During an impressive and emotional speech after the mass murder at a nightclub in Orlando this month, U.S. President Barack Obama explained why he doesn’t like using the term “radical Islam” when talking about terror attacks perpetrated by Muslims in various countries. His argument was well-reasoned, as befits a very wise, profound statesman. But I don’t agree with it.
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The argument was threefold. First, the president said, giving a name to these acts of terror doesn’t change their essence or the strategy that must be adopted to fight them. Second, it’s clear we’re talking about the Islamic State organization and Al-Qaida, and nobody will think otherwise; therefore, the term “radical Islam” doesn’t add anything. Third, and this was the principal argument, using the label “radical Islam” will be interpreted as an attack on Islam per se, and will help extremists brand the United States as the enemy of 1.3 billion Muslim believers, some of them citizens of the United States. Moreover, it would also play into the hands of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who sees Muslims, including those living in the United States, as enemies or potential enemies.
In my humble opinion, the truth is the diametric opposite. When an act of terror that’s perpetrated for ideological reasons (and on this point, the Orlando case isn’t yet sufficiently clear) is termed simply “terror” or “an act of mass murder,” but it’s clear to anyone with eyes in their head that it was perpetrated by a Muslim due to an extremist religious ideology, it paints all Muslims, including those in the United States, as the guilty parties. But if you say it was perpetrated by people who identify with radical Islam, you’re effectively saying there’s also a different kind of Islam, one that isn’t radical in its ideas and actions and doesn’t send murderers out to commit mass terror attacks.
Using the term “radical Islam” actually allows, at least in theory, but also in practice, nonradical or antiradical Muslims — and they are the majority — to come out against such murderous acts both ideologically and practically. And in fact many do so.
There are even people who claim it’s possible to convince some of those who support the radicals in principle to oppose committing such acts of terror. I’m not convinced this is possible, but there’s no reason not to try.
Nevertheless, this debate over the name conceals something much more fundamental. Failing to use the term radical Islam, and using terms like terror, murderous attacks and so forth instead, strongly implies that the main, if not only, way to fight this phenomenon is by force of arms. The president even detailed the recent successes, whether real or not, in the armed struggle against the Islamic State.
But this is an extremely fundamental mistake. Radical Islam, in all its various forms (Islamic State, Al-Qaida, the Taliban and their various satellites and imitators), is first and foremost an ideological movement that aspires to take over the entire world by force, while carrying out acts of genocide. Using military force against it is unavoidable, but it’s far from being sufficient. There’s no way to eliminate a movement like this without confronting its ideology. This must be done primarily by nonradical Muslims, and in fact it is being done in more than a few places. The non-Muslim world can help, of course, but it isn’t doing so.
Radical Islam is one of three murderous ideological movements — alongside Soviet Bolshevism and German Nazism — that tried or are trying to take over the world in the 20th and 21st centuries. There are undoubtedly huge differences between them, but there are also similarities. All three sought (or are seeking) absolute and murderous control over the entire world. All three were (or are) opposed in principle to any form of democracy, individual rights, freedom of expression and so forth. All three had (or have) religious or pseudo-religious worldviews that sentenced anyone who didn’t believe in them to death and/or hell; and all three turned against the Jews.
Nazism and radical Islam wanted (or want) to destroy every Jew in the world, while Stalinist Bolshevism, before the tyrant’s death, became extremely anti-Semitic. We ought to remember all this when we’re talking about radical Islam as well.
Yehuda Bauer is professor emeritus of history and Holocaust studies at Hebrew University.