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?