During the second and third US Presidential debates last year, the then Republican nominee and current President Donald Trump raised the issue of using phrases such as ‘Radical Islamic Terrorism,’ ‘Islamic Extremism’ and ‘Islamic Fundamentalism.’ The issue was used as a means to attack the sitting President Barack Obama and the Democratic nominee Hilary Clinton, accusing them of weakness due to their desire to avoid the words.
This quick remark touched on a topic which raises important questions when considering the use and power of language. Although some might endorse the use of these words in an effort to move away from sheltered ‘politically correct’ language in the political sphere, the use of these terms is inherently problematic, and helps to erode the non-Islamic public’s perception of the faith.
‘Islamic Fundamentalism’ is a term used so often to describe the heinous acts of IS, al-Shabab, Boko Haram, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and the vicious acts of “lone wolf” individuals committing acts without any affliction, that it is easy to forget what the term means. At its core, ‘fundamentalism’ literally means the basic fundamentals of something, in this case, the faith of Islam. ‘Extremism’ evokes an understanding of taking the basics of something to the radical extreme.
What both of these phrases mean is intrinsic, basic, core, and essential.
“These characteristics at the epicentre of Islam celebrate community, faith, and togetherness; not destruction, intolerance and cruelty. Why then, is terrorism often prescribed as being an ‘Islamic fundamentalist’ action?”
The essentials of Islam vary depending on which denomination you examine, however many are categorised in lists of attributes, such as the Five Pillars of Islam, The Twelve Shia Islam Usal al-Din and many others.
Included in each of these lists, and something that Islamic scholars would almost unanimously agree in all circles, are the basic principles that one must subscribe to to adhere to the faith entirely. Therefore both in practice and in theory, these are the ‘fundamental’ basics of the faith of Islam. The pillars that appear time and time again in all doctrines and disciplines are Shahada or Tawhid, Salat, Zakāt, Sawm, and Hajj; or faith, prayer, charity, fasting and pilgrimage.
Shahada, the declaration of faith that endorses God as the one God, and Muhammad as his messenger, is the first pillar is of utmost importance. Salat is the daily ritual of praying five times, Zalat is the obligation of charitable giving, Sawm is the tradition of fasting and Hajj is the global pilgrimage celebrated annually by Islamic communities around the world.
These essentials to the faith are what can be understood as the fundamentals of Islam. Do they meet the expectations that are set when describing an act is an act of supposed ‘Islamic Fundamentalism?’ Certainly not. These characteristics at the epicentre of Islam celebrate community, faith, and togetherness; not destruction, intolerance and cruelty. Why then, is terrorism often prescribed as being an ‘Islamic fundamentalist’ action?
Through examining the work of Edward Said, famed Palestinian intellectual, cultural critic and writer of the widely accredited work Orientalism (1978), the reason why this perception exists can be understood as a process of othering.
Orientalism, according to Said, is a pattern of understanding that the West prescribed to the East in order to differentiate it, and as a consequence elevate the West’s status above it. This, at Saids time of writing, was a form of imperialism from the Western World that, through literature, art and broader understanding, reduced the representation of the East to general and unfair base characteristics; undeveloped, unintelligent, or culturally static. In doing so, the West understood itself as the opposite; developed, intelligent, and culturally dynamic, solidifying ‘cultural’ superiority over the East. The connection this discourse has to the modern use of language is evident. Orientalism as an unconscious practice continues to this day, as the West uses modern representations to understand the East and constantly redefines what the East is, as a means to solidify a perceived cultural superiority over it.
Writing in 1978, Said examines the then understanding of Islamic culture as a means to understand how it was represented and understood by the West. Here we see a stark contrast to today’s version of the culture.
Within many people’s lifetimes, Islamic culture was seen, and depicted as being promiscuous, a place of adventure, trapped in time. One needs to look no further than the Roger Moore-era James Bond films to understand how the ‘Orient’ was highly romanticised, and was depicted as a land stuck in time, and of loose morals. For example in 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me during Bond’s tour of Cairo, he stands out from the poverty of the locals dressed in a tuxedo, and holds intelligent conversations with several other sophisticated Westerners while in the company of countless clueless non-English speaking natives and scantily-clad women.
Then, in the 1970s, this was used as a means to brand the culture, to capitalise on an aspect of it that was seen as dated and ‘static,’ in contrast to the West’s more dynamic, and complex societies, depicted as sophisticated, modern and sensible.
“Orientalism as an unconscious practice continues to this day, as the West uses modern representations to understand the East and constantly redefines what the East is, as a means to solidify a perceived cultural superiority over it.”
Today the same thing can be said for terrorism. The reasons why the perception of the region has changed so much in a relatively short period since the late 1970s could be due to the rise of civil unrest and revolutions in many countries in the region, the emergence of terrorist organisations in certain countries in the region, international attention on the region, and the West’s heavy involvement in many wars over the last four decades in Middle East. Regardless of the reasons, the perception and representation of Islamic Culture has changed. The use of this particular language is a major tool of Orientalism that has helped this perception develop. Is it any wonder then, that major media outlets have racialized the term ‘terrorist’, and quickly classify white supremacist mass-murderers as ‘lone gunmen’ or question their mental health while immediately brand Islamic (or sometimes simply Arab) mass-murderers as extreme terrorists?
The casual comments made by Trump can be understood as a further endorsement of his attitude to what he would understand as ‘political correctness.’ Further solidified by personalities such as Nigel Farage in the UK and Marine Le Pen in France, the fight against perceived ‘political correctness’ has gained traction in the Western political sphere over recent years, and if the results of Brexit and the US Presidential Election are anything to go by, there is public support for those who wage this war on it.
If candid attitudes toward the use of language appeals to populist voters, as it did in these two recent examples, perhaps a renewed understanding of certain terms is necessary before they become further indoctrinated into the public sphere.
Knowing this process, and understanding the misrepresentation, belittling, misconceptions and falsehoods that can result from Orientalism, we ought to heavily consider the use of terms like Islamic Fundamentalism. These are terms which are not just simply inaccurate, but have in fact wreaked untold damage on misrepresented Islamic communities and individuals around the world, they are terms which help divide societies, and further misrepresent an uninformed non-Islamic public who normalise these terms, blindly subscribing to their dangerous connotations.
Rob Barnes has written a thesis on Interculturalism in Ireland, and has previously written on Public Policy and Traveller Accommodation, and Ethnocide. He has a Masters Degree in Race, Ethnicity and Conflict from Trinity College Dublin.