Why Won’t the President Say “Islamic Terrorists?”

Donald Trump has tried to make much about why President Obama won’t use the phrase “Islamic terrorism”:

Although the President and I have not discussed the reasons, I can think of several good ones, at least one of which I’d like to address here.

While the meaning of the term terrorism is subject to debate, let’s take for a moment the basic definition of terrorism as a strategy meant to strike fear in an opponent in order to achieve power or control. More specifically, terrorism has come to mean perpetuating violence on civilians, making it distinct from other exercises of violence to achieve power—for example, military combat.

Assuming this somewhat loose definition (without reference to who the terrorists are and who the civilians might be) leaves open questions of what kind of power is exercised and to what end.

These questions lie at the heart of “Islamic terrorism,” a phrase now much bandied about not just on the political far right in the U.S. and in Europe, but also in more mainstream media outlets. What would specifically Islamic terrorism look like? And does terrorism take particularly religious forms?

If ISIL or Al-Qaeda seek to establish what they view to be some form of religious state through violence, is this Islamic terrorism? If other Muslims counter that these versions of Islam are not true Islam and if scholars argue that the visions of a religious state to which these movements adhere never previously existed as such (and do not exist even in theory in authoritative texts) is the violence itself just… violence? Whose voice is the authoritative one?

Those who use the phrase “Islamic terrorism” have assumed authority in deciding exactly what the essence of Islam is—namely, violence against “us.” Listen carefully to the rhetoric. Donald Trump, as the prime example, doesn’t hesitate to say what Islam is and that it is, without doubt, the enemy. Like his rhetoric against immigrants, which is rife with racist caricatures of Latinxs, his anti-terrorism rhetoric stereotypes and flattens Islam.

As the student of history that he is, Obama is aware of the violence, the genocide, and the ethnic cleansing that have been perpetrated in this century—not to mention our own domestic versions of white supremacy often couched in Christian terms from the not-so-distant past. By refusing to call it “Islamic terrorism,” he refuses to dignify the polemic of his opponents. We should make every effort to support him on this one.

With coolheaded dispassion (or with good humor) we need simply to respond every day, once a day, as publicly as possible, that Donald Trump, like the rest of his compatriots on the extreme right, is a bloviating, ego-maniacal demagogue.

Some of us have already begun.

A U.S. soldier (self-described as “a white, southern, Christian male who loves Jesus”) has issued an open invitation to Muslim families to come over to his home to cook out in the back yard so that their children might play together and so that they can learn more about each other. And the mayor of St. Petersburg, Florida has banned all “Trumps” from entry into the city in response to Trump’s call to ban the entry of all Muslims into the United States.