Should we call it 'radical Islam'?

Story highlights

  • John McWhorter says using the term "radical Islam" risks besmirching a peaceful religion and accomplishes nothing
  • He says President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are right to avoid it, despite GOP criticism

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)Republicans who despise Democrats such as Hillary Clinton for describing America as in a battle against "terrorism" rather than "radical Islam" need to get out of the sandbox. Their charge is, at heart, childish.

John McWhorter
The gripe is that Clinton, President Barack Obama 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. The further implication is that our leaders' reluctance to directly call out our enemies stems from not truly considering them culpable -- i.e., believing that the West had it coming.
No. The complainants think 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 for understandable reasons.
    In a sentence such as "We must eradicate radical Islam," the object of 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 by "radical."
    That affects how one processes such a sentence -- the adjective can come off as a kind of decoration. "I'm thinking about one of those juicy steaks" -- note how we process the person mainly as thinking about steak, not steaks with the particular quality of being juicy. The "juicy" feels parenthetical.
    We must take heed of such things 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 would qualify as neutral expression. Restorationist Zoroastrianism -- OK.
    But this is the real world. Let's face it: That Islam is a religion of peace, as George W. Bush stressed after 9/11, is something most of us need reminding of. Humans generalize; we harbor associations. In such a climate, "radical Islam" is especially prone to sounding like 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 of the qualities one might attribute to them, subtlety is not one of them.
    But we need not exoticize them on this. Suppose someone decided to battle "radical Christianity"? Note that whatever the justifications along the lines of "We don't mean all Christians," they'd sound a little thin -- especially given that in some minds, "radical" suggests authenticity.
    It must be stressed, however, that our euphemism will not change any terrorists' minds.
    We can be sure no Muslim's decision to join ISIS is going to be affected by our refraining from calling out "radical Islam." Accounts of even ordinary, burgherly Muslims mysteriously but implacably deciding to leave comfortable existences in Western Europe to join ISIS in Syria make it plain that semantics will be useless in this battle.
    Rather, we must euphemize for ourselves. In maintaining the cognitive equipoise that refuses to revile members of a worldwide religion because of the actions of a small band of amoral true believers, we are demonstrating that we are more enlightened than ISIS and its sympathizers.
    We are the humans who can lay claim to being ahead of the curve, as truly progressive, as truly, in the philosophical sense, free. We must resist benighted overgeneralization -- which is hardwired into our cognition -- not because we think it would have restrained an Abdelhamid Abaaoud, but because it makes us better humans, and possible models for future ones.
    Virtue, Aristotle called it. And not in the sense of stalwartly refusing a la Dudley Do-Right to call someone a dirty name, 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.
    So, the indignant right-wing columnists who yearn for America to express a more direct contempt for ISIS are missing that we can do that via exactly the euphemism they read as a sign of weakness. In saying we are battling "terrorists" rather than "radical Islam," we reveal ourselves as better than the barbarians.
    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. In effect, the right wants us to basically hurl the f-word at ISIS, because then ... we'd be showing that we're ... proud, which ...
    Come on: it's just testosterone and boys being boys. I detest ISIS and anybody who joins it, viscerally. No history, legacy or alienation justifies anything ISIS does. But that's why we must do better than them, including in how we use language. I'm glad our leaders are, and so should the rest of us.