Last week a debate erupted over how “Islamic” the so-called “Islamic State” group (ISIS or ISIL) in Syria and Iraq is, and whether it is legitimate to speak of “Islamic” terrorism. It was provoked in part by a Graeme Wood article in The Atlantic and President Obama’s speech to a conference on Combating Violent Extremism. Obama was slammed by former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani as allegedly not loving America, in part because he declined to speak of “Islamic” terrorism. On Sunday, former deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz, interviewed on CNN’s State of the Union show, called Obama’s refusal to use the phrase “Islamic terrorism” “silly,” saying, “I think people understand that Islam has something to do with what we’re fighting, and when you deny it, you lose a lot of support.” This debate is actually about what philosophers call “essentialism,” and, as Giuliani’s and Wolfowitz’s own interventions make clear, it is about absolving the United States for its own role in producing the violent so-called “Caliphate” of Ibrahim al-Baghdadi.
The question of phraseology is easily dealt with. The word “Islamic” in Arabic, and in English as well, has to do with the ideals of the Muslim religion. It is thus analogous to the word “Judaic.” We speak of “Islamic ethics” as a field of study, just as we do “Judaic ethics.” Not all Muslims or Jews conform to the ethics preached in their religious traditions. Some are even criminals. But then they are Muslim criminals and Jewish criminals. They are not Islamic criminals and Judaic criminals. Likewise in Catholicism, one speaks of Patristic theology, referring to the religious ideas of the Church fathers, but wouldn’t talk of bad priests steeped in that theology as Patristic criminals. It is because both in Arabic and in other languages “Islamic” refers to the ideals of the Muslim religion that both Muslims and people with good English diction object strenuously to a phrase such as “Islamic terrorism” or “Islamic fascism” (fascism was an invention of Christian Europe, in any case).
Those, like Giuliani, who insist on speaking of “Islamic terrorism” want to shape our language so as to imply that the Islamic tradition authorizes the deployment of terrorism, which the US federal code defines as using violence or criminal activities to intimidate civilians or government for political purposes, with the implication that the perpetrators are themselves nonstate actors. But the Islamic legal tradition forbids terrorism defined in that way. Moreover, Muslim academics contend that the Koran, the Muslim scripture, sanctions only defensive war. Giuliani does not know more about the Koran than they do.
The attempt by the American right wing to mainstream the phrase “Islamic terrorism” takes advantage of general American ignorance of the Muslim tradition; it is a linguistic trap intended to make us all Islamophobes. If a politician insisted that we call Israel’s reckless disregard for noncombatant life in last summer’s attack on Gaza “Judaic terrorism” and implied that Israelis acted that way because they are all commanded to do so in the Bible, it would be easy to see this way of speaking as anti-Semitic. President Obama is right to avoid that trap, and he knows enough about Muslims and Islam to recognize it for what it is.