NY Times Says Phrase 'Radical Islam' Is 'Offensive...Has Taken on Darker Connotations'

June 17th, 2016 4:40 PM

On the front of Friday’s New York Times, reporter Damien Cave profiled the city victimized by an Islamic terrorist hrough the eyes of a Muslim trauma doctor who helped treat the victims: “Orlando United: American City of Many Flags.” Cave’s reporting is notoriously hypersensitive to alleged racism on the part of Republicans, so it’s no surprise that he allowed his heroic Muslim doctor subject to attack both Donald Trump and American intolerance. And Max Fisher made a second attempt to explain why talking about “radical Islam” is misleading: "Why do some consider it offensive? Over time, 'radical Islam' has taken on darker connotations. Mr. Trump, according to Mr. Hamid of Brookings, 'invested these words with new meaning.'"

When Dr. Joseph Ibrahim heard that the attack at the Pulse nightclub may have been linked to terrorism, he caught himself fearing any kind of link to his own Muslim, Middle-Eastern roots.


In the days that followed, he said, he heard many arguments for “taking the country back” and keeping out Muslims. It was mostly on talk radio, as he drove to work for surgery. And while the hosts focused on Mr. Mateen’s father, Dr. Ibrahim contemplated his own dad, an immigrant from Egypt, who married an American and practiced medicine in Tennessee.


But Dr. Ibrahim said what he heard was mostly an appeal to ignorance and fear...

Also in Friday’s edition, Max Fisher, the paper’s new “Interpreter,” was at it again, attempting to explain away radical Islamic terror. The Times promises to use the “Interpreter” space to put events in context for us dummies: “The Interpreter is a new column that explores the ideas and context behind major world events.”

This is Fisher’s second attempt (after his debut piece Wednesday) to explain why the phrase “radical Islam” is misleading. For one, the photo caption emphasized: “Islam is a 1,500-year-old religion whose 1.6 billion followers around the world observe a spectrum of customs and traditions.” “When a Phrase Takes On New Meaning: ‘Radical Islam,’ Explained” was 1,800 words of expertly evading the obvious about Islamic terrorism.

It was nearly 18 months ago, shortly after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, when a reporter for National Public Radio, Mara Liasson, observed at a White House press briefing that President Obama and his aides had “bent over backwards” to avoid using the phrase “radical Islam.” The press secretary, Josh Earnest, said this was because “these terrorists are individuals who would like to cloak themselves in the veil of a particular religion,” opening a debate over the phrase that has taken on new rancor amid the massacre in Orlando.

“In his remarks today, President Obama disgracefully refused to even say the words ‘Radical Islam,’ ” Donald J. Trump said in a statement within hours of when Omar Mateen killed 49 people at a gay nightclub and invoked the Islamic State in a 911 call. “For that reason alone, he should step down.”


What does “radical Islam” even mean and why has it become so controversial? Is this argument just semantics, or does it go deeper?

Fisher found conservatives’ use of the term suspicious and somewhat sinister.

The words, absent political context, could be read as trying to distinguish fringe interpretations of Islam, including justifications for violence, from the mainstream majority view, which is peaceful. But that context -- including who shouts the phrase and who studiously avoids uttering it -- has ladened it with pernicious meaning in particular quarters.

Shadi Hamid, a scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said that before the controversy began, he did not use the phrase “radical Islam” much, but neither did he find it overly objectionable. After two years of politicization, though, Mr. Hamid and other analysts say the phrase has worrisome connotations, potentially maligning all Muslims or Islam itself.

“Why would you feel such a need to use this particular combination of words, when the vast majority of us agree that this is terrorism and that it should be stopped or countered?” he asked. “These terms are being used as dog whistles.”


Republicans who invoke “radical Islam” seem to be trying to telegraph certain arguments about Muslims, political correctness, and the United States’ failure to stop the march of extremist groups across the Middle East. At the same time, Democrats who reject it are also making a political statement, one touching on Islamophobia and inclusiveness.

He eventually got around to why there might be cause for concern about “radical Islam,” with or without scare quotation marks.

Throughout late 2014, as the group, also known as ISIS and ISIL, conquered much of Iraq in a campaign of shocking violence, Americans struggled to discern what role, if any, religion played in its ideology. Because only 38 percent of Americans personally know someone who is Muslim, according to a 2014 Pew poll, most have little firsthand knowledge to go on.

Mr. Obama, then and now, has tried to separate the terrorists from Islam, urging tolerance of Muslims in the United States and abroad.


Republicans slammed him for either ignorance or a misplaced sense of political correctness. In part because the president refused to use it, the phrase “radical Islam” became a shorthand for everything he would not say about ISIS, and therefore, a way to accuse him of privileging sensitivity over forthrightness when discussing the threat the group posed.

In its simplicity, the phrase reframes the daunting, confusing litany of problems that contribute to terrorism -- faraway failed states, complex ideologies, a prevalence of guns -- as something much easier to understand.


Why do some consider it offensive?

Over time, “radical Islam” has taken on darker connotations. Mr. Trump, according to Mr. Hamid of Brookings, “invested these words with new meaning.”

Fisher finally admitted:

But it is impossible to understand the Islamic State’s ideology and recruiting power without acknowledging the role of religious beliefs that, while rejected by the overwhelming majority of Muslims, are often earnestly held.

But more evasions of the obvious followed:

So is ‘radical Islam’ accurate or not?

When I asked Mr. Hamid this, he countered with a different question. Given how many labels already exist to describe terrorists that draw on Islam, why insist on this one?

He listed several -- “radical jihadists, Salafis, Islamist extremists, jihadis, jihadi-Salafists” -- none of which, he said, carry the baggage of “radical Islam.”

But if it’s that baggage that repels scholars, it may also be what draws others. “Radical Islam” has come to imply certain things about issues that are closer to home than abstract terrorist ideology: political correctness, migration, and the question of who belongs.


In every case, the debate is framed as one of pluralism versus security. Pinning terrorism on “multiculturalism” or non-secularism or foreign values or “radical Islam” all portray inclusiveness as somehow threatening and exclusiveness as safer.