The president’s decision to stop calling terrorists who claim to represent Islam “Islamic extremists” was certainly an understandable and intellectually honest attempt to both deny a source of legitimacy to violent terrorists in the Middle East, and to help discourage unintended consequences at home in the form of discrimination against Muslims that follows from the dangerous conflation of the Islamic faith and terrorism. Unfortunately, our present polarized, anti-intellectual political environment isn’t well suited for such lawyerly hair-splitting, no matter how good and laudable the intensions.
I suggest we consider adopting a label for these terrorists that serves to both accurately identify them and to discredit their transparently dishonest claim to religious authority. Maybe we could start calling them “Anti-Islamic terrorists?” While dropping any reference to Islam might obscure the matter in problematic ways, labeling them “anti-Islamists” prompts the speaker and hearer to follow up if there is any confusion. If every mention of these terrorists actually begged more precise consideration of their claim to legitimacy, and highlighted the realization that Muslims are peace loving people of a faith being desecrated by violent pretenders, wouldn’t that be a sort of win-win? Couldn’t that, in fact, raise the level of public discourse by reducing opportunities for misinformation, over-simplification, and the all too common conflation of the Islamic faith and terrorism?
Labeling opponents “anti-whatever” has a long and distinguished pedigree in America. I’m sure the “antifederalists” thought of themselves as defenders of federalism rightly understood. Given that these terrorists have clearly hijacked an honorable faith tradition for clearly dishonorable purposes, I hardly think those who might quibble with the “anti-Islamic” label would have a leg to stand on. It doesn’t obscure; it promotes illumination. It doesn’t tacitly condone the terrorists’ duplicity; it exposes it and even prompts thoughtful consideration that could lead to more thoughtful action.
Finally, by labeling these terrorists “anti-Islamic” we might create space for “Pro-Islamic” forces (possibly even labeled as such) to wield legitimate claims of religious authority in the worldwide battle against terrorism.