‘Islamism’ in terror lexicon

Very soon, a deluge of “11 September six years on” analyses will descend on us. They will almost all say the same thing: that the threat from modern Islamic militancy remains high, that victory in the war on terror is along way off, that our own errors have often made a bad situation worse and that there have been some notable successes.

There will be some debate over the exact current significance (and health) of the fugitive leader of Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden.

The more perceptive writers will note that the vast bulk of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims continues to reject extremism. The less perceptive (and less travelled) will talk about a continuing war for civilisation.

As well as considering the views of the various commentators, we would do well to stop a moment to consider the language in which they are expressed. For we have reached a critical moment in the war on terror. Sorry, let me rephrase that, we have reached a critical moment in our efforts to counter the terrorist threat. No. We are at an important juncture in the continuing process of countering Islamism... no... Islamic militancy... er ... modern Muslim radicalism... Al Qaeda... no, make that Al Qaeda-inspired violence... er... on second thoughts...

For the semantics of the post-9/11 era have never been easy. From the mantraps of the use of words such as ‘crusade’ in the days after 11 September to difficult decisions by broadcasters and print journalists over whether they talk about ‘terrorists’, ‘militants’ or ‘violent activists’, the battle fought to ensure a language that more or less accurately describes the phenomenon that we have seen emerging in recent years, which I call ‘modern Islamic militancy’, for want of a better term, and the response to it has been as important as any other. And that battle is far from over. It took many years to establish a vocabulary that was broadly accepted to adequately describe the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Finding an equivalent set of terms for the threat posed by bin Laden and others will take longer still.

Recently, a new label has been proposed for the diverse and dynamic phenomenon which threatens us: ‘Islamism’. Sadly, this is not a helpful term.

First, because it is already used by specialists to denote a fairly narrow ideology aiming to mobilise Muslims to take over existing modern states that differs substantially from the

more eschatological ideas underpinning the project of ‘Al Qaeda’.

And second, because it implies a direct causal link between Islam and the violence we have seen in recent years.

Islam may be part of the problem, but it is wrong to suggest that a hugely diverse and dynamic faith is the sole source of the current threat. ‘Islamism’ emphasises the religious above all other factors, the social, the political, the economic and the cultural.

These arguments will continue for a long time. For the moment, ‘modern Islamic militancy’ might serve as a catch-all term that admits the religious component of the current violence while preserving a sense of its general context. No doubt, it will be bettered very shortly. And so it should be.

Only a lively and informed debate will speed the evolution of the right vocabulary and thus the right policies to pursue what once was known as ‘the war on terror’. — The Guardian