorist — the Difference & Why it Matters


Radical, Jihadist, Terrorist — the Difference & Why it Matters

Although Donald Trump managed to vilify the Muslim religion throughout his campaign for president, one of his first executive orders — banning Muslim immigration — shows he is hell-bent on fulfilling campaign promises. These new policies affect many Muslims worldwide and bode ominous for Muslims living in the United States, citizen and non-citizen alike.  His ongoing campaign is fueled with linguistic fervor that reveals deep misgivings about Muslims.  In his targeting of a specific religious faith, Trump’s verbiage from the campaign is now clearly playing a central role.  Make no mistake, this carefully crafted executive order is infused with key legal and colloquial terms that have exacting meaning for critical steps ahead.

“Radical Islam”

Trump is ratcheting up his political discourse over the rhetoric of “radical Islam.” Recall that during the Republican debates, these words became a battle cry. They were also the source of great debate between Trump and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, his Democratic opponent during the presidential debates. The controversy over the use of these two words was something that Trump put on national display.  By the time he had won the Republican nomination, he was ready to take on Clinton, even if it meant wrongly connecting her to former President Barack Obama and his refusal to use this phrase.  Trump took Democrats to task over their choice of language when it came to framing violent events perpetrated by Muslims.  Specifically, Trump demanded that Obama resign for not using the phrase “radical Islam.”  Obama and Clinton were hotly criticized in this semantic feud, and now, President Trump’s language is all the more salient.  His words are now in action.

The number of jihadists who understand their “struggle” in terms of engaging in physical violence is relatively miniscule compared with the rest of the world’s Muslim population

This point was made clear in a recently leaked draft of an executive order, Detention and Interrogation of Enemy Combatants.  The document contains a number of edits that shift attention to Islam as the enemy.  For example, the very first edit replaces “jihadist” with “Islamist.”  Exactly what the change was intended to accomplish is anyone’s guess.  However, either by uncertainty or ignorance, one may be inclined to think that “jihadist” is synonymous with “Islamist.”  This mischaracterization only serves to murky the waters at the expense of the word “Islam.”  In other places in the document, the phrase “global war on terrorism” is struck and replaced by “fight against radical Islamism.”  The new branding remarkably shifts the focus from terrorism, regardless of the perpetrators, and makes the fight directly against Islam — not simply jihadists — but Islam itself.  These edits offer a glimpse into the minds of Trump and his advisers; their directed effort against the faith of Islam sets up the floodgates for unprecedented persecution of Muslims.

Even the previous language that included “jihadist” was uncritical.  This is obvious since jihad can have opposing tendencies, as a matter of interpretation.  The number of jihadists who understand their “struggle” in terms of engaging in physical violence is relatively miniscule compared with the rest of the world’s Muslim population.  Hence an improvement of the order might have been to qualify the term as “violent jihadists” so as not to overlook the jihad that is central to the lives of Muslims, and to underscore that the bulk of Muslims worldwide associate their “jihad” with personal, day-to-day struggles with the self, not an external enemy.  The replacement of “jihadist” with “Islamist” does little to clarify who in fact is meant by the play on these terms.  It’s as if there is intentional confusion of religious terms. Sadly, the changes to the original order use words that are more alarming and more corrosive to Islam, which seemingly serve only one purpose: to widen the net to include a broader classification of person.  Whereas in the original order, the term “jihadist” was already in need of clarification, its replacement by “Islamist” suggests that proximity to Islam is a relevant consideration for determining the appropriate standard.  With populations of Muslims and other ethnic groups protesting, the question is where does Trump draw the line?

National Security

The glaring malady of focusing only on Muslims brings with it the dangerous tradeoff of domestic national security.  Take for example, the heated debate about the Muslim immigration ban.  It is conceivable that the focus will divert attention away from the many acts of domestic terrorism by Christians.  There have been numerous shootings on American soil: Columbine High School, a Denver movie theater, Newtown, Virginia Tech University, a North Carolina church, the Charleston AME Church, mosque burnings in Texas, and the list could go on and on.  The religion of the perpetrators is rarely, if at all, mentioned despite that the mass murders came at the hands of Christian perpetrators.  The focus on Muslims is another smokescreen to make the average American forget that there is plenty of homegrown terrorism under the guise of “Christ.”  

The Victoria mosque burning. Photo via Dr. Shahid Hashmi

Truth is, these Christian militias, White Power and White supremacy organizations have and continue to engage in domestic terrorism.  These groups range in structure from backwoods gun clubs to sophisticated prison gangs, and are often united by a fiercely anti-government worldview.  Moreover, some of these groups are probably more capable of terrorist activity than Muslims.  For example, White prison gangs are credited with igniting the majority of explosive devices behind prison walls.  Hence, Trump’s unwavering attention on Muslims conveniently overlooks the scores of Christians who themselves should be labeled “enemy combatants” more readily than peaceful, law-abiding Muslims.

The Root of “Radical”

Unfortunately, the revisions to the order are rooted in a general misunderstanding of terms like “radical” and “terrorist.”  For example, in the post-9/11 era, the term “radical” has often been used as a proxy to describe violence, despite the fact that most radicals never engage in violent activities.   When such divisive terms are conflated, used out of context and are unclear, it is unlikely that the average American can understand or appreciate the differences.  Much in the same vein is the term “radical Islam,” which makes about as much sense as “radical Christianity.”  The point is that the entire Islamic faith or Christian faith cannot be “radical” no matter how plausible someone makes it sound.

History tells that over time, words themselves can change meaning, as is the case with the word “radical.”  In its original Latin sense, the word intended to convey the notion of “root” or “radish,” which referred to something inherent, as in the square “root” of a number or a word’s verbal “root.”  When describing the nature of personal faith, the term is intended to convey someone trying to find the origins or beginning of a particular tradition.  Put in this context, a person becomes “radical” as one seeks to discover the roots or origins of traditions and adapt them to one’s life.

Until recently, the term “radical” was associated with scorn, but previously radicalism was associated with pushing the boundaries of science, engineering, and philosophy to advance civilization

In time, this word has taken on the opposite meaning.  “Radical” began to convey movement away from a specific norm, as the expression “far out” might suggest.  The use follows circular logic since someone who becomes radicalized may be more likely to live a life that moves further from social norm.  Toward this end, religious and political radicals are renowned for changing their dress, diet, habits and other practices to abide by their beliefs.

Understood in this light, “radical” is similar to the meaning of “extremist.”  A radical sits at the extremes or fringes of social norm, and is hence “far out” in the same way.  Until recently, the term “radical” was associated with scorn, but previously radicalism was associated with pushing the boundaries of science, engineering, and philosophy to advance civilization.  Contributions of radical thinkers to art, poetry and music are part and parcel of American culture, including the works of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was globally known for his radical views on non-violence.

His life and that of others like him underscore that violence is not inherent in the term “radical.”  Individuals like Dr. King show that one can be committed to the “turn-the-other-cheek” theology in ways that reject what law and society allow.  Likewise, the boxer Muhammad Ali defied the military draft due to his commitment to peace.  His stance on this issue resulted in him forfeiting the prime years of his boxing career to stand against the Vietnam War.  His actions depict that “radical” is a spectrum away from the norm.  Thus, with respect to views on violence, at one end of the spectrum sit ultra-pacifists.  At the other are those who are unwaveringly committed to violence.

Ironically, the terms used by Trump in his executive order reveal most profoundly his position as one of the most radical U.S. presidents in the modern era.  In over 200 years of American history, one would be hard-pressed to find an elected official with so little political experience holding such a high political office.  The formation of the Trump administration, barring any unforeseen circumstances with Senate confirmations, will feature among the wealthiest individuals to have ever formed the executive branch.  In addition, Trump’s personal views and attitudes are a lesson in extremism, particularly toward Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants and other minority groups.  In keeping with the traditional definition of “radical,” Trump is without a doubt a personification of its meaning.  Only time will tell just how “far out” he will take the United States.

The Terrorist Threat

To be sure, a radical may or may not engage in religious violence.  Of those who do, even fewer engage in terrorism.  This is to say that not every act of violence is terrorism.  Mark Juergensmeyer’s Terror in the Mind of God reminds readers that terrorism is intended to create fear among the citizenry and the political establishment.  Often the violence is used in cultural or political protest, and involves specific people, places, dates and other markers that make terrorism a type of iconoclasm.  For example, the Orlando massacre was not a random attack on socialites, but a hateful message of violence to every gay club in the country.  The same for the attacks on September 11 — the Twin Towers, Pentagon and White House — they were not attacks on random buildings, but calculated violence bent on destroying the pillars of the country’s power.  The differences here make it mandatory to demarcate terrorist activity from other types of violence.

A vigil in memory of the Orlando victims. >Flickr/Alisdare Hickson

It is vital that all Americans, especially those in power and influence, become knowledgeable of these terms and their misuse.  “Radical Islam” is no more acceptable than “Radical Christianity,” “Radical Judaism” or “Radical Buddhism.”  Yet, when a crime suspect is Muslim, the initial reaction is to label the crime a terrorist attack.  If that is indeed the political norm, then it is past time to start labeling the thousands of killings by people of the Christian faith, Christian terrorism.  Sounds absurd, yet that is being visited upon Muslims pro forma, even when the perpetrator was U.S. born.  The ideological pendulum must swing both ways.  

Statistics of Terrorism

The raw numbers involved are perplexing since the threat of Muslim terrorists is relatively insignificant.  For example, in this country, some 15,000 murders occur annually.  Even though the killers are overwhelmingly Christian, religion is scarcely a point of discussion when the killing occurs.  In contrast, terrorist activity has had minimal impacts.  From 2004 to 2013, according to the Global Terrorism Database, only 80 Americans’ deaths were attributed to terrorist activity.  However, from 2001 to 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 153,144 homicides were committed by guns alone in the United States.

Terrorist attacks in the United States over the years, as recorded by START.

There is a statistical double standard when it comes to classifying what constitutes a radical crime or terrorist act in this country.  To maintain this standard requires a skill to twist words and their meaning to raise suspicion of other ethnic groups.  Does this happen because national leaders feel the need to raise social ire against others who believe differently?  Or are the changes simply Trump’s personal invective against all things Muslim?  Without doubt, the edits of the leaked executive order reveal an antagonism that is steeped in a deep fear of Islam.  Those attitudes reflect textbook Islamophobia, the likes of which must be monitored with vigilance, lest it pave the way for an American Holocaust.

History shows language as the basis for all sorts of cruel behavior.  The term “savage” was a pass for settlers and the government to kill Native Americans.  During the time of slavery, “chattel” designated the legal status of a Black person, which meant the person was property to be disposed of in any manner that the owner pleased.  Exactly what long-term meaning terms like “radical Islam,” “Islamist,” and, “Islamism” will have for Muslims is uncertain.  More certain is that the most powerful nation in the world has a man at its helm who is creating terms in a definitional vacuum, which threatens to suck up whomever it pleases.  Only time will tell the depth and breadth of this and future executive orders.  Life on the ground suggests that these changes were not merely stylistic embellishment, but words that potentially lay the groundwork for religious persecution.

*Image: An Active Change Foundation from British Muslims showing solidarity against ISIS. Youtube/Active Change Foundation credit-n.ru
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