Amorphous Names Like “Radical Islamic” and the “War on Terror” Make Too Little Sense


What are people supposed to call this violent surge? What is its name? What are people in fact calling it? Hillary Clinton was right to reject the rubric “Radical Islam.” She said that her preferred term is “jihadist,” the idea being that bringing the word or name “Islam” into the mix does nothing but aggravate misunderstandings and inflame tensions in such a way as to contribute to and radicalize the very crisis at hand.

You see this use of the term “jihadist” in reporting at the New York Times. It’s sharp and to the point. It names “the enemy,” if that’s what you want to call it, as a particular form of ideology indigenous, as a linguistic form, to the Islamic-Sunni world.

In contrast, “Islam,” even with the modifier “radical Islam” is simply too broad a swath and means too much to too many people. An idea, a practice, an ordinary thing, as it were, it’s not really a proper name. One would be right to suspect that the term “radical Islam” intentionally or unintentionally feeds into the notion that all Islam is “radical” and violent at its root.

One could argue for similar reasons against the moniker “war on terrorism,” which, like “radical Islam” is so broad and amorphous as to augment the very sense of dread that jihadist terror feeds upon, precluding direct or effective action against it. The more precise phrase might be “war on ISIS.” The idea would be to drive a wedge between ISIS and anything having to do with the varieties of mainstream Islam.

The basic point is to stay calm in order to keep as clear an analytic focus on what it is that “we” are up against, “we” understood in the most capacious and open liberal sense of the word, meaning “everyone” together.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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1 Response to Amorphous Names Like “Radical Islamic” and the “War on Terror” Make Too Little Sense

  1. dmf says:

    yeah, let’s stick to what particular people are doing.

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