It is a ritual that has become all too familiar. A gunman claiming to act on behalf of Islam, or ISIS, or simply shouting “Allahu Akbar” murders numerous people. President Obama condemns the atrocity as workplace violence, extremist violence, or even terrorism, but studiously avoids using the terms “radical Islamic terrorism” or “jihad.” It then becomes a deeply partisan issue as conservative politicians and other commentators point this out, and argue that his failure to name radical Islamic terrorism for what it is reflects a fundamental failure of his policy for dealing with it. If he cannot even name it, he will never defeat it. Indeed, the whole matter has played out most sharply in the recent exchanges between Obama, Donald Trump, and Hillary Clinton after the tragic shooting in Orlando.
But does it really matter? Does this dispute identify a substantive issue, or is it useless wrangling over words or nothing more than a game of political ping-pong?
Let us think about this matter from the angle of a couple of analogies. Consider a Dr. who comes to the unfortunate conclusion that his patient has cancer. It is a serious case, but one that can be cured with the right treatment. Now why does it matter whether the Dr. calls it cancer, a word that is emotionally loaded and no one wants to hear, or just a more generic name such as a “very severe illness”? The answer is obvious. The treatment required to treat cancer is altogether different than what it takes to heal other diseases. The Dr. must give his patient an accurate diagnosis and let him know just what it will take to fight and defeat it. It may require surgery and/or various forms of chemotherapy administered in an aggressive and prolonged fashion. The patient needs to know what he is up against in order to embrace the required treatment and do everything necessary to be rid of it. The Dr. does no one any favors to skirt the issue or be vague about the disease and what it will require to achieve a cure.
Or consider an analogy from psychotherapy. A fundamental principle here is that healing cannot take place until the patient honestly names and owns the real issues at the heart of his struggles. If the deepest issue that is plaguing his mental health is an unacknowledged anger toward his father, he will not resolve his problems so long as he talks in general terms about his angry feelings or evades the real issue by talking about the pain he felt the day his dog died.
The point here is that an honest diagnosis of what we are facing must come to terms with the Islamic roots and motivation of many of the acts of terror that continue to wreak havoc in our world today. To be sure, the overwhelming majority of the world’s nearly two billion Muslims are not terrorists, and do not sympathize with ISIS and other radical groups. We have been reminded of that over and over every time there is an act of terror and most Americans are quick to acknowledge, and even insist upon that. We recognize that no religion should be defined in terms of its most radical adherents.
But here is the point. The same honesty that requires us to make clear that the large majority of Muslims are not terrorists also requires us to acknowledge that radical Islamic terrorism is very much a reality in many parts of our world. It cannot be denied that these terrorists draw their inspiration and motivation from an interpretation of Islam, and one that has had some notable adherents in Islamic theology and tradition (see Jean Betjke Elshtain, Just War Against Terror).
One reason many people are reluctant to acknowledge the radical Islamic component of terrorism, despite the fact that many of these terrorists themselves insist upon it, is because modern and postmodern people are skeptical of any religious explanation of human behavior. They doubt that religion is ever the real motive that accounts for human action. Post enlightenment skeptics are prone think the real explanation is political, or social, or economic, or psychological, or even broadly cultural, but never truly and distinctly religious. Religious explanations thus reduce to categories that we enlightened people find more intelligible and easy to manage. And no doubt there is some truth here. Even if we don’t go the whole way with the reductionist line, we may acknowledge that some of these factors are part of the explanation, and indeed are often connected and intertwined with the religious motivation.
But here is the crucial point that has to be understood: billions of people really do believe in God, and that includes Jews, Christians, Muslims, and many others. And doing the will of God is for them the most important thing in life. As hard as it is for many contemporary people to accept, for radical Islamic terrorists, doing the will of God involves killing “infidels” whether they be moderate Muslims, Christians, Jews, or secularists.
The practical problem here with failing to diagnose radical Islamic terrorism and correctly naming it is that we may think we can defeat it with the medicine of politics, or sociology or psychology or economics. If we think of it only in criminal terms we may imagine that we can deal with it as with any other crime, by passing and enforcing better legislation, particularly gun control laws. While all of these may be essential to a long term solution, any prescription that ignores the religious dimension or trivializes it has no hope of getting to the root of the matter.
Another reason it is sometimes suggested that we should not name radical Islamic terrorism is because it will only provoke moderate Muslims and inspire more of them to join the terrorists. This suggestion also fails completely to come to terms with the truly religious motivation of radical Islamic terrorism. Radical Islamic terrorists do not need our provocation to be motivated to engage in acts of terror. Their interpretation of their religion and their hatred of Israel and the West is all the motivation they need.
Moreover, to avoid the term out of fear of provocation only feeds their sense that the West is weak, and that they have the power to terrorize our lives. That is the sort of thing that attracts new recruits, and feeds the narrative that they are succeeding in their goal of global domination.
Even worse, the claim that calling radical Islam what it is will provoke moderate Muslims to radicalize is remarkably condescending to peaceful Muslims. Is their commitment to Islam as a peaceful religion so fragile that they can be so easily turned into radicals? Moderate Muslims themselves have a large interest in acknowledging radical Islam for what it is because that is essential to their concern to show that Islam is truly a religion of peace.
Radical Islamic terrorism is a particularly dangerous threat precisely because it is motivated by an interpretation of a major world religion, and this provides a far deeper and more powerful sort of true belief and zealous conviction than communism or Nazism could ever provide. The most ambitious secular empires could not pretend that joining their cause was doing something of truly transcendent significance with eternal rewards for a job well done.
We may persist in denying the reality of radical Islamic terrorism and calling it something else, with the noblest and most charitable of intentions. But we need clarity and honesty here, as well as good intentions. And that requires both a correct diagnosis of what is wrong and a forthright naming of what it is.