Define ‘Islamist.’ OK, ‘radical.’ Whatever

I trust that anyone who has read GetReligion for any amount of time whatsoever has noticed that we are not fond of labels. Take, for example, “fundamentalist Islam” or “moderate Muslims.”

When in doubt, we believe that it is best to define people’s religious beliefs in two ways, through (1) their own words and (2) accurate descriptions of their actions that affect the story that is being covered. Thus, rather than describe Muslims by using a term (“fundamentalist”) taken from battles in America between modernists and conservative Protestants, it is best to simply cite the movement the Muslims in question are part of and then describe the conflict or story at hand. There are also terms that are used to describe trends within Islam, terms that are exclusive to Islam, such as “Salafism” or “Wahhabism” that can be briefly explained and then used.

There is no perfect solution. However, it is clear that some terms are more accurate than others. When covering Islam, why not use words that clearly describe groups within Islam?

Meanwhile, many mainstream journalists can’t seem to make up their minds what labels to use, so they keep trying out new ones or even resorting to clusters of labels. The result is kind of like throwing digital spaghetti against a newsroom wall.

Thus, I think the following piece by Ali H. Mir — currently the director of Muslim student activities in the religious life office at the University of Southern California — is an excellent door for discussions of this topic. It’s being circulated by the TRANS/MISSIONS website linked to the university’s Knight Chair in Media and Religion.

The opening is blunt, to say the least:

Islamist, orthodox, jihadist, conservative, Islamism, hardliner, Moslem, extremist, insurgent, fundamentalist, freedom fighter, infidel, moderate, liberal, progressive … blah, blah, blah.

All of these words mean nothing and everything at the same time — a testament to the power and mutability of language in the media, specifically when it comes to the words we use to describe Muslims and Islam in the contemporary world.

Take, for example a hard-news story that describes an Islamist who is also a militant and an extremist, as well, and he has been linked to a hotel bombing. What do these words mean?

So what is an Islamist? According to Princeton University’s WordNet, an Islamist is either “a scholar who knowledgeable in Islamic studies” or “an orthodox Muslim.” So an “Islamist” is someone who most likely knows a great deal about Islam and probably adheres closely to its tenets. (Note: there is no mention of terrorism, violence, hatred or intolerance in this definition). … What is a militant? An “activist (a militant reformer).”

So the individual in question is a fervent Muslim scholar with weapons training? How much Islamic knowledge and learning does he actually have? Does he have a degree in Islamic Studies from Harvard, or is he a sheikh (religious scholar)? How religious is he in terms of his practice of Islam? Perhaps he is just a man that happens to identify as a Muslim who was recruited to commit violent acts in exchange for money or to retaliate against perceived threats to his family or community. …

Finally, what is an extremist? Not surprisingly, I learn he or she is a “person who holds extreme views.” By this definition, many people are extremists.

Now, there is much for journalists to discuss and even debate, after reading this article. One does not have to agree with how Mir evaluates some of the issues and personalities involved.

Also, I am sure that there are believers in other major religious groups who could cite numerous examples of how vague, inaccurate and misleading labels are applied to their flocks. Muslims are not alone in believing that they have it bad, when it comes to news coverage. Mir suggests that journalists tend to pin nasty labels on Muslims — alone.

But the key is to actually think about the problems caused by these kinds of labels in the first place. Journalists cannot find journalistic solutions to these kinds of journalistic problems without admitting that the problems exist in the first place.

So read the essay and then be constructive and practical, when it comes time to click “comment.” Carry on.

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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.

  • John M.

    Labels can be a double edged sword: both giving identity to a group of people, but also homogenizing important differences or even misrepresenting the group entirely.

    Just look at how many times the term “Evangelical” seems to be used interchangeably with “Fundamentalist” or “Militant” when used to describe Christians. If I had a dollar for every time I had to explain (to a shocked audience) what the difference between me and Jack Chick was….*sigh*

    In my opinion, there doesn’t seem to be an easy answer short of breaking down each and every subject of a story down the specifics.

    Of course, this too can end badly.

    Example: “A 25 year old male of Cuban birth (but of Anglo-American cultural identity), bludgeoned a 28 year old British male (who was originally born in Japan, was raised in his parent’s home in London, but identified with the Maori of New Zealand), in a United Methodist Church (even though the attacking male identified theologically with the Old Catholic Church and was simply attending to please his significant other, and the male victim was actually a member of the United Church of Canada and was simply gathering information for an article) with Vuvuzela.”

    Wow. That just made me go cross-eyed.

  • Dave

    Journalists have a professional need for terms to refer to people who pull off something like 9/11 for religious motivations. Identifying which sect of Islam they come from isn’t much help. They catch flak from one side for even mentioning that the people they describe are Muslims, and from another for importing terms from intra-Christian conflicts. What they need is help, not more sniping.

  • Jerry

    Another issue is culture. Read the following story and substitute the word “Christian” for “Muslim” and make suitable subtitutions in the text. If your head does not explode from the contrast between Malaysia and the US, you’ve been living on Mars.

    I also noted that they used the word moderate, but unless you want to also include a lengthy dissertation on the country and why that word is applicable, I’m not sure what could be put there that would in less than a sentence convey more meaning. So I do agree that there is a problem but I don’t see a solution that would work here.

    Malaysia reality TV seeks young male Muslim leader

    The 10 young men have washed corpses according to Islamic rites, cried while counseling unmarried pregnant women and joined a police crackdown on teenage motorcycle racers — all before judges on national TV.

    A Malaysian cable station has given a reality show makeover to its Islamic programming, and it’s taking this moderate Muslim-majority country by storm.

  • Ray Ingles

    John M. – Actually, I have a hard time finding too many cases of journalists or op-ed writers describing Christians as ‘militant’ unless they’ve actually planned or engaged in violence. Atheists, on the other hand, are so frequently described as ‘militant’ that the phrase is practically a cliché. For example, when I ran this search I got one hit, regarding the Hutarees. But this search got 8 hits, none of which related to violence.)

    You pretty much have to pick up a gun to be considered a ‘militant’ believer, but all you have to do to be considered a ‘militant’ atheist is write a book.

  • Dave

    Jerry, the contrast is less explosive of the cranium if one substitutes women for men, embalming for corpse-washing, and texting while driving for motorcycle racing.

  • Jenny

    The difference here, despite Ali’s attempt to have it both ways is this. Christians are slandered on a daily basis, held up for scorn, and while they defend themselves, they do not threaten the lives of those who criticize them, nor do Christian holy texts or Christian clergy call for the death of those who criticize them.

    Ali relies on straw man arguments, and uses words herself, to set the bar for the discussion. …

    The sad truth is, people end up feeling forced to apply terms like “extremist” and “fundamentalist” in the hopes they are not painting all Muslims with the same brush, despite the fact that even so called, “moderate” Muslims do not criticize Islamic terror and jihad. …

  • Ann Rodgers

    I saw this on the Knight Web site, and I agree with the overall point about meaningless labels and inflammatory language. However, I have a recollection about the origins of the (useless) term Islamist that doesn’t square with what the writer claims. I’m wondering of any of my fellow religion journalists also recall this.
    What I remember is that back in the early to mid 1990s there was a small group of respected Muslim academics — names now escape me– who promoted the use of “Islamist” to describe someone who attempts to impose Islam by force. Their point was that this is not Islamic. I believe they felt that the word “Islamist” implied soneone who acted aggressively in the name of Islam, but didn’t really understand or follow the faith. I remember attending a panel at an RNA convention in New York where they were making this point.
    Anyone else out there remember that?