The Linguistic Power Of The Term "Radical Islam"

The devastating mass shooting at Orlando's Pulse nightclub early Sunday morning, perpetrated by a man who expressed allegiance to ISIS, has renewed the linguistic debate among politicians over how we label acts of terror. The eruption of such ire surrounding word choice may be frustrating and infuriating to many who are struggling to come to terms with the concrete, vicious destruction of life that just took place. But words have power, and President Barack Obama's administration on Monday clarified, once again, why it refuses to label such acts as "Islamic" terrorism.

The clarification attempt comes amid presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's expression of willingness to use the term "radical Islamism," and Republican nominee Donald Trump's belligerent Twitter assertion that Obama should resign if he won't use the phrase "radical Islamic terrorism." The language we use to describe these acts of terror and the organizations that commit them is a matter of great importance to those on both sides of the argument. Here's why.

Politico reported White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest's remarks to reporters on Monday:

[Terrorist organizations] want to further this narrative that they represent Islam in a war against the West. That narrative is false. It is empty. It is a myth. In fact, most of the victims of these terrorist organizations are in fact innocent Muslim men, women, and children.
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For Obama and those who agree with him, labeling terrorist acts and organizations as "Islamic" grants them legitimacy as religious acts and groups, which, according to Obama, they do not merit. And doing so could fuel Islamophobic attitudes that threaten to further divisiveness and violence.

Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz served as very loud mouthpieces during the 2016 primaries for the idea that the term "radical Islamic terrorism" should — nay, must — be used because it accurately identifies the enemy, and using this term will be the difference between defeating the enemy and burning in a fiery hellscape of "radical Islamic terrorism." Cruz put it thus in a November interview with Fox's Sean Hannity:

The modern Democratic Party has a blindness to radical Islamic terrorism, and they've endangered the safety and security of this country ... We will not defeat radical Islam until we have a commander-in-chief that will say those words.

It is true that Cruz, Trump, and others in their camp generally include the qualifier "radical," avoiding overtly associating the entirety of Islam with the beliefs and actions of terrorist groups. But Trump revealed the hollowness of his own use of this qualifier in an interview with Bill O'Reilly. After saying Clinton only used the term on Monday because he has called her out for not doing so, Trump said Clinton's take on terror is preventing her from protecting the gay community, and women, too. He said on The O'Reilly Factor:

She talks a lot about [the gay community], and yet she'll allow people in that want to kill people from the community, from that community, and I think it's terrible. The same thing with women. They want to make women slaves, OK? ... She wants people coming in — she wants a 500 percent increase in people coming in from Syria that are radical Islamists, OK?
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Trump made no distinction between Muslims who are fleeing their countries due to violence and those who, under the pretense of Islam, perpetuate that violence.

And this grossly inaccurate, not to mention highly dangerous, conflation is one of the very reasons the Obama administration continues to avoid such labeling: the concern that doing so makes it easier for people like Trump to gloss over any qualifiers, and to designate a huge portion of the human race as "the enemy," when Muslims are the ones suffering most at terrorists' hands.