In light of the recent attacks in Paris, Beirut, and Baghdad, the discussion surrounding the term radical Islamic terrorism has been enlivened with a newfound sense of urgency. In the November 14th Democratic debate, the candidates were asked point blank whether they would describe the War on Terror as a war on radical Islam. The candidates were notably reluctant to use the term radical Islam and avoided using it altogether. Already, the blogosphere is alight with talk that the candidates are setting themselves up to fail in a general election. Remarkably few articles have pondered the alternative: perhaps the Presidential candidates, both the Republicans and the Democrats, have not done enough to denounce the term radical Islam terrorism.
On first glance this may seem like a petty squabble over semantics. But as readers of the Boston Globe know, words matter quite a bit. There is a reason after all that so many word leaders use the term Daesh instead of ISIS. As candidates on both sides of aisle have pointed out, our ability to prevail against Daesh hinges in large part upon our ability to cobble together an international coalition. While the European states are undeniably important to such a coalition, it will be virtually impossible to defeat Daesh without the aid of our Middle Eastern allies. By and large, these states are opposed to any language that conflates Islam and terrorism. Just ask Kerry—if he got a nickel every time he said Daesh instead of ISIS, he’d have enough money to run for President again. Whether or not the candidates will admit it, respecting the interests of our coalition partners is integral to preserving the coalition against Daesh. Using inflammatory language will place even greater pressure on the fault lines of a coalition that is equal parts fractured and fragile.
To some degree the debate about whether or not we ought to use the term radical Islamic terrorism reflects our tendency to think of these terrorists as Muslims. Granted, no candidate has had the audacity to publicly assert that these terrorists are representative of Islam as a whole or that Islam is inherently violent. However, a number of candidates insist that these terrorists are “bad Muslims.” While the intent is probably benign, to even consider these terrorists Muslim grants them undeserved legitimacy. Putting aside the fact that experts all around the world agree these terrorists are not Muslim, it is important to understand that Daesh needs to be perceived as Islamic in order to attract recruits.
Hokey as it may sound, the terrorists win if they are considered Muslim. There is a reason they call themselves the Islamic State and not Daesh. Refusing to consider them Muslim helps deprive them of legitimacy, and that may be just as important as destroying their military strongholds, if not more so. After all, Daesh does not lack for potential recruits. Prior to the rise of Daesh, conservative estimates placed the civilian death toll of the War on Terror at 210,000 and the rise of Daesh has only escalated the War on Terror. Assuming these victims are survived by their families, there are plenty of aggrieved family members that might be inclined to support Daesh despite their penchant for brutality, not to mention the countless Muslims that have been subject to discrimination all throughout the Western world on account of their faith.
Fortunately, many Americans already seem to recognize the error in associating violent extremists with a particular religion. There may be no better example of this than the reluctance of Americans to associate the Klu Klux Klan with Christianity. While the KKK and Daesh are by no means identical, it is important to remember that the KKK considered themselves Christian. Perhaps more importantly, they saw themselves as the defenders of Christianity and often invoked the Christian faith as a recruiting tool. They were rightly denounced by Christian organizations all across the spectrum, just as Daesh is rightly denounced by Muslim organizations all across the spectrum. While we still have a long ways to go before the term radical Islamic terrorism falls out of favor, it is important we recognize the consequences of our words and the significance of those words.
Edward Rickford is a senior at GWU studying history and political science. He spends his free time wishing he had