There are groups of people in the world who are using terrorist tactics to fight a war against the United States and other Western countries. There is no disputing this fact. We went from being afraid of (and fighting) al-Qaeda to being afraid of and fighting ISIL/ISIS/Daesh — there is considerable debate about what to call this group (for example, see here). I’m going to call them ISIS, for no better reason than it’s probably the most recognized version and doesn’t make anybody reading this wonder what the heck Daesh is, and if Daesh is really something I should try for dessert. Either way, this group is our new big foe. They’re the ones behind the Paris attacks, and they’re the ones who apparently inspired or were somehow otherwise involved in the attacks in San Bernardino more recently. Regardless of the group of the year, President Obama (and other democrats) are being criticized for refusing use the word “Muslim” or “Islamic” in their descriptors of these groups. Rush Limbaugh and others say this is because of political correctness. For example, on December 4th, while talking about the discovery that there was a connection between the San Bernardino shooters and ISIS, he said:
And in fact, folks, to just give you a little hint, linking it to ISIS actually helps the government not call it terrorism because ISIS is not Islam. No, I’m not saying that. The government says that. The left, the media says it. ISIS is not Islam. You’ve heard Obama say that. ISIS is making a mockery of Islam. In fact, what you really need to understand about the way our government looks at Islam, they look at Islam as anti-terror as well. Islam is anti-terrorism. Therefore, no terrorism can actually be Islamic. Islam is the religion of peace. We say that jokingly. That’s actually the position of the US government. It’s rooted in political correctness and fear and a number of other convoluted things.
Rooted in political correctness? Really? I’m not buying it.
In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare wrote, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” This is sweet, in the context, and of course we all love the idea that the star-crossed lovers would have loved each other even if their families didn’t hate one another. There’s some science saying that this isn’t true though. Study after study, scientists find that our perceptions are altered in so many ways by our expectations.
The clip above shows a pop-sciencey piece showing how easy it is to fool ourselves into thinking chocolate tastes like strawberry. This happens to us all the time, in many modalities. Some of it is explicit biases and altered expectations, other times it’s more implicit and nuanced like I wrote about earlier. Either way, my point is that the way we talk aout things does matter, and the words we use can be very important.
So let’s think about some reasons, other than the political correctness thing that Limbaugh and others want to demonize, that Obama and others might want to avoid using the word “Muslim” or “Islam” when talking about the terrorists. I can’t speak for Obama, so let’s think about why I think it’s a bad idea.
First of all, it seems worthwhile to use a descriptor that actually provides an identifying feature of the thing you’re trying to describe. Let’s look at me as an example. If we’re going to find adjectives to describe me, what could we use? I am male, so we could call me a man, but that doesn’t tell you much about me, does it? I’m in my mid forties, so you could call me middle-aged (ugh). I’m married, so you could call me that. Although each of those descriptors are true, does any of them really tell you anything meaningful about me? There are somewhere around 3.5 billion male humans on the planet, and using “male” as a descriptor of me does nothing to tell you anything about me. Likewise, there are hundreds of millions or even billions of middle-aged or married people in the world, so using those as descriptors of me don’t tell you very much either.
Using cars as an example shows the point clearly. In September of this year (2015), the EPA accused Volkswagen of breaking the law by intentionally manipulating emissions testing of their diesel cars. The most accurate headline to a story about this might have been, “Volkswagen accused of manipulating emissions testing of diesel automobiles.” That would let us know that the fraud was about a certain type of car (those with diesel engines) made by a certain car company (Volkswagen). If the headline had read, “Car companies accused of manipulating emissions testing of diesel engines,” it would be too broad, because it was only Volkswagen that did it. If the headline read, “Volkswagen accused of manipulating emissions testing,” it would give us the impression that all cars made by Volkswagen were affected. When we say that diesel cars by Volkswagen were involved, the descriptors are meaningful, and they tell us something about exactly which cars we might worry about (if emissions testing is an important thing to us).
There are about 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. A CNN piece last year provided some estimates arguing that about 100,000 people are currently part of militant jihadist groups. Using those numbers, about 0.00625% of Muslims in the world are part of militant jihadist groups. Even if we think the CNN numbers are dramatically underestimated and we say that there are 10 million, instead of 100,000, Muslims who are militant jihadists, it’s still less than 1% of the Muslim population. So those who are arguing that Obama (or I) should stop being so politically correct and just call the terrorists “Muslim” or “Islamic” are asking for a descriptor to be used for a group that has a 99% chance of NOT being what you’re trying to describe. I am not arguing that the terrorists we’re talking about aren’t Muslims. I’m not sure exactly how to define a Muslim and a non-Muslim, except as somebody who self-identifies as a member of the religion, but I’m quite certain that these people are, indeed, Muslims. But if I use that descriptor, it tells me nothing meaningful about them, and it associates the word “Muslim” with terrorist in a way that is wrong more than 99% of the time.
So what’s the harm? Those bashing Obama for this would say that it’s true, they are Muslims, and they are right about that. These people say that Obama should, therefore, call them “radical Muslims” or “radical Islamists.” The cynical side of me would say that this is because they are stoking the fears to get the bigot vote, but in fairness, I think many of them like the term “radical Muslim” because it feels like drawing a clear line between what they see as a “good” Muslim and the bad guys. That sounds noble, but it doesn’t change that calling terrorists “radical Muslims” or anything that highlights that they happen to be Muslim, simply draws a connection, not a distinction, between them and other Muslims. It reinforces stereotypes and makes it harder (certainly not impossible, but harder) for anybody to think of a Muslim without thinking of a radicalized terrorist. More than that, it creates a connection between the terrorists and Muslims that will certainly tap into the natural tendencies humans have to form ingroups and outgroups. If your ingroup is based on being a Muslim, it’s going to be harder to distance yourself from any member of that group. People get around this by saying things like “he’s not a real Muslim. A real Muslim wouldn’t do that,” but those efforts can only go so far, and they certainly aren’t helped by people repeatedly pointing out that he actually is a Muslim, part of your group, and now he’s killed people.
Apply this to the car analogy. Imagine that your job isn’t just to tell the world that Volkswagen lied about their diesel engine emissions, but to get the help of other car manufacturers to figure out how it happened, and put safeguards in place to make sure it doesn’t happen again. If your headline is “car companies manipulate emissions tests,” don’t you think the other car companies are going to get immediately defensive? Even if you then qualify your statement by saying, “bad car companies manipulate emissions tests,” don’t you think the other car companies are going to rightly feel that, just by generalizing the statement to car companies, you’re putting them all in the same basket?
In addition to being incorrect, and not applicable to 99% of the Muslims in the world, using a term like “radical Muslims” just won’t work. It will be less effective than what the President is doing. A very large part of the ISIS narrative is that the West hates Islam. Come fight for ISIS. Fight for us because they (the West) hate us. They (the West) want to destroy all Muslims. That’s what they say. Much like some of our leaders say that groups like ISIS hate us because of our freedom and our way of life, this kind of propaganda helps convince people that they are the good guys, and the others are the bad guys. The United States isn’t attacking ISIS because ISIS poses a risk to the United States, the United States is attacking ISIS because they hate Muslims….if that were true, or if I believed that were true, if I were Muslim it would be a very powerful rallying cry. The very last thing we want is to play into that narrative, and the very last thing we want is to lump other Muslims in with groups like ISIS.
The Ku Klux Klan was founded in the mid-late 1800s. Estimates are that it peaked in membership in the 1920s with about two million members. The organization started to fade a bit through the 1930s, but reemerged strongly as an opposition to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The bigotry and the violent tactics used by the KKK were well out of the mainstream, and the group was marginalized and seen as bad by most Americans. The KKK was a Christian organization. Its members were self-identified Christians and devoted to Americanism and Christianity morality. This is not a comfortable fact for many Christians, at least many Christians I know. Some deal with this by saying things like, “no real Christian would act that way,” or “they aren’t real Christians,” but this gets back to the question of what is a Christian? If we went back in history, and in political speeches and news articles, instead of calling them “the Klan” or “the KKK,” we called them the “Christian Klan,” or “radicalized Christians”? I don’t know, because I can’t go back in time and do the comparison, but I bet that this simple change in language could alter history. First, instead of focusing on how awful the Klan was, Christians would have needed to spend time distancing themselves from the Christian Klan, and defending their Christianity. Second, I imagine that, for some, the connection with the Klan would have made it harder to be critical of the Klan. In some ways, it might be a lot like what happens in the United States with “fundamentalist Christians” and more mainstream Christians. What do I mean by a “fundamentalist Christian”? In general terms, somebody who self-identifies as Christian, has a literal interpretation of the Bible and therefore believes that the earth is no more than 5,000 years old and that evolution is a lie, and who might spew hateful messages that blame sinful behavior for natural disasters (like the way that some blamed homosexuals in New Orleans for hurricane Katrina). These groups aren’t marginalized. These groups have plenty of time on television to preach their message. These groups have museums devoted to creationism and they influence school curricula. Why is this allowed? My argument is that it’s only allowed because they are Christians, and that makes it harder for other Christians to turn against them.
Keeping in mind that we are not at war with all Muslims, and, more importantly, that we need the help of Muslims to stop those who want to hurt us, and that we need the help of Muslims to stop the terrorists, why would we want to do anything that makes that more difficult? It just seems like bad strategy, and wrong.