An Islamic Terrorist by Any Other Name

An Islamic Terrorist by Any Other Name
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What should we call the vile killers of London, Manchester, Fort Hood, Boston, Nice, and Paris? For years, our leading politicians have danced gingerly around that question, preferring to call them simply “terrorists.” No modifiers.

The murderers among us have no such qualms. The last words 23-year-old Daniel O’Neill heard before a stranger plunged a 7-inch knife into his stomach a week ago was “This is for Islam.” Gerard Vowles saw three men stabbing a woman at the south end of London Bridge while yelling, “This is for Allah!”

The mainstream media, most academics, and fashionable intellectuals are deaf to those taunts. They resolutely ignore what the terrorists say repeatedly: They are killing in the name of Islam, as they interpret it, to achieve a religious goal, however depraved we think it is.

The stabbers, shooters, and bombers are the sharp end of a long spear. They are helped by bomb-makers, strategists, tactical planners, financiers, computer experts, and PR specialists who share the same extreme religious views and seek to impose them on everyone else. They say they want to kill infidels and apostates—and then they do. They say they want to impose their version of Sharia law on everyone, including faithful Muslims who do not share their vision. When they can, they do.

Their goal is a caliphate, a state that eliminates the hard-won Western distinction between the political and religious spheres. Their version of Islam suffuses every aspect of life—economic, social, and political—suffocating all that is secular and private. They say so explicitly, repeatedly, and unequivocally.

None of this is a secret, except in polite conversation among elites. They are the self-anointed language police.

Even after the London Bridge attack, England’s third in three months, Prime Minister Theresa May would only speak of “terrorists.” Her tone was tough, but she still would not name the radicalism that motivated all three attacks. She would say only, "There has been far too much tolerance of extremism across society."

Meanwhile, Her Majesty’s security services are overwhelmed by 500 active investigations, another 3,000 top-tier subjects of interest, and some 20,000 more one step lower on the priority list. These are not just extremists. They are a particular kind of extremist.

Why not call them what they plainly are--Islamic terrorists, or some equivalent name such as Islamist, Muslim extremist, or jihadis?

Faced with such blinding evidence, even left-wing publications are beginning to take off their blinders. After the latest attack, a lead article in Britain’s Guardian newspaper began, “Suspected Islamist terrorists are being prevented from returning to the U.K. for the first time.”

This kind of plain speaking is a welcome change.  Speaking clearly is the surest path to debating issues sensibly. Cloaking them in a fog of omissions and evasions is not.

“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity,” as George Orwell noted. “When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink. … But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” And so it has here, not with long words but with deliberate omissions, backed by social pressure. The evasions are worn proudly as badges of moral superiority.

There is a reasonable debate about whether saying “Islamic terrorism” actually helps in the fight against it. If the term so offended the neighbors of potential terrorists that they refused to help law enforcement, that’s a strong argument to avoid it. That was part of the Obama administration's thinking and that of every European government (although they have one additional consideration: the allegiance of a potential pool of voters). Unfortunately, their strategy has failed, and voters know it.

It has not only failed to prevent wanton slaughter in our streets, it deliberately falsifies the public discourse and has made it difficult to honestly discuss the religious dimension of modern terrorism, such as radical mosques promoting jihad or large-scale immigration from regions where Islamist ideologies are commonplace and religious tolerance reviled, along with other rejected Western values.

The delicate omissions suggested a line of political correctness that was improper to cross. It justified the evasions of politicians, national media, and intellectuals, as they refused to confront the deep cultural, social, and political divide between the most-isolated Muslim immigrant communities and the larger societies that hosted them. It also has prompted tens of millions of frustrated voters to back xenophobic candidates who offered simplistic solutions to problems the mainstream parties ignored.

In societies already riven by division—class, race, religion, education, and income—we should consider whether our descriptions make the problems worse. That’s why newspapers shouldn’t mention a bank robber’s race, much less his religion, unless it is relevant to the crime or helps capture the criminal.

That’s the case here. In attack after attack, from London Bridge to Charlie Hebdo, from the Bataclan theater to San Bernardino, the terrorists have made clear they were killing in the name of Allah. They shout it. They post it online. That's the whole point of their crime--and they say so. The point is not what their religion is. The point is that they are doing it for religious motives and come from communities where these dangerous, illiberal ideologies have spread, taken root, and pose real danger.

The fact that some people kill in the name of Allah and others openly support such acts (not only in social media but in poll after poll) should not besmirch the good name of their many fellow believers who are repulsed by such acts. We need language, then, that identifies the religious zeal of the terrorists without tarring their co-religionists.

Islamist (which is a shorter form of the earlier term, Islamicist), jihadi, Muslim extremist, or Muslim terrorist do that. They are clear, accurate, and not overly broad. They properly underscore the terrorists’ motives. They rightly exclude peaceful, law-abiding Muslims.

That separation is crucial because the fight to stop Islamic terror cannot be won without support from Muslim communities across Europe and North America. It cannot be won with evasions and half-truths, either. With so many innocents dead and so many more in the crosshairs, it's time now for plain language and a thoughtful discussion, tinged neither by bigotry nor political correctness.

RCP contributor Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, where he is founding director of PIPES, the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He blogs at and can be reached at

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