Al-Qaeda terrorism, hitting World Trade Center

Al-Qaeda terrorism, hitting World Trade Center from Wikipedia

A few days ago, I published a blog post on how the language of the 9/11 Memorial Museum might unwittingly be reinforcing the claims of Al-Qaeda.

As a result of that blog and the many other people who brought attention to this, the 9/11 Memorial Museum have changed their language from “Islamic Terrorism” to “Islamist Extremism.”

In the past few days, I have spoken with a number of experts and media outlets about it.   Many of them, including the New York Times, ask the question:

What should we call it when acts of terrorism are committed by Muslims?

Here is what I have told the media outlets, and I thought it would be useful to share that here:

1)  It is misleading to use the term “Islamic” terrorism.  

As I have discussed before, Muslim terrorists (and all perpetuators of violence and oppression) deserve to be studied carefully.   However, to depict them as embodying the essence of Islam (as Islamophobic forces routinely do) is precisely to grant them the very legitimacy that they crave.   They neither possess nor deserve this legitimacy.     

Furthermore, we have to take seriously the reality that 1400 years of Islamic history, going back to the very example of Muhammad, condemns the usage of violence against non-combatants, what today we would call a civilian population.

Anders Behring Breivik's act of terrorism in Oslo

Anders Behring Breivik’s act of terrorism in Oslo from Wikipedia

2)  OK, if we are not to use “Islamic” terrorism (just as we don’t typically speak of Christian terrorism, Jewish terrorism, Hindu terrorism, etc.), what about the alternative Islamist extremism/terrorism?

The term Islamist (adjective related to Islamism) certainly is an improvement over “Islamic.”   And there is a legitimate academic (and journalistic) discussion about Islamism.   Usually people use the term Islamism as a synonym for “political Islam’, meaning a political movement that is invested in taking over the state, and establishing their understanding of Islamic law as the law of the land.    [As with everything else involved scholars, there are all sorts of contestations of that broad parameter, and the required nuance brought to that discussion.]

By that parameter, it would be appropriate to use the term Islamist to refer to the Iranian government, the Muslim Brotherhood, and so on.

Irgun terrorism, King David bombing.

Irgun terrorism, King David bombing. from Wikipedia

Here is the problem with applying the term Islamist (even when qualified by terrorism/extremism) to al-Qaeda, the agents responsible for the atrocities of 9/11.     Factually speaking, they are not Islamists.   There is no indication that al-Qaeda is actually an Islamist organization, in the sense that they are not a political party, not a movement working in any effective sense to establish an Islamist state.   In a real sense, they are a nihilistic movement of destruction, having abandoned the goal of obtaining control over a state.    Put differently, al-Qaeda represents a voice of despair, of abandoning even the dream of establishing an Islamic state.    It is a dystopian project of destruction, death, and despair.

Furthermore, it is increasingly clear to me that much of the general public cannot tell the difference between Islamic and Islamist.   In other words, they tend to hear “Islamist” as still being Islamic., justified and justifiable in terms of some entity called “Islam.”  It is another one of the occasions where nuances of academic discourse do not translate particularly well to real world English.


Tamil Tiger terrorism

Tamil Tiger terrorism from wikipedia

3)  So, if Islamic terrorism doesn’t work, and Islamist terrorism/extremism is misleading, what should we call the terrorist actions committed by al-Qaeda?

 Here is a brilliant idea.   How about calling it what it is:  al-Qaeda Terrorism.

Yes, it is terrorism.   Yet, it is violence directed towards a civilian population for political motivation, with the intention of both causing real harm and creating an environment of fear.     What if we identify acts of terrorism by the groups that actually commit them:   Al-Qaeda terrorism, KKK terrorism, HAMAS terrorism, Irgun terrorism, IRA terrorism, Tamil Tigers terrorism, and so on.

It seems like a simple, elegant, and accurate solution.     We describe actions based on the particular group, without demonizing an entire religious tradition (Islamic terrorism, Christian terrorism, Jewish terrorism) or an entire ethnicity (Arab terrorism, Irish terrorism, Caucasian terrorism) and so on.

Anti-black terrorism, lynchings.

Anti-black terrorism, lynchings. from Wikipedia.

The last of these terms actually offers us a useful analogy:   it would appear odd to most of us to hear the term Caucasian Terrorism, but if we speak of KKK terrorism we have a good sense of what we are talking about.    In speaking of al-Qaeda terrorism, one would be applying a similar standard.

So what about it?      How about insisting on the term al-Qaeda terrorism?












  1. did i just see your tweet get on al jazeera’s ‘the stream’ segment about the american dream?

    anyway: “Factually speaking, they are not Islamists. There is no indication that al-Qaeda is actually an Islamist organization, in the sense that they are not a political party, not a movement working in any effective sense to establish an Islamist state.” i thought they had stated that they intended to re-establish the caliphate from indonesia to al-andalus.

  2. There is no benefit in mincing words. When acts of terror are committed by Muslims, they are following the edicts of the Koran and Hadith. It must be called Islam inspired terror committed by Muslims. Other adjectives should not be used or substituted for the truth!

    • It is JIHAD…plain and simple. Moslems who really follow islam to the letter are doing what as you said Quran prescribes. POLITICAL CORRECTNESS needs to be left at the door and call it what it is. It is sad our univerisities spread Islam to our youth with a false sense that islamics are portrayed wrongly…

      • And you are doing exactly what religious fundamentalists of all stripes want. You confuse the extremists with the entire faith. It is mostly intentional on the part of the fundamentalists. Doing so gives the impression that opposing them means opposing the entire religion. That is one of the goals of terrorism. To encourage the majority to side with violent vocal minority voices.

        Al Queda could not ask for better spokespeople than the dolts who claim they are the legitimate voice of Islam. Much like yourself. Islamophobia is a great tool for terrorists. It supports their claims and makes it easier to recruit people.

        • Sorry Larry..YOU CLEARLY DONT KNOW WHAT A KAFIR IS…if u did u wouldnt say i fear Islam…lol…I deal in facts about is what it is and just because some appear peaceful letting the warriors die while they spread islam differently than violence..they are all required to perform JIHAD this professor is a prime tool for islam…trying to make it seem that that islam
          isnt REALLY violent when in 2014 i can spend 24/7 showing u it is….i have no fear of Islam..i used to be married to an Iranian moslem who in America followed Sharia…got divorced with mediator..four yrs later he took my 8 yr old daughter just like sharia says to do…and gave her to the sex trade which is where she is now at 20 yrs of age..i even had pimp tell me he couldnt understand y her father didnt try to help his daughter..yeah..he gave her to known sex traffickers. Only a moslem sells their daughters…borders d sont change them. Larry u clearly have no clue about true islam..i used to also own persian restaurants..if u could see first hand how persians (iranians) hate thr arabs jews and blacks…and vice versa…u wpuldnt defend islam 😉

          • I know exactly what a kafir is. I also know you are using the same kind of hyperbole fundamentalists love to spread and hear from others. That their gonzo harmful take on the religion is the only one out there. I don’t judge an entire religion of over a billion people by what their most ridiculously extreme members do. Iran is a fundamentalist craphole. If you think all Muslims are like them, you are a fool. A useful one to fundamentalist jerks.

            Every Fundamentalist no matter the religion wants the world to believe they speak for the entire religion. You played right along. Al Queda and the Iranian fundies could not hope for better spokespeople.

          • Larry, you know exactly what a kafir is. Could you please explain it to me. Are People of the Book kufar? Trinitarian Christians? Ahmadi are kufar or apostates?

            And I don’t think Iran funds al-qaeda. The Iranians are mostly shia and al-qaeda are sunni.

          • There is nothing more ridiculous than people who claim to know everything about the beliefs of a religion, which is not their own. Kafir aka infidel, unbeliever, gentile, not a Muslim.

            Iran doesn’t fund Al Queda, they fund their own terrorists, Hezbollah and Hamas. Same difference. Well armed fundamentalist nutballs causing mayhem for its own sake.

            Either way, it is useful stupidity to equate fundamentalists with an entire religion. Its exactly what they want you to do. You like making it easier for the terrorists to spread? I guess so.

  3. The idea that Muslim terrorists, such as the 9/11 hijackers, are “desperate”, is a Western idea, whose function is to support other Western ideas about Islam. The 9/11 hijackers were not desperate: 9/11 was the greatest and happiest day of their life. But nobody is supposed to ask about that, or spend much time researching their motivation, lest it interfere with the carefully crafted Western narrative about Islam (namely, that Islam is a religion as defined by the West and even modeled after Western ideas of what a religion is, and that it just happens to include, as conveniently built-in features, like a surprise toy in a box of cereal, many of the things that took Western civilization centuries to achieve, such as the concept of equal rights).

  4. Assalaam Alaikum Mr Safi,

    I think as you do. Why call it anything related to Islam.
    Islamist should be for those who practice Islam, which as we know is quite broad and diverse in certain practices and interpretations. But Islam does not accept the murder of innocents nor make excuses for so-called “collateral damages” as justification for murdering.
    Those who worship Satan are called “Satanists” practicing Satanism.
    Therefore those who throw off Islam for Al-Qaeda should be called Al-Qaedaists, practicing Al-Qaedaism


    • Kerry,

      You sure about that no collateral damage thing?

      “It is reported on the authority of Sa’b b. Jaththama that the Prophet of Allah (may peace be upon him), when asked about the women and children of the polytheists being killed during the night raid, said: They are from them.”

      Sounds like collateral damage to me.

      And you say “Islam does not accept the murder of innocents”. The question is who is innocent?

      [5.33] The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His apostle and strive to make mischief in the land is only this, that they should be murdered or crucified or their hands and their feet should be cut off on opposite sides or they should be imprisoned; this shall be as a disgrace for them in this world, and in the hereafter they shall have a grievous chastisement,

    • I thought “Islamicism” is the blanket term for Islamic Fundamentalism as a political movement.

      There is a vested interest by Islamic Fundamentalists to avoid distinguishing their views from the Islamic mainstream. This way their views are perceived as the only legitimate ones of the faith. Much like how Christian Fundamentalists refer to themselves simply as “Christians” when their views don’t reflect the majority of the faith. The more you confuse the terrorists with the mainstream, the easier it is for terrorists to fling propaganda like saying the West is at war with the entire 1.4 billion Muslims.

      Instead of moaning about terms used to distinguish between the fundamentalists and mainstream, it is easier to just adopt a term to make the distinction. Islamicism instead of Islamist or Islamic. Just as with the KKK, you call them white supremacist terrorists as opposed to white terrorists.

    • Yes, you have many peaceful passages in your Qur’an, however there are also hate and murderous comments in there, so if you follow your Qur’an how can you be so innocent. I think Ayaan Hirsi Ali, said it best “that Violence is inherent in Islam”. She has won every debate on the subject whether or not Islam is a peaceful religion. It is not. I also agree with Bridgette.

  5. Omid presents a great suggestion that solves two important problems:
    1. The problem of generalization. Most of the armed attacks in the US are committed by middle-aged while males, but to call all American middle-aged while males as potential criminals would be unfair. In the same way, the association of a terrorist group, which all Muslims explicitly disgust, with Muslims is unfair. It is intentionally bigoted and homophobic.
    2. The problem of determination: Blanket definitions such as “Muslims,” i.e, nearly one-fourth of the entire world, not only demonize innocent people and potential allies, but also veil the real agents behind these actions. A precise definition is the first step of a healthy, non-bigoted, interfaith solutions to our common political and social problems.

    Only those who oppose peaceful co-existence –fundamentalists and bigots from both sides– will hate this option. Bigots should realize that they dramatically share a longing with terrorists: separated worlds. But sorry guys: we are already intermixed, we already peacefully co-exist in many places, and we will prevail. Light [nur] prevails.

    • AcAccording to the US Department of Justice, blacks accounted for 52.5% of homicide offenders from 1980 to 2008, with whites 45.3% and Native Americans and Asians 2.2%. The offending rate for blacks was almost 8 times higher than whites, and the victim rate 6 times higher. Most murders were intraracial, with 84% of white homicide victims murdered by whites, and 93% of black victims murdered by blacks.[32][33]cording to the FBI ”
      So your first point is WRONG and before you go ahead and slander other racial groups get your facts straight!

    • Ayaan Hirsi Ali, former Muslim, says it best “Violence is inherent in Islam”. She has won every debate with Muslim scholars on the subject, she speaks from personal experience. Islam is not a religion of peace.

  6. Islam itu hanya 5;
    1. mengakui Allah sebagai satu-satunya Tuhan dan Muhammad itu utusanNya
    2. sembahyang 5 waktu
    3. puasa dalam bulan ramadan
    4. tunaikan zakat
    5. tunaikan haji

    mengapa manusia suka menyukarkan perkara yang mudah?

  7. Your are simply wrong in trying to change facts, truth and the museum. Perhaps, Ayaan Hirsi Ali said it best “Violence is inherent in Islam”. May I point out that she has one every debate with Muslim scholars on the subject is “Islam a religion of peace? No it is not. What would be your comment on “theprojectmuslimbrotherhood”? The secret doctrine to destroy America from within by stealth jihad, lies and deception. How can you be allowed to teach any student at Bayan Clarmont with your views.

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