Monday, April 02, 2007

Bloggers who abusively invoke "Islam"

Today, it appears that politics has once more touched the hallowed halls of Language Log Plaza. Unfortunately, while one post was good, the other was devoted to criticising what looks like an eminently sensible - if unlikely to be followed - EU recommendation that, among other things, the term "Islamic terrorism" be replaced in EU discourse by "terrorists who abusively invoke Islam", and the term "jihad" not be used in reference to terrorist acts. This should be an absolute no-brainer. The likes of Al-Qaeda wrongly describe their own terrorist acts as jihad in order to make them appear legitimate to other Muslims; for Western governments to publicly accept this characterisation is about as sensible as it would be for Muslim critics of Bush to start losing no opportunity to call him a true American patriot, or a stalwart defender of democracy and freedom.

Bill Poser seeks to justify the term "Islamic terrorism" by saying that "Dozens of terrorists have explicitly said that they are Muslims and that their motivation was Islam. Moreover, there is clearly widespread support among Muslims for terrorism." He then lists a table of responses across selected Muslim countries to the question of whether "suicide bombings against civilians are sometimes or often justified". Slightly expanding that table might have modified his conclusion. In the US, it turns out, "only 46 percent of Americans think that "bombing and other attacks intentionally aimed at civilians" are "never justified," while 24 percent believe these attacks are "often or sometimes justified."". The loonier fringes of the blogosphere are rife with the sorts of idiots who would be happy to describe themselves as patriots motivated by patriotism and who support the mass killing of Muslim civilians. So by Bill Poser's reasoning, Americans' killings of Muslim or Muslim-looking civilians ought to be termed "patriotic terrorism" (626 ghits.) Of course, such a term is extremely unlikely to be used, because, given the sensible general view that such crimes are unpatriotic, the term's only function would be either to attack the whole notion of US patriotism by tarring it with the "terrorism" brush, or to promote the idea of terrorism by wrapping it in the flag. Calling the terrorism of groups like al-Qaeda "Islamic" fulfills precisely the same two functions - and no government should be in the business of promoting either of the resulting noxious ideologies.

Update: Bulbul, whose blog is always worth reading, has put up a good response to this issue.


bulbul said...

As far as Poser is concerned, I'm 100% there with you, Lameen. I even wrote to him and I was thinking about publishing my response on my blog. I was essentially arguing the same point as you are, only much less clearly. So there, no need to flood the blogosphere :o)

Anonymous said...

Poser is usually a sharp-minded commentator, but for some reason he doesn't seem to get it this time. Not only does he confuse people who claim that they represent Islam with people who actually do represent Islam and not only does he confuse people who support terrorism with actual terrorists. He also confuses what the Telegraph claims the EU has said with what the EU has actually said. The phrase "terrorists who abusively invoke Islam" does not appear in any official or publicly available statement of any EU institution and no-one who has quoted this phrase in the last six months (and many people have quoted it) cites any source. In fact, if there is a scandal here, it is that the EU word list (which really does seem to exist) is secret, so nobody really knows what words are included and what specific paraphrases are suggested. Poser's uncritical acceptance of the Telegraph story is the most surprising aspect to me, given how critical the Language Loggers are generally of the press -- especially the British press.

Anonymous said...

Great post, though the things you say should not have to be said!



Languagehat said...

I agree, and I too wrote to Bill to say so. I'll be interested to see if he adds a response to the post.

John Cowan said...

I agree in general, but who are these people who actually do represent Islam? We are talking about 1/6 of the world's population here, and not even organized into a formal hierarchy of any sort (unlike Catholic Christians, say).

Anonymous said...

John, you're right, of course. I was speaking very loosely when I talked about people actually representing Islam (or any other religion). I guess I was thinking of those people who are sincere in their beliefs and who practice their religion in accordance with generally accepted interpretations of their respective religious texts. In my experience, these people are in the majority regardless of the specific religion they follow. There are two problems, of course. First, it is true that there are significant minorities in many Muslim communities who accept or condone terrorist acts committed in the name of Islam. However, that acceptance is not grounded in their religion but rather in their resentment against America and perhaps in a general rejection of Western values. Second, it is part of the nature of religions that they are easily abused for political purposes. Every major religion (except Buddhism, perhaps) has been and is being abused in this way. The fundamental irrationality of all religions means that any religion must draw very strict demarcation lines to all other religions because once you start comparing faith systems you notice how arbitrary they are. This means that a certain amount of intolerance is part of any religion. However, that does not justify the expression "Islamic terrorism" any more than it would justify expressions like "Christian carpet bombing (of Baghdad)", "Jewish occupation (of Lebanon)", or "Hindu invasion (of Pakistan)" (even though, according to Poser's logic, they are all fine as long as you interpret the adjectives as non-restrictive).

Anonymous said...

A good and necessary critique. I saw nothing in Poser's post that justified his claim that the EU is "linguistically ignorant". I guess we'll have to leave his use of "politically correct" for another time.

I wrote about the phrase "Islamic terrorism" when it was mentioned at the EU last May:

Anonymous said...

(followed a link from Language Log)

How do you decide that terrorists "abuse" Islam without defining a correct use, and why should your definition have more intrinsic value than that of a Muslim (or non-Muslim) who thinks Islam justifies violent Jihad against infidels?

I myself am willing to be inclusive in delimiting a religious group. The Ahmaddiya say they are Muslim, so they are. If Sufis have a long tradition of seeing themselves as Muslim, I'm not going to define them out. But that cuts both ways - Islamic terrorists and their supporters *do* call themselves Muslim, and *do* see their Islam as justifying their deeds.

Many people, Muslim and otherwise, make noble efforts to combat this extremism. In the mean time, I think your effort to simply define (whitewash?) your extremists out of existence smacks of the 'no true Scotsman' fallacy (

Languagehat said...

anonymous: You're missing the point. The terrorists can call themselves "Islamic" all they want; for us to speak of "Islamic terrorism" is both to accept their terms and to insult the many millions of Muslims who reject terrorism. Again, we don't speak of "Christian terrorism" in the US even when we're talking about self-proclaimed Christians.

(Still no response from Bill, I see.)

Anonymous said...

We can't call it "Arab terrorism" because some suicide terrorists are Pakistani or Indonesian.

We can't call it "Middle Eastern" terrorism, for the same reason, and also because we don't see members of particular middle-eastern nation states participating in suicide bombing and home-video taped head-chopping. (e.g. Israel)

And now, post 7/7 we see Englishmen blowing themselves up on trains as well.

What's the common link then? Because it's not "Religous Terrorism" in a general sense. (There are no Christians or Jews making head-chopping videos and blowing themselves up.) Any suggestions? It's easy to poo-poo a term. How about coming up with something better?

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

A number of interesting comments; thanks.

The '"no true Scotsman" fallacy' mentioned above is irrelevant (neither I nor the alleged EU document claimed that terrorists are ipso facto not Muslims, and indeed all schools of Islam except the Kharijites agree that someone who disobeys the prescriptions of Islam may in many cases nonetheless be a Muslim), but it's irrelevant in a mildly interesting way. A term like "Scotsman" is primarily defined by purely descriptive criteria (birthplace, ancestry...) and the fallacy described consists of illegitimately supplementing this definition with prescriptive elements. But a term like "Muslim" is primarily defined by prescriptive criteria; a Muslim should believe such and such and act in such and such a way, and to the extent that s/he does not, s/he is a less good example of a Muslim than someone who does. Defining a Muslim as "anyone who calls themselves Muslim" may be convenient to people uninterested in the whole issue, but certainly not to anyone who takes the idea of Islam at all seriously. I'm not a Buddhist, but if I heard a self-described Buddhist urging people to devote all their energy to pursuing their desires, I would not be inclined to agree that this person was a real Buddhist.

Anonymous said...

"I don't think it's the blowing themselves up that people are objecting to; it's the blowing others up. And Christians and Jews are doing that much more successfully than Moslems."

This is empirically false.

Anonymous said...

1. I don't think the descriptive / prescriptive matters here so much - after all, *who* prescribes whether terrorists are Muslim? They certainly think scripture supports their deeds, and it's hardly obvious to me that it doesn't. I do not think you can arrogate unto yourself the prescriptive authority . When millions of Middle Eastern Muslims say Islam does sanction suicide attacks against the US / Israel, we can and should try to change the understanding of Islam implied, but in the mean time, it is certainly not epistemically honest to claim they are wrong and "untrue" simply because you say they are wrong. At least not unless you also say some imam somewhere can decide whether Ahmaddiya or Bahai or Sufi are Muslim. I certainly don't think *governments* ought to be in the business of deciding who a 'true' Muslim is.

2. Even assuming your / moderare / modern/ enlightened definition of Islam, unlike all others, is right, there is something distasteful about the notion that the violation of prescriptive rules can automatically expell someone from Islam. By that logic, Muslims don't commit murder, because any murderer is not in fact a real Muslim. I remain unconvinced your linguistic casuistry isn't, in effect, defining the problem of Islamic terrorism away.

3. In 'Muslim terrorism', Muslim modifies terrorism, not vice versa. That is, you are talking about terrorists motivated by their Islam. It in no way implies all Muslims are or support terrorists. It is, after all, okay to talk about American Imperialism in the Middle East, even if in fact most Americans today actually oppose Dubya on Iraq.

Anonymous said...

OK, so the other anonymous poster's definition of "Muslim" as "self-identified Muslim" is not perfect (e.g. the person could be lying), but for someone outside the Muslim community, what's a better definition? I've heard many Muslims say that bin Laden-type terrorists are "not true Muslims," but I'm sure that there are also many terrorists who would say that those who are opposed to the suicide bombings in Iraq are "not true Muslims" either.

In general, what's an outsider to do if group A says, "people in group B are not true Muslims (or Christians, Jews, etc), but we are," and people in group B say the exact same thing about group A? On what principled ground can an atheist dispute that bin Laden is a Muslim?

To take an example that is probably less emotionally charged: I'm happy calling the current Chinese government "communist" as a matter of convenience, since they insist in good faith that they are communist -- if we don't accept this label, I worry that we would just lapse into an endless debate about "What would Lenin think about President Hu?" and things like that. (And who's definition of "communist" should I accept? Trotsky's? Fidel Castro's? Chairman Mao's?)

Anonymous said...

(Another person coming here from Language Log...)

I find myself both agreeing and disagreeing with your post. Let me cover the disagreement first.

If the terrorists in question are from Muslim families (or are converts) and claim to be devout Muslims and -- most importantly -- claim that their actions are motivated first and foremost by and for Islam, then it is probably reasonable to use a religious label to describe them.

Of course, if the primary motivation is not religion, then it is misleading and wrong to label the terrorists with their relgion. Referring to terrorist acts by Hamas as "Islamic" terrorism is inaccurate and misleading, just as it would be to refer to, say, Los Macheteros as "Christian" terrorists. (More accurate labels would be "Palestinian" or "Palestinian nationalist" in the first case and "Puerto Rican"/"Puerto Rican nationalist" in the second.) But it would be more accurate to describe groups like Al Qaeda as "Islamic" and American abortion-clinic bombers as "Christian," since both groups claim their religion as their motivation.

(The phrase "Christian terrorist" actually gets about 37,000 ghits, more than "Basque terrorist" or "Irish terrorist"; there's even a Wikipedia entry for "Christian terrorism," for whatever that's worth. The relative absence of the phrase from mainstream US media discussions of, for example, abortion-clinic attacks is more an indication of bias and hypocrisy in US media than it is of a desirable norm to aspire to.)

If your desire is the (ostensibly laudible) one of not associating negative characteristics with large, diverse groups of people, it's not clear where you should stop. After all, terms like "Basque terrorist" or "Protestant Irish terrorist", or "communist terrorist" or "right-wing terrorist", are just as objectionable if they are assumed to somehow imply that a majority of X are terrorist, where X is the ethnic group or political movement in question. But such terms are in common use, and it's hard to see how one would avoid using them.

As for agreeing: I think you were absolutely right to call Bill Poser on his rather crude attempt to extend his argument along the lines of "Oh, and look, lots of Muslims approve of terrorism." That's a different argument entirely, and one which suggests he's got some kind of anti-Muslim axe to grind.

Anonymous said...

OK. So some Sunnis suicide bomb a mostly Shia market, and a Shia death squad retaliates by pulling random Sunnis out of their homes and shooting them in the back of their head. And this purposeful terror is in no way related to Islam. To call these acts of terror "Islamic" in nature would be tantamount to "taking the terrorists at their word". Right.

Anonymous said...

3. In 'Muslim terrorism', Muslim modifies terrorism, not vice versa. That is, you are talking about terrorists motivated by their Islam. It in no way implies all Muslims are or support terrorists. It is, after all, okay to talk about American Imperialism in the Middle East, even if in fact most Americans today actually oppose Dubya on Iraq.

I disagree. The term "Islamist" exists, and IMHO it should be used for "someone who uses Islam as a political ideology". (Whether this is an abuse, a correct use, or the only correct use doesn't matter here; there's no True Scotsman problem.)

Likewise, it is not OK to call the Iraq war "American imperialism". The term "Bushevik" exists (and has very interesting connotations, unlike "Reaganite").

Importantly, "Christianist" (which designates the use of Christianity as a political ideology) has 153,000 ghits, even though the 2nd hit mentions there were only 631 in May 2005.

Anonymous said...

The desire for direct and appropriate language that illuminates a subject rather than obscures it the way political correctness does is an admirable trait, and perhaps the only motive we should assign to Bill Poser's Language Log post.

The further we dig into this discussion, the more convoluted and knotted the original issue becomes. What possible objective criteria can be offered to define a true Muslim, Christian, Hindu, or Jew? Religious categories are, if anything, exactly the sort of constructs that allow any individual the right to name himself and not be challenged. People who commit violent, self-defeating acts routinely claim allegiance to higher principles and the world at large usually speaks of them in some convenient (if distorted) shorthand--rebel, martyr, freedom fighter, terrorist, lunatic, patriot, mutineer, etc. The label, of course, depends on the speaker's perspective, and can be disputed by various factions within the local society and beyond.

I have no trouble with the term "Islamic terrorism" (or, if it helps, "Islamist terrorism") any more than I do talking about a "Christian martyr." To argue that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed "abusively invokes Islam" does the same damage to plain, direct communication that it would to speak of Saint Stephen as hallucinating while being randomly stoned.

Anonymous said...

I would prefer to call them "Neo-Kharijite terrorists".

Anonymous said...

Apologies for necro-ing an 9-year-old post, but… After listening to clips from a Donald Trump rally in 2016, I started thinking about this post (or at least some post that convinced me 9 years ago, by equating the phrase "Islamic terrorist" with "American patriot carpet bombing", to show how ridiculous the former was).

Anyway, Trump has attacked Ted Cruz's plan to carpet bomb the ISIS-held territories—not for the sensible reason that doing so would almost certainly mean killing the people we're supposedly trying to save while having very little effect on our enemies, but because it doesn't go far enough. We also need to threaten nukes, and kidnap and torture terrorists and kill their families, and force the Europeans and Russians to send in ground troops against their will, and pick sides with unsavory local forces to defeat even more unsavory ones (but not the same ones that Hillary picked, of course). USA! USA! USA!

And if you look at the support for Cruz plus the support for Trump, I think it's pretty clear that there are many millions of Americans who consider themselves patriots, and consider carpet bombing of random Muslims to be a patriotic imperative.

I think this means that it is valid to refer to "American patriot carpet bombing". And that makes me think maybe it is, and has been, valid to refer to "Islamic terrorists".

Of course there are hundreds of millions of Muslims who are horrified at what's being done in the name of an abuse of their ideals. There are, likewise, hundreds of millions of American patriots who would be horrified at Ted Cruz's plan being carried out in their name, driven by an abuse of their ideals. But Cruz and Trump and their supporters call themselves patriots, and are significant enough that to ignore their understanding (even if it's a virulent misunderstanding) of American patriotism and dismiss it out of hand is not just unwarranted, but dangerous.

I know some people are uncomfortable with "Islamic terrorism" because it somehow implies that any Muslim who doesn't stop the terrorists is complicit in what they do, and deserves whatever punishment the West metes out. But I don't see how it implies that. If Americans fail to stop Cruz from getting elected and carpet-bombing northern Iraq, that doesn't mean that aliens would be justified in vaporizing all Americans, does it? That way of thinking is, in fact, exactly what characterizes both the terrorists and the Trump and Cruz followers, as opposed to the sane Muslims and sane American patriots!

So, why is "Islamic terrorism" different from "American patriotic carpet bombing"? This post convinced me that there is no difference, and therefore we shouldn't use the term "Islamic terrorism". For the same reasons, I now believe there is no difference, and we should use the term "Islamic terrorism". If Cruz gets elected and carpet-bombs northern Iraq, we should call that "American patriot carpet bombing". In fact, even if Clinton gets elected and merely continues the Bush-Obama policies, we should call that "American patriot drone murders". If that makes millions of American patriots uncomfortable—well, good, because it should.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

I can see that argument, as long as you're consistent: both or neither. But the situations are less comparable than that in reality. Cruz can only be elected by the active choice of a majority of American voters; if you're an adult American, you have a say in whether he makes it into office. But being a Muslim, adult or otherwise, doesn't give you the slightest say on whether some jerk in Raqqa or Brussels or wherever decide to kill a bunch of civilians; the only folks who get a say on that are ones crazy enough to have joined ISIS (or whatever) in the first place.