The tragedy in Orlando has prompted a debate over use of the term “radical Islam.” Here & Now‘s Robin Young talks with William McCants of the Brookings Institution about what the words mean, and why they are controversial.
Interview Highlights: William McCants
On the history of the term “radical Islam”
“Academically, it used to be acceptable. One of the best books ever written about the jihadist movement was called ‘Radical Islam’ by a scholar named Emmanuel Sivan. But I think since 9/11, it’s become a touchy phrase. President Obama is reflecting the common wisdom in the U.S. government, that they don’t want to play into the jihadist idea that this is some sort of religious war between the Christian West and the Muslim Middle East.”
On the meaning of the phrase, and why it can be offensive
“Islam is a many and varied thing, but when you attach an adjective to it like ‘radical,’ it’s difficult for many non-Muslims to distinguish between the noun and the adjective. And so it seems, in the minds of many Muslims, that you’re telling non-believers that Islam, the entire religion, is a radical thing.”
On why “radical Islamism” has a different meaning
“It seems like a distinction without a difference, doesn’t it? I think for many Muslims they would hear the same thing. I mean, Islamism is a modern political movement, but for many normal Muslims they’re not going to hear much of a difference. And this is [Hillary Clinton] trying to take a domestic political issue off the table, so it makes a lot of good sense domestically. But I’m willing to bet that if she were to become commander-in-chief, she would be much more hesitant to use the term radical Islamism.”
On other phrases like “jihadists,” “Salafis” or “Islamic extremists”
“Each of those is fraught as well. You’re always going to agitate somebody no matter what phrase you choose. If you want to be academically very precise, you would call this the Salafi-jihadist movement. That is what they call themselves. But the term ‘jihadist’ can offend many Muslims who consider jihad to be a part of their religion and not necessarily violent. I think that what President Obama has attempted to do is to avoid the term that will anger the most Muslims.”
On people who are angry Obama hasn’t used the phrase
“I hear them. They should also know that Bin Laden in his own private musings was upset that the United States did not talk about Islam enough in its propaganda, and he in fact wanted to change the name of al-Qaeda to include the name Islam, so the United States would have to say it over and over again so Muslims would realize this is in fact a religious struggle against the West. And that’s what President Obama is trying to avoid. This is very much part of his thinking on how to make the United States more secure. It is not in an effort to be politically correct with regards to Muslims. If you look at his Jeffrey Goldberg interview he said many things that would agitate Muslims, the way he characterized the Middle East.”
On how to address uncertainty about what phrase to use, or not use
“I think you have to do two things. One is to stop making pronouncements about what is and is not Islamic. The president does that with great frequency, and I don’t think it helps. He’s not in a position to judge. The second thing to do is to use precise terminology. Salafi-jihadism is what jihadists call their movement. And it is an outgrowth of a very ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam, the kind of Islam you find in Saudi Arabia that is quite different from other varieties of Islam, and it’s often attached to the kind of violence that we’re seeing. And I think you’re getting much closer to the problem when you use more precise terminology.”
William McCants, senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and the author of “The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, The Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State.” He tweets @will_mccants.