Putting some info into ‘radical’

Once upon a time, it appeared that most mainstream journalists had rallied around the use of the word “Islamist” to describe the brand of Islam that has been linked to violence and terror around the world.

The key was that this was a version of Islam that was framed almost exclusively in terms of political power and the crushing of religious minorities, including, often, minorities and dissenters within Islam.

Alas, other journalists preferred to adapt the f-word from American Protestant history — that would be “fundamentalist” — to conflicts on the other side of the world involving believers who would never identify themselves with this term (while speaking languages that rarely if ever include a comparable term).

Some journalists liked the word “militant,” yet when using it they often fail to offer any hints whatsoever what these militants are choosing to be militant about. Ditto for the word “extremist.”

Now, it appears that “radical” Islam is on the rise. Here is the top of a typical Washington Post use of this new and, to my mind, unimproved label:

ISLAMABAD – Pakistan said … that it had arrested a high-ranking army officer on suspicion of connections to a radical group, a rare public acknowledgment of possible ties between members of the country’s military and the extremist organizations it is battling.

The arrest comes amid rising concern that Pakistan’s military is penetrated by Islamists who are sympathetic to insurgent groups that have declared war on the state. Last month, heavily armed fighters stormed a naval base in Karachi, an attack widely suspected to have required inside help.

Actually, that reference contains more than one of these common and almost always meaningless buzz words.

So what content can readers cling to? The key is that the arrested radical insurgent Islamist extremist — one Brig. Ali Khan — is committed part of another organization with a specific political goal:

Khan allegedly was working with Hizb ut-Tahrir, a radical group that calls for the overthrow of governments in Muslim lands and the installation of an Islamic caliphate. The group claims to be nonviolent but has been tied to militant organizations and is banned in Pakistan.

That’s all the reader is going to get, when it comes to attaching any factual content to this cloud of vague terms.

So here is my question: How many ordinary newspaper readers understand the meaning and the significance of the pivotal term “Islamic caliphate”? I mean, other than Glenn Beck listeners? A little dose of laugh-to-keep-from-crying irony there.

This is a term with precise content. Period.

At this point, all the Post team really needs is a tiny dose of history and one or two sentences of content about practical issues in daily life — treatment of women, blasphemy laws, status of religious minorities — to do the brave, rare thing, which is printing content and not mere labels.

So here is my question: In the context of Pakistan, what issues are key (other than the life-and-death debates over blasphemy)? In other words, if you were going to use the word “radical” in this way, what small doses of factual material would you use to define that 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.

  • Mark Baddeley

    With tongue firmly in cheek, and picking up some issues from other posts recently, I’ll offer the following definition:

    A ‘radical’ Muslim is one who thinks that God speaks to them.

  • Jerry

    So here is my question: How many ordinary newspaper readers understand the meaning and the significance of the pivotal term “Islamic caliphate”? I mean, other than Glenn Beck listeners?

    I don’t watch Beck, but has he ever gone into the history and meaning of caliphate other than railing about the danger of one in a modern day “The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming”? From internet searching I could not find any indication he has gone into the history of the Middle East, the role of the caliphate in world history, the effects of the Crusades etc. If I’m wrong about this, please provide a link.

    And outside of the scary picture, I do agree that “radical” and other such terms need definition. I’d love to see a story comparing al Queda’s, Hizb ut Tahrir and other groups definitions of Islam, what they see as Islamic law, what is their ideal end goal and so forth. I suspect that “radical” and other such words has as much meaning as “evangelical” does these days in the media.

    Further, I’d love to see how the theonomy of Christan reconstructionists compares to the world view of organizations like Hizb ut Tahrir. Such as comparison might help us better understand what is going on. I suspect we’d find a very strong philosophical similarity albeit with wildly different choices of scriptures.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    I wouldn’t use the term “radical”, the first meaning of which is:

    Arising from or going to a root or source; basic:

    By that definition, one might understand most contemplative monastics as “radical”. Certainly taking vows of stability, obedience, and conversion of life (Rule of St. Benedict) returns one to a certain “basic” approach to Christianity, as do the later vows of friars: poverty, chastity, obedience. We won’t even start on the Desert Fathers (think: St. John of the Ladder).

    I would say Dorothy Day was “radical”, as was Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Were any of them violent? Dorothy Day was pretty militant in her pacifism, I suppose. :-)

    Arguably, Buddhist monks are also “radicals”, and if memory serves, Islam also has sects that are more-or-less equivalent to monastics in other religions. These might be “radical” but non-violent.

    So unless you are willing to examine the roots or basics of a faith, you might want to find another word.

  • Ben

    Here’s a story that give some details about Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s followers in Pakistan.

    I agree Caliphate should be defined more often.

    Many of the people on the ground for these groups have diverse opinions and reasons for being involved in militancy. Sometimes all you can say with confidence is who they are fighting (Pakistani government or Afghan government and NATO or a particular religious minority or “The West”).

    I’m afraid this is partly an access issue. But this is a valuable reminder that when a journalist does get a rare bit of access, these guys should be queried on religion.

  • Dave

    Like Passing By, I wouldn’t use the term “radical” in this context. It’s applicable to too many things, including myself fifty years ago.