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Should The Phrase 'Islamic Extremism' Be Used? It's Debatable

Muslims in India protest against ISIS following the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris.
Biswaranjan Rout
Muslims in India protest against ISIS following the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris.

There's a big divide in how Republicans and Democrats are talking about terrorism — and it's one unlikely to be solved anytime soon.

In the last Democratic debate, just a day after the terrorist attacks in Paris, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton refused to use the word "radical Islam" to classify terrorist cells such as ISIS, Boko Haram (which has pledged allegiance to ISIS) and others. Her two rivals, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, agreed.

"I don't think we're at war with Islam," Clinton said. "I don't think we're at war with all Muslims. I think we're at war with jihadists."

She pointed to another Republican — President George W. Bush — who similarly shied away from a rush to judgment on the Muslim faith in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. "This great nation of many religions understands, our war is not against Islam or against faith practiced by the Muslim people," Bush said back in 2002. "Our war is a war against evil."

They fear by using certain language it will de-legitimize their faith in general. Internally, where everyone is Muslim and people do know the difference, they have no problem using those terms."

Just days after the 2001 attacks, he made similar remarks and even went to a mosque. But in the years since, the GOP has largely embraced terming threats from ISIS and other terrorist organizations as "radical Islam."

And Republican White House hopefuls were quick to react to Democrats' hesitancy last week. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio shot back the day after the Democratic debate that not using the phrase "radical Islam" or "Islamic state" would "be like saying we weren't at war with Nazis, because we were afraid to offend some Germans who may have been members of the Nazi Party but weren't violent themselves." A standard part of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's stump speech is to criticize President Obama for being hesitant to use the term, as well. He calls him "an apologist for radical Islamic terrorists."

Obama has preferred the term "violent extremists," though he has referred to them as "jihadists," as have Clinton and other Democrats.

So which side is right?

Lorenzo Vidino, who directs the Program on Extremism at George Washington University's Center on Cyber & Homeland Security, said that there's a divide even in the Muslim world over how to refer to the dangerous terrorist groups. And while they may be OK labeling ISIS as "Islamic extremists," having other people use the term can be a sensitive subject.

"People tend to be quite defensive about Islam," Vidino said. "They fear by using certain language it will de-legitimize their faith in general. Internally, where everyone is Muslim and people do know the difference, they have no problem using those terms."

Vidino explained that in Muslim countries, there's a perception that Westerners don't "appreciate the differences between Islam and Islamism."

Split along party lines

That perception has certainly increased in the past year since ISIS emerged onto the scene, and concerns are now at their highest over terrorism since Sept. 11, 2001, in some cases.

"There's no question that in the summer of 2014 that the emergence of ISIS really affected people's attitudes in a lot of ways over concerns about Islamic extremism," said Carroll Doherty, director of political research at the Pew Research Center.

A Pew survey from September 2014 found that 6 in 10 people were "very concerned" about the rise of "Islamic extremism." But they're sharply divided along party lines.

Among Republicans, 82 percent said they were concerned about "Islamic extremism" around the world, and 71 percent were concerned about its impact on the U.S.

Just 51 percent of Democrats shared concerns about its rise around the world, while 46 percent were very concerned about its impact in America.

Along with that concern, the partisan divides on how to deal with the threat from the Middle East have also widened. Democrats are less likely to support engagement, while Republicans want more action.

"There's a big division over whether or not to introduce ground troops," Doherty explained. "Democrats are deeply worried about becoming too involved in Iraq and Syria, and Republicans expressed the opposite concern."

But even within the countries where ISIS draws from, there's little respect for the terrorist group. Another Pew survey released last week showed disdain for ISIS among most Muslim countries.

Within those countries, Vidino said, Muslims will refer to the group as jihadists.

But there's another debate over how much ISIS actually draws from Islam.

"An overwhelming majority of Muslims oppose ISIS and its ideology," Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution's Center for Middle East Policy, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed last week. "But that's not quite the same as saying that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam, when it very clearly has something to do with it. If you actually look at ISIS's approach to governance, it would be difficult — impossible, really — to conclude that it is just making things up as it goes along and then giving it an Islamic luster only after the fact."

Hamid continued, "I am a Muslim myself, and it's impossible for me to believe that a just God could ever sanction the behavior of groups like ISIS. ... What Islam should be and what Islam is actually understood to be by Muslims [including extremist Muslims] are very different things."

In American politics, any discussion of those differences gets quickly glazed over and put into partisan terms. The finger-pointing over the use of the term continued last week when the Democratic National Committee released an online ad saying GOP presidential candidates were "equating Islam, all Muslims, with terrorists" in using language like "radical Islamic terrorism."

"It's oversimplistic, and it's wrong," the ad continues, flashing to footage of George W. Bush defending the religion after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Ultimately, Vidino said, there may be no "right or wrong" that can be reached in trying to find a consensus term. Even the White House earlier this year tried to take religion out of the equation when it hosted its 'Summit on Countering Violent Extremism.'"

But even though the term Islam wasn't used, Vidino said, "everyone understands what kind of extremism we're talking about."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.