13 March 2017

Terrorism's Terminology

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By Carlo Jose Vicente Caro

Throughout his campaign and continuing into his presidency, Donald Trump and most of his senior advisers have made a point of using the term “radical Islamic terrorism” when talking about the threat of terrorist attacks around the world. In a town hall debate against Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, then-candidate Trump explained, “Before you solve [the problem], you have to say the name.” However, Trump’s new national security adviser, H. R. McMaster, has explicitly rejected the term, believing it is an unhelpful way to describe terrorism. Indeed, prior to Trump’s well-received speech to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on February 28, it was reported that McMaster had advised the president to avoid the phrase altogether. McMaster’s advice was ignored; Trump declared, “Our obligation is to serve, protect, and defend the citizens of the United States. We are also taking strong measures to protect our nation from radical Islamic terrorism.”

In a meeting with the National Security Council staff, McMaster reportedly argued that it was wrong to use “radical Islamic terrorism” because the terrorists to whom Trump would apply the term are, in fact, un-Islamic. His assessment, however, ignores the clear religious dimensions that this phenomenon possesses, namely the Salafist ideology that animates so many acts of violent extremism. At the same time, Trump’s use of the term implies that Islam is somehow inherently associated with terrorism.

Both approaches are flawed. Salafism is a minority faction within Islam, and most of its adherents are nonviolent. But this ideology can be used to justify the extremism found in terrorist groups in the Islamic world. In 2015, Sheikh Aadel al-Kalbani, the former imam to the Grand Mosque in Mecca, even said that the Islamic State (ISIS) was a result of the Salafi version of Islam and that the question of how this ideology was fueling terrorism must be addressed with transparency. The significance of his statements cannot be understated; it is nearly unheard of for a prominent Salafi imam

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