Open Letter to the National Geographic Magazine (or anyone who does this):
Recently a post came across my Facebook stream that read, “They call it “the crisis”: Islamist terrorists are trying to gain control of the north” and it linked to an article on your site. To your writer’s credit, James Verini, the article itself doesn’t include this term, but it does include the terms “jihadists” and “violent islamic extremism”. (Another article by the same author references an “Islamic Jihad Fighter” (did the interviewee call himself that or is that a designation that Verini gave him?) and a New Yorker piece by him quotes “Allahu Akbar!” without explaining that it simply means God is Greatest similar to the Christian “Praise Jesus!” or “Thank the Lord!” — I believe it’s this routine lack of context that feeds the fear and misunderstanding about Muslims in the Western world.
Let’s be clear: there is no such thing as an Islamic terrorist.
As National Geographic, a publication that is synonymous with world travel and exploration, I would expect better of you. The Western bias, ignorance and anti-Islamic sentiment contained in the short hand “Islamic terrorist” is part of a larger problem of sweeping anti-Muslim attitudes in the United States and a kind of casual racism and bigotry that has been widely accepted and unquestioned.
But they are Islamic, right?
Of course, they consider themselves to be Islamic. But let me point out several things. First, we never call US-based terrorists “Christian Terrorists”. You can google the phrase inserting different religions and see for yourself. This is a term used exclusively with Islam and it promotes the idea that all terrorism, or at least the majority, is Muslim. This is not true.
Secondly, it shows our bias. When a pro-life extremist organization kills a doctor or bombs an abortion clinic we separate these horrific acts and the religion that they are supposedly driven by. We know, from our lived experiences, that the vast majority of Christians do not support killing, that the Vatican while anti-abortion doesn’t condone violence, that the average Christian believes something very different from the murders who claim biblical authority. Even the KKK is largely a Christian organization. Yet we don’t call their acts Christian, even though that’s their religion, because we understand that hate or violence of any kind are not the teachings of Christ.
This is also true in Islam. Islam is a peaceful religion. It does not incite people to violence. A reality check: 23% of the world population is Muslim. 80% of them are non-Arab, 60% of them are in Asia. If Islam was a violent religion, with 1 in 4 people practicing it, wouldn’t we be overrun with so-called “jihadists”? Even without knowing a single verse of the Qur’an, common sense tells us that obviously the religion is not the problem here.
The final point is that even the term terrorism has become so synonymous with Muslims that we don’t associate mass shootings or other violence in the US with terrorism, and this framing effect (the way the information is presented) leads to the false perception that Islam is driving cause of terrorism.
Yes, but Islam is very extreme, especially in the Middle East.
If Islam is extreme, or conservative or anti-progressive, then why in the 1970s did Iran look like this?
And why now, forty years later why does it look like this?
Did Islam change? No. It is exactly the same since the Prophet Mohammad came in 600 AD. What changed? The politics of Iran. The shift of control to a group of people who interpret Islam in this conservative manner.
With 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, the way Islam is practiced is more about the local culture and politics.
New York City Muslims
It’s just a word and they are technically Muslim…
Words matter. By modifying the word terrorist with Islamic you are implying that there is a type of terrorist that is of the Islamic persuasion. This of course is false, and in a minute I’ll talk about the statistics about this that prove this, but it’s also harmful. The Obama administration has recognized this, that it’s important to not use anti-Muslim language when we talk about acts of violence, because it’s harming our relations with those people. Just as Christians would object to being linked to the KKK or Westboro Baptist Church, because theses fringe organizations are not mainstream Christianity. You could say, “terrorist” and you could talk about their religious background, but more care needs to be taken to underline the fact that despite what anyone claims, no religion in the world advocates for violence or the killing of innocents. Simply interviewing neighboring clerics (as the author did in this piece) is not enough, it is not just the opinion of the terrorist’s neighbors saying this is not part of Islam, it is a cold fact that should be handled the same way we would with other religions.
Because of this casual acceptance of what is at best biased reporting or at worst anti-Muslim hate speech, we’ve reached a point where it’s completely acceptable and unchallenged for people to say things that are clearly anti-Islam. They say it on national TV, in the media, and online. Recently at a tea party rally someone said about Obama “put the Quran down, get up off his knees, and to figuratively come out with his hands up”
It was Larry Klaman founder of Freedom Watch, this guy:
Does National Geographic really want to use the same kind of language that is adopted by extreme right political organizations that use “islamaphobia” as a political tool to unite their base?
What about so-called “Jihadists” that’s a real thing, right?
The word Jihad means “struggle”. There are Jihads issued for many things, positive and negative and the word “jihadists” implies that jihads are always a holy war. There is an excellent fatwa (a ruling or advisory opinion in Islam — I know that word has negative connotations too) about this topic, which you should read if you are not already familiar with the concept. I will quote a few passages here:
“In other words, context and circumstance of Qur’anic revelation and Hadith are crucial in coming to terms with Jihad. It is an error to judge Islam and Muslims in the light of the kind of “Jihad” that has fallen victim to ideological tendencies. The critic also has to be wary of the interpretation of “Jihad“ which is projected, and sometimes imposed, by the selective “religious reformism” so rampant today. They ignore central aspects of Islam’s intellectual heritage, selectively repress important figures and disregard Islam’s impeccable history of adherence to the standards of law and justice in affairs of state.”
“Ibn Rushd, in his Muqaddimaat, divides Jihad into four kinds: “Jihad by the heart; Jihad by the tongue; Jihad by the hand and Jihad by the sword.””
“One form of Jihad, usually overlooked in today’s pursuit of newsworthy headlines, is the Jihad of presenting the message of Islam-da`wah. ”
“The question often asked is whether Islam condones and teaches the forced and armed conversion of non-Muslims. This is the image sometimes projected by Western scholars and as any Muslim scholar will tell you, is seriously flawed. The Qur’an clearly states “There is no compulsion in religion, the path of guidance stands out clear from error” [2:256] and [60:8].”
“The position of the law is that only at such a time when it can be reasonably proven that; 1. there are aggressive designs against Islam; and, 2. there are concerted efforts to eject Muslims from their legally acquired property; and, 3. that military campaigns are being launched to eradicate them. At such a time the ruler can declare and execute the provisions of Jihad. It is a condition that there be a leader of the Muslims, an Imam, to declare combative Jihad.”
While anyone can claim to be a “jihadist” this term should be treated carefully when people use it who are not actually acting under internationally accepted Islamic law. Even then, care should be taken because like many of these terms and Arabic phrases, they sound scarier than they are, especially when the reader has only been exposed to Islam though biased western reporting.
But every country in the Middle East is in turmoil, that’s not related to Islam?
These are developing nations. I’m not an apologist for what happens in the Middle East, I don’t agree with the politics in many situations. But these people, in many countries, have stood up to their governments and overthrown dictators during the Arab Spring at great personal cost. How many times has any American gone to Washington DC to protest something their government did? Would you camp out daily for weeks or months to get your way? What if they shot into the crowd and started killing protesters? Have you ever fought for something with your own life?
For the majority of Americans, of whom only 57.5% voted in the 2012 election, the answer is no.
In the US, we declared independence from Britain in 1776. How long did it take for us to create our constitution? 12 years. There is a lot of work to be done to create a democracy and the Middle East is deep in that process.
Isn’t this just your opinion?
No, there’s research to back this up. Robert Pape researched every suicide bombing from 1980-2003. He says, “There is little connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, or any one of the world’s religions”. After studying 315 suicide attacks from the last two decades, he concludes that suicide bombers’ actions stem from political conflict, not religion.
Let’s say that again: In EVERY CASE, the motivation was political and not religious. There is no such thing as an Islamic terrorist, there are only political terrorists.
The words we use are just the beginning, but it’s a first step. If we stop casually and unthinkingly describing terrorists acts as Islamic, if we take care when using the word jihadists, if we stop linking Islamic fundamentalism with terrorism—then I think we begin to become more aware of how we think and talk about Islam and Muslims, and perhaps shift our thinking of them not as “others” but just as one of the world’s religions full of people from many different countries, cultures and walks of life.
The point is that we cannot paint nearly a quarter of the world with a single brush. There are many forms of Islam in how it’s practiced and how it is changed by the politics and culture of its believers. The tiny minority of violent extremists has nothing to do with the religion and its teachings, which at its core is a peaceful religion that promotes family life, protecting the less fortunate and building a better community under god.