The big problem with calling it 'radical Islam'

US President Barack Obama speaks on the Orlando shooting at the Treasury Department after convening with his National Security Council on June 14, 2016
US President Barack Obama speaks on the Orlando shooting at the Treasury Department after convening with his National Security Council on June 14, 2016

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Story highlights

  • John McWhorter: Critics who demand that President, others say "radical Islam" are missing the point
  • Semantics alone cannot effect change; we should expect better from ourselves than insults, he says

John McWhorter teaches linguistics, American studies, philosophy and music history at Columbia University and is the author of "The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)In the wake of the hideous murder spree in Orlando, Republicans are once again hating on Democrats for describing America as in a battle against terrorism rather than "radical Islam." Their charge displays, as it has in the past in response to similarly tragic incidents, a striking lack of maturity.

John McWhorter
Their gripe is that President Obama, Hillary Clinton, and others, in refusing to say we are battling radical Islam, are too caught up in political correctness to even call our enemies by name. Although in this case Clinton has said she's "happy" to call the gunman's actions "radical Islamism," she has also rightly noted, "From my perspective, it matters what we do more than what we say." And today, President Obama stated, "Calling a threat by a different name doesn't make it go away."
    Still, the right claims the two are ignoring the fact that a disproportionate number of men who perpetrate acts such as Mateen's are Muslims infuriated at the West.
    They assert further that as long as we say "radical Islam" rather than "Islam" alone, we are suitably specifying that we don't hate Muslims. But that isn't how it would appear to Muslims themselves, and -- if we break the language down to its structure and meaning -- they're right.
    In a sentence such as "We must eradicate radical Islam," the object of the verb eradicate is technically "radical Islam," yes, but the core object, the heart of the expression "radical Islam," is "Islam." Radical Islam is a kind of Islam. The object of the eradication in the sentence is "Islam," modified -- not redefined into something else -- by "radical."
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    That truth affects how one processes such a sentence. The adjective can come off as a kind of decoration -- it feels parenthetical, even when talking about something innocuous. Take the sentence, "I'm thinking about one of those juicy steaks." We process the speaker mainly as thinking about steak, not steaks with the particular quality of being juicy.
    We must take heed of such qualities of language, especially when the object in question is already loaded with pungent associations. Perhaps if Islam were something most of us had had little reason to think about, then qualifying its name with an adjective could qualify as neutral expression. "Restorationist Zoroastrianism" -- OK, maybe.
    But this is the real world. Let's face it: These days, most of us need reminding that Islam is a religion of peace. Human beings generalize; we harbor associations. In such a climate, it's particularly easy to interpret "radical Islam" as a summation of Islam in general. It's how many of us might guiltily hear it, and how many Muslims would process it. Certainly Islamist terrorists would: Of all the qualities one might attribute to them, subtlety of interpretation is not one of them.
    Suppose someone decided to battle "radical Christianity"? Note that whatever justifications that person offered along the lines of "We don't mean all Christians," they'd sound a little thin. Note also that in modern American English, "radical" can mean not only "extreme," but also, by extension, "genuine." After all, the "radical" Islamist considers himself to be the "true" Muslim just as the "radical" feminist might consider herself more devoted to her cause than someone who would shirk that label. Meanwhile, with the pop-culture exclamation "Rad!" thrown into the mix, there's an even finer line between its connotation "Amazing!" and the implication "That's the way it should be!"
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    There actually is room for terminological compromise here. "Radical Islam" is an unhelpful term because it sounds too much like "Islam" and has been used so much that it practically sounds like "Islam" alone at this point. However, one could get the point across with something like "violent Islam" as some have tried. "Violent Islam" actually sounds like a subset of Islam rather than the thing itself, and "violent" has no alternate connotation of "authentic," as "radical" does.
    It's important to stress, however, that semantics -- used one way or another -- will not change any terrorists' minds. Omar Mateen did not shoot up the Pulse because people said "radical Islam" instead of "Islam." Accounts of ordinary, seemingly secular Muslims mysteriously but implacably deciding to leave comfortable existences in Western Europe to join ISIS in Syria likewise make it plain that word choice will not win or lose this battle for us.
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    Rather, we must maintain the cognitive equipoise that refuses to revile members of a worldwide religion because of the actions of a small band of amoral true believers. In doing so, we are embodying a more enlightened worldview than ISIS and its sympathizers.
    We must resist overgeneralization -- a tendency hardwired into human nature -- not because we think it would have restrained an Omar Mateen, but because it makes us better human beings, and possible models for future ones. Virtue, Aristotle called it. And not in the sense of stalwartly refusing to call someone a dirty name a la Dudley Do-Right, but in the sense of cultivating personal excellence simply because, in the end, it's a perfect foundation for an existence, especially if as many people do it together as possible.
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    So, the indignant right-wing columnists who yearn for America to express a more direct, religiously inflected contempt for terrorists are missing the strength in what they misread as a sign of weakness. In saying we are battling "terrorists" rather than "radical Islam," we reveal ourselves as better than the barbarians who wish to harm us.
    The alternative that the right would prefer would be a nyah-nyah contest, what we might euphemistically call a competition in the distance one can cover via the act of urination. Make no mistake: I detest what people like Mateen do -- the mere thought of that man this week, for example, nauseates me. Neither Sykes-Picot, nor American support for Israel, nor brown skin, nor any other historical or present-day factor justifies actions like his. But that's why we must do better than they do, including in how we use language. I'm glad that many of us are.
    And I, for one, am not against using language that allows us to refer to the painfully obvious fact that so many of these attacks stem from a perversion of the doctrine of a particular religion. Those who feel that the mere observation of this reality constitutes racism or incivility carry their own burden of justification here.
    However, I highly suspect that the people who despise the President and Hillary Clinton for not saying "radical Islam" wouldn't be quite satisfied with "violent Islam." Why? Because it doesn't sound like an insult, and that would reveal, again, what these detractors are really seeking -- to win a competition, not to solve a problem. Like I said, we can -- and must -- do better than that.