When is ‘Islamic’ too broad a term?

kgartIf you sat down and tried to list the most important religion-news stories in the world right now, deadly conflicts linked to Islam and terrorism would have to be right at the top of the list.

At the same time, you would have to say that it is very hard to define and describe in print any links between the religion of Islam and the actions taken by some believers in its name. This is a topic that has been discussed often on this weblog, far too often to attempt to sum up in a few statements (or even URLs).

All of this is to say that I was shocked to read a story in The New York Times the other day (“Taliban Spreading, Pakistani President Is Warned“) by reporters Jane Perlez and Ismail Khan that included the following language, right in the lede:

The Pakistani president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, was warned this month that Islamic militants and Taliban fighters were rapidly spreading beyond the country’s lawless tribal areas and that without “swift and decisive action,” the growing militancy could engulf the rest of the country.

Now I may be totally out to lunch on this one. What struck me was the blunt description of these fighters as “Islamic militants.”

This seems to me to be too direct a link between the faith of Islam and the actions of the militants. I thought, to get to the point, that journalists were using — in place of the terrible “Islamic fundamentalist” language of old — the term “Islamists” to describe this militant linking of the faith and political activism (to the point of violence).

Am I simply off base, or did I miss a memo?

So I ran a simple Google News search for the word “Islamist” and I found thousands of references, but it seems to me that most of them are in British or foreign newspapers and wire services. Interesting.

Meanwhile, over at The Washington Post, I read the following reference in a story about Hamas and Israel. Once again, note the link to political actions and violence:

The political split between the West Bank and Gaza has also strengthened calls in Israel to abandon the idea of a Palestinian state, which was at the core of the Oslo peace accords signed in 1993. Gaza is now ruled by an ascendant Islamic movement that calls for Israel’s destruction, and the West Bank by a disorganized secular party seeking immediate peace negotiations. That divide has cast doubts on whether the formula of a Palestinian state existing side by side with Israel is still viable.

Once again, my question is whether it is fair to use the simple word “Islamic” in these circumstances. I honestly thought that journalists were trying to find another wording here, with “Islamist” being one of the terms adopted in mainstream media.

Clearly, there are doctrinal debates inside Islam over when violence can and cannot be used. See this recent post for a vivid example of coverage of that kind of story. But is it accurate and fair to simply call the groups committing these kinds of acts “Islamic”? Isn’t that too broad a term?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • danr

    From an MSNBC article today on the recent UK terrorism:

    “Meanwhile, an explosion on Monday killed at least seven people at a tourist site in Yemen, a Middle Eastern country waging its own battle against Islamic extremists.”

    It appears that it may be increasingly acceptable in the media to use “Islamic”, as long as it’s coupled with the necessary qualifiers “militants”, “extremists”, etc. Seems at least to be leveling the unfair playing field. The media has long shown no qualms about using “Christian conservatives” or “Christian militants” to describe the words and actions of those who other Christians would consider anything but representative of their own faith and teachings. From anything I’ve read, no effort has been made (or is needed) to come up with a ridiculous-sounding equivalent like “Christianist” or “Christologizer” etc.

  • Jerry

    I think this is another case of means and ends. A few years ago I had a debate with a Muslim who wanted to bring about the return of the Khalifat (Islamic state). So he was an Islamist. But he condemned terrorism as being against Islam. So, to be precise, some Islamists are terrorists but not all.

    And, beyond that, the word “Islamic” is not a noun but an adjective: Islamic state. Islamic dress code. Islamic prayer methods. Such constructs are certainly fluid, but my English teachers would never have approved of using an adjective as a noun.

    So I’d prefer good old fashioned nouns such as terrorist modified as appropriate to indicate what kind of terrorist the person is such as Islamic terrorist.

  • James Davis

    I vote for “extremist Muslim” or “radical Muslim.” I know that think-tankers want to use “Islamist,” and that may be a good technical term. But I don’t think it makes sense to most readers. Words like “radical” and “extremist” do.

    Also, I think it’s better to make “radical” and “extremist” the adjectives. Saying “Muslim extremist” or “Muslim radical” might suggest that they’re all extremist or radical.

    Soooo, have I repeated enough repetition?

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com mattk

    I have son killing Taliban in Afghanistan right now. He is pretty sure they are Muslims.

    If the Jerusalem Post’s report of Hamas persecution of Christians, even imposing the hated dhimmi tax, in Gaza is true, then I would say that calling them islamic is correct.

  • Larry “Grumpy” Rasczak

    Hurray for MattK!

    God bless and protect your son!

    At least he is doing something, rather than debating what is the least politically incorrect way to describe the stunningly obvious!

    (Has anybody noticed that it was five Islamic DOCTORS that are now under arrest in the Glasgow/London Plot? As LGF said “I guess we can rule out poverty as a motive.”)

  • Steve Odom

    Islamist/Islamic seems to be turning into a moot point. We seemed to be reaching for “Islamist” a few years ago to hightlight that Islam is a “religion of peace” (sad, hollow laughter). It’s becoming clear (to me) that enough Muslims believe in political/military jihad, the spread of the “caliphate” and the triumph of Shariah that it no longer matters what kind of differences we appeal to between those with a gun in their hand and those with only a Qu’ran. Those without the gun are too afraid of those with it to do or say anything to “rescue” the moribund version of their own religion.

  • http://lowly.blogspot.com Undergroundpewster

    Blame socialized medicine for the physician shortage in the UK which leads to an easier path for “radical islamic muslim terrorist doctors” to enter the country. The US should take heed as we accept more graduates from foreign medical schools.

  • Dennis Colby

    This is certainly a tricky issue, but “Islamic militants” makes sense to me. One of these groups, for example, has a name that translates as Islamic Jihad.

    In the ’70s, when there were references to Left-wing terrorists in Germany or Right-wing terrorists in Italy, I think it was understood that reporters weren’t suggesting everyone on the Left or the Right was a terrorist.

  • http://lowly.blogspot.com Undergroundpewster

    Here is a new headline “Physician Assisted Suicide Bombers.” Maybe Dr. K. can find a new niche.

  • Peter Leavitt

    According to Mary Habeck, a Johns Hopkins scholar, in Knowing the Enemy the bad guys are the jihadis who wish to establish a worldwide Islamist caliphate through terrorism and war. She writes that of the roughly 20% of Muslims who favor Sharia law about 5% are Jihadis. She, also, notes that Islam is the only major religion with a warrior founder.

  • Larry “Grumpy” Rasczak


    I am sorry but I have to disagree with the numbers you give here. “The roughly 20% of Muslims who favor Sharia law about 5% are Jihadis.”

    Several months ago we had a discussion here about support for terrorisim in the Palestinian Elections. Few Islamic nations have free elections, (ironicly one of the few places in the Middle East where Arabs can vote is Israel)so it is hard to know if the data will scale up, but I ran the numbers and between them, Yassir Arafatt’s Incompetent, Corrupt, Terrorist Fatah and the Delusional, Islamic, Terrorist Hamas drew over 75% of the vote. I’ve seen many people in the Arab world say they don’t approve of terrorisim, EXCEPT for terrprism that is directed against Jews.

    A lot depends on how you define Jihadi… but I think those numbers are far to low.

  • Aminah Yaquin Carroll

    William Safire, the wordsmith of the New York Times,suggested two years ago that we call politically motivated nominally muslims “Islamo-fascists”. This sums it up well. Islam is a religion of peace and forebearance and always has been.
    The perceptual blindness of people who acquiese in USA imperialism and its murderous treacherous violence for money, oil and inequitable power re-distribution instead of investing in diplomacy, and living up to our own democratic and republican ideals– is stunning.
    Those who alter history to suit their prejudices and hubris usually face pretty onerous consequences.

  • Scottie F.

    Journalists don’t know how to understand Muslim theology except in terms of ‘moderate’ and ‘radical’ which are vague terms. Journalists come from a secular mindset that sees belief in religion as irrational at best and dangerous at worst.