In light of the recent extreme acts of the Illegitimate President of the United States of America, I’m thinking of how awful the terms “radical Muslim” and the related term, “radicalized Muslim” are. As a linguist and writer, I’m concerned about words and how they’re handled and understood. Words are symbols and so they mean whatever (social and psychological) power we give them, but words then hold that power and dispense that power. The power of a term such as “radical Muslims” – highlighted by its use in Trump’s defense of his Executive Order banning immigrants from Muslim majority countries – is phenomenal and changes how people not only see, but think about and then act on a group of people.
The word radical generally means “getting to the roots of.” This is at least how many self-avowed Leftist Americans (such as myself) read it. Of course that is not the predominant reading, that largely being somewhat negative and dismissive of activists, due in no small party to American acquiescence to passivity in relation to the status quo. In all of these understandings is a kind of root: That a radical really believes and believes very strongly. Also note when it is used–rarely for something that is considered the norm. We never hear the phrase “radical capitalist” as America and Britain are very radical and devout in their relation to the economic theory. Rather we tend to hear the phrase attached to something that is outside the norm. “Radical communist”. “Radical integrationalist” during the height of Jim Crow and “radical segregationalist” afterward. “Radical pacifist” during war time.
The term is often worn as a badge of honor, the bravery of going against the norms of society. The fundamentalist branches of Christianity that I spent most of my life in loved to be called “radical Christians”. “X Church trains up radical, fanatical Christians” was the motto from one of my churches for a couple years. Radical for Jesus was a way to live, to celebrate an insular community. Christian, Fundamentalist, Born-Again, Bible-Believer, Jesus Freak. A very popular Christian music song from the rap-pop band DC Talk put it, “What would people say if they found out I’m a Jesus freak?” Fundamentalist Christians, radical Christians, should not be afraid or ashamed of proclaiming their beliefs despite a seemingly hostile word. In the US, they were never criminalized nor extradited for stating these beliefs, but that’s what it is..
DC Talk then used the popularity of the song to sell a hip version of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs for the teenage church. The radical Christian is the real, true Christian who is then persecuted by the world for following the real God. This is interpreted as a positive thing. The problem then isn’t so much the word “radical” but what it is modifying.
As one of my Facebook friends reiterated this phrase “radical Muslim terrorists” on my wall, I can’t help but notice the spread of that specific phrase used by Trump. IPOTUS himself picked it up from its reiteration by the Islamophobic industry before him (which helped propel him to political prominence both through his Birther controversy and then through his Islamophobic comments throughout the campaign) and has spread it like wildfire.
The stigma of the term is now connected insolubly with all those who observe, practice, or are even near Islam, its language, its practices, its appearances.
The term “Islamic radical” assumes that there is something inherently wrong with Islam. Or, more to the point, something wrong with Muslims. Muslims thus are viewed as positive in White Western eyes only in as much as they don’t really believe in Islam (New Atheists have long called non-fundamentalist Muslims “fake Muslims”; believing as Wahhabis do that there is only one legitimate form of Islam. This view does injustice to historical and current Muslims and Islam). And as much as Muslims accrue to Western modes of activity. This view erases Muslim feminism, Muslim liberation, Muslim science and whitewashes Western societies savageries of genocide, hyper-masculinity, and capitalist war-mongering, for starters.*
Islam is seen to be inherently dangerous in itself, despite the fact that it is as large and as diverse as Christianity, that it has many different forms, that most of what we recognize as “radical Islam” such as Wahhabism and related sects are post-modern, illiterate takes on a pre-modern religion and thus stripping it of its historical roots and valid interpretationsto promote a much more violent, reactionary and hyper-masculine version of the religion–not unlike the Fundamentalist Christianity of Jerry Falwell and Franklin Graham. The comparisons don’t end there, either. Wahhabism teaches that whoever does not follow its version of Islam is damned, whether or not they were Muslims. Much as the Bible churches I grew up in believed that only those who believed as they do were saved from hell.
True Islam is not represented by the so-called Islamic State any more than the Ku Klux Klan represents true Christianity. In fact, these are not the sole faces of their respective religions, but only relatively small variants therein. The rest of Islam and Christianity should not be refracted through them, but only inasmuch as they differ from their more violent messages.*
Realizing how powerful and dangerous this linguistic term is is important not just against the standard Islamophobe, but against the entrenched Islamophobia, or rather Muslimphobia that is mainstreamed in standard Euro-American discourse and policy. Because if we’re being honest, this ostracizing, expulsion, and detention of American citizens and workers merely due to the predominant religion of their national origins (regardless of their desire to be US citizens) is making militarized versions of Islam more palatable to those being ostracized.
Maybe what we’re talking about isn’t Radical Muslims but Militarized Muslims. After all, the US and its allies are pushing militancy upon Muslim communities with the hyper-surveillance, the drone warfare, the police raids, the anti-Muslim rhetoric, the nearly-universal suspicion. The turning away and detentions. This racist militancy by the United States, by European allies, and especially by the neo-fascists such as UK’s PM May, French pol Le Pen, and our own Illegitimate One work to create a reaction of entrapment that will be worth all the trouble of breaking international treaties because, LOOK MUSLIMS DOING BAD THINGS! never mind the fact that we forced them into that situation.
It’s the self-fulfilling prophecy of the Never-ending War on Terror. Muslims do bad things because we expect them to and then force their hands until a small segment of them breaks off to do bad things. If only we had ended this racist, fake war eight years ago when we had the chance to.
*I know that some reader somewhere is going to get the idea to tell me that The Muslims did and do all these horrific things, etc, etc. Yes, they are human. Yes, they were involved in wars and empire-building and slave trades of their own. This isn’t a zero-sum game.
**As a Christian, I’m well aware of portions of mainstream White Evangelicalism that readily connect to theologies that the Klan practiced. It does not delegitimize Christianity as a whole, but helps to pinpoint how theological practices can remain in pockets and cause violence.