Are We Ready to Drop the Term “Islamist” in Reference to Terrorism?

Since the inception of the war on terror, there has been widespread disagreement on the best terminology to employ when discussing terrorism.
Bethan Johnson, Islamist terrorism, Christianist terrorism, Christian identity groups, far right terrorism, far right terrorism and Christianity, Christian values in far right thinking, terrorism terminology, Neil Basu counterterrorism, religious-based extremism

Metropolitan Police headquarters, London, UK © Victor Moussa / Shutterstock

July 24, 2020 10:23 EDT

On July 20, The Times released a report indicating that UK police held a forum to explore a request to change the terminology surrounding terror attacks now commonly defined as “Islamist.” The discussion, which included the head of Counter Terrorism Policing, Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu, and some 70 individuals with personal or professional experiences with terrorism, came as a result of the National Association of Muslim Police’s (NAMP) initial request for the abandonment of terms such as “Islamist” and “jihadi” on the grounds that they adversely impact public perceptions of the Muslim community.

Far-Right Terrorism Is Now Britain’s Fastest Growing Problem


Proposed alternatives to present terminology include “faith-claimed terrorism,” “adherents of Osama bin Laden’s ideology,” “terrorists abusing religious motivations” and “irhabi” — an Arabic term common in the Middle East to reference terrorists. The mere suggestion of a change has since sparked passionate debates online, which reveal a great deal about public perceptions of terrorism and how it is policed in the UK.

Finding the Right Words

As the initial report stated, according to the NAMP, the existing lexicon has contributed to Islamophobia, itself on the rise in recent years. Among the reported comments was one that noted how far-right terrorist Anders Breivik, whose 2011 attacks in Norway killed nearly 80 people, mostly children, and others have invoked Christian imagery relating to the Crusades, yet their attacks are not identified as “Christianist.” Presently, counterterrorism experts employ the terms “Islamist extremism,” “extreme right-wing” and “Northern Ireland-related” when discussing terrorist ideology.

News reports included lines such as “The police emphasized to The Times that the reform was not certain to go ahead,” and Chief Superintendent Nik Adams also stated that “We have no plans to change the terminology we use at present but welcomed the debate and contributions.” Yet within hours of the article going to print, news outlets around the world have covered the story, opinion pieces have been printed, and thousands of comments have been posted online arguing about the implications of a name change. Notably, many of the reasons against any alterations evidence troubling narratives circulating in society.

One of the most frequent points employed by critics of the proposal resides in the belief that “Islamist terrorism” and “jihadism” are the most fitting terms because they recognize the centrality of Islam to these group’s ideologies and motivations. A significant portion of comments agreed with the assessment that the current vocabulary may prove harmful to their Muslim neighbors and colleagues. Nevertheless, they claimed that, as terrorists justified their actions in relation to Islam, the description of their actions should be identified as such. Also, worryingly, in many instances, such arguments spiraled out to present Islam as an inherently or even uniquely violent religion. Some writers posted snippets of Islamic texts that appear to reference the use of terror or how to treat non-Muslims. Others responded to the news by arguing that Islam and democracy or its values are mutually exclusive.

Emblematic of others, one advised that the UK should establish “an enquiry into why so many Muslims become radical; terrorists; grooming gangs etc. The scriptures/teachings must be challenged, not terminology watered down.” Meanwhile, comments such as “As far as I’m aware, the Jews don’t have a section that advocates genocide of unbelievers. Neither do Christians, or Sikhs or the Hindus. Neither do the atheists. This is a uniquely Islamic problem” and “What other religion does this? Genuinely…which?” can be found repeated across the internet.

In particular, many commenters took issue with the National Association of Muslim Police’s observation about the double standard at play in failures to identify certain far-right terror attacks as linked to Christianity. Exemplifying arguments found repeatedly across various platforms, one widely-liked tweet argued that “We don’t talk about ‘Christianist’ terror because there’s no such Christian movement.” This narrative defies reality. As noted by some online, the Troubles in Northern Ireland had a clear sectarian Christian element, Catholic identity played a fundamental role in the Spanish Falangist movement, and the attacks on abortion clinics and providers by groups such as the Army of God were motivated by a particular view of Christianity. These are just the tip of the iceberg.

Christian Identity

The Christian identity movement has been in operation for upward of a century in the United Kingdom and around the world. Its vitriolic anti-Semitism and racism are rooted in an alternative interpretation of Biblical stories. In the United States, the iconic cross-burning of the Ku Klux Klan has served merely as a symbol of the organization’s long history of a particular racist Protestant theology, and the knights of the Ku Klux Klan’s party envisions the establishment of a “White Christian government.” Other groups known to have engaged or encouraged violence in relation to a hybrid Christian, racist ideology include White Aryan Resistance, Aryan Nations, The Order and the National Alliance.

Bible passages were cited as justification by the suspected perpetrators of both the Tree of Life and Poway synagogue shootings. Meanwhile, Anders Breivik’s manifesto shows his ideology to have been anchored in his interpretation of Christian beliefs. He viewed himself as part of a crusade against the multiculturalism he viewed to be destroying Christian European culture. Brenton Tarrant, whose two attacks in Christchurch killed more than 50 people last year, likewise published a manifesto with references to his as a crusade and citing quotations from Pope Urban II, who is widely considered to have orchestrated the First Crusade. One of the most famous neo-Nazi authors, James Mason — who has been of significant influence to extremist organization Atomwaffen Division — wrote a book linking Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” to the Bible.

The reality is that each of these groups uses or has used Christian symbols and religious writings to justify their violence and racist aspirations. They have also done so while claiming to be the true expression of Christianity. Literally hundreds of people have died, and many others been injured, at the hands of those claiming that they were acting in the name of Christian values.

While debates may and can be had about the fact that certain terrorist organizations do identify with terms such as “jihad” or self-identify as “jihadis,” and that, thereby, counterterrorism’s use of the term is merely mirroring terms on the ground, it is important not to claim that Christianity has no links to extremism and terrorism. This leaves aside arguments about the lack of violence perpetrated in the name of other religions, of which there are also ample examples.

PC Culture

The other potential worrying element to the critical narratives surrounding the proposal are those about why such a discussion happened. Hundreds of users have cited it as evidence that the UK has fallen victim to politically correct, or PC, culture. Charles Moore’s Telegraph opinion piece, for instance, implies this, linking Basu’s participation in this terminology discussion with his previous comments about media’s role in radicalization or about Boris Johnson’s comments likening women in niqabs to letterboxes. “You might think Mr Basu would eschew political or media disputations,” Moore observes. “Not so,” he goes on, before concluding that the name should not change and that “AC Basu should forget this elderly argument and get back to proper work.”

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Others take this to a greater extreme, viewing the news as a sign that the UK is now in the hands, or at the mercy, of dangerous ethnic and religious minorities, or that those in charge of counterterrorism policing are weak-willed, apathetic or even side with the terrorists. References to George Orwell’s “1984” abound.

“The police are now part of the Islamist problem,” one user wrote. “They have been extensively ‘Common Purposed’ and are riddled with fifth columnists.” Another asked: “Who is representing the majority white population of the UK? The majority is the least needy; the country revolves around minorities.” Frequently, Basu and other senior law enforcement officers, as well as politicians, are urged to quit or are called out by name as being unfit for service based on accusations that this discussion signals their pandering to the Muslim population.

At times, these accusations amount to declarations that a change to the terminology would make the UK less safe. Many claim that this discussion could be linked to the UK’s “grooming gangs.” As one user posited, this mentality was “the same sort of PC mindset that let child abuse rings thrive in this country.” While not often fleshed out, the apparent logic relies on the idea that a police force, unwilling to specifically name the nature of a terrorist’s ideology for fear of perceived discrimination, would also be less capable of policing and preventing crime.

Debates about the use of terms such as “jihad,” “Islamic” and “Islamist” are not new. Since at least the inception of the war on terror, law enforcement officers, scholars, media and community advocates have clashed over the best terminology to employ when discussing terrorism. As only one more moment in this ongoing dialogue, UK law enforcement’s discussion this summer is not yet set to change anything, and even if law enforcement changed its classification, this would by no means ensure a change in media reporting or popular vernacular.

Yet thousands of people took to the internet to express their opinions, and that fact must be viewed as significant. In particular, the rush to criticize the police for even entertaining such an idea, as well as the commonality in the rhetoric used to defend existing terms, is illuminating. They point to implicit (or potentially willful) blindness about who perpetrates terrorism in the name of religion, outright racism and Islamophobia, and genuine distrust of major government institutions. These reactions, in fact, implicitly reinforce the argument made by the National Association of Muslim Police that vocabulary does make a difference.

*[The Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right is a partner institution of Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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