During a recent episode of HBO's “Real Time,” host Bill Maher mocked President Obama’s insistence that the Islamic State does not represent Islam, and lambasted Islam as “the only religion that acts like the mafia, that will fucking kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture or write the wrong book.” One of Maher's guests, actor Ben Affleck, called his remarks “gross” and “racist.”
The testy exchange went viral, prompting an important debate about the relationship between religion and violence. Washington Post columnist Fareed Zakaria, for instance, lamented the “cancer of extremism within Islam today,” while the New York Times' Nicholas Kristoff described the diversity of the “Islamic world” and a bygone era where “Islam was not particularly intolerant.” Author Reza Aslan emphasized that the Islamic State, like Al Qaeda, is a “jihadist” group, not an “Islamist” one.
Embedded within many of these well-intentioned discussions is a central part of the problem: a lazy lexicon that has come to dominate how we speak about, and subsequently what we think about, Islam. Words matter, and the linguistic terrain born of post–Cold War politics and fortified by 9/11 is riddled with imprecise language that perpetuates unhelpful stereotypes and associations.
We talk about an “Islamic world” or “Muslim world,” despite the fact that such an ill-defined expanse does not exist. There are Muslim-majority countries, which are geographically concentrated in North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. But to emphasize religion as the common link between them, or to assume that it is the dominant feature that animates the lives of their inhabitants, is odd given that there are precious few examples where other spaces around the globe are identified and categorized in terms of their religious composition.
Phrases like “Islamic world” or “Muslim world” impose a religious border that sustains narratives of Islam’s separation and foreignness. This nurtures absurd memes like “creeping Sharia,” “Eurabia,” and Congresswoman Michele Bachmann’s favorite—that the Muslim Brotherhood has infiltrated the U.S. government—which suggest that Muslims have traversed their boundaries “over there” in pursuit of spreading their religious traditions “here.” It is precisely what allows someone like Maher to fret that Muslims in America “bring that desert stuff to our world.”
When it comes to violence carried out by Muslims, our societal grab bag of expressions offers only slight variations of the same flavor. There’s “Islamic extremism,” “militant Islam,” “Islamic terrorism,” and “radical Islam” among others. These phrases are intended to distinguish the peaceful majority from the violent minority yet they carve up an entire world religion into imagined categories that reinforce American and European politics. They also lend themselves to subjective analyses, whereby those who deploy them are suddenly in a position of measuring the degree to which Islam factors into extremism, militancy, terrorism, or radicalism.
Like the “Islamic world,” there is no such thing as “militant Islam” or “radical Islam”; there’s just Islam. The adjectives “militant” and “radical” do not point to some separate dimension of the religion that is doctrinally distinct. There are, on the other hand, “militant” and “radical” individuals who are Muslims, and their actions—not their religion—can be described using those terms. But they are most often lumped into a broad category of “jihadists,” a term that has become common parlance. Muslim religious scholars and progressive politicians alike insist that “jihadists” or “jihadi terror” is the problem, yet they are seemingly unaware of the way in which their use of an expressly negative interpretation of the word contributes to a normative understanding of it in that light.
Similarly there is no such thing as “Islamic extremism” or “Islamic terrorism”; there’s just extremism and terrorism, which some Muslims around the world have embraced. It does not bear discernable traits that make it “Islamic” nor are its results any more destructive when they are brought about by Muslims as opposed to non-Muslims. In the 11th century, for example, Indian Chera rulers used suicide bombers to fight the ruling Chola dynasty; beheadings in Europe predate those carried out by Saudi Arabia and ISIS by centuries; and the first recorded airline hijacking took place in Peru in 1931.
The conflation of Muslims with Islam isn’t only lazy. It’s illogical. Maher shrieks that Islam “acts like the mafia” and “will fucking kill you” but he doesn’t seem to understand that “Islam,” as such, cannot do anything. Not only can’t it act like the mafia, it can’t act period—only people can. It certainly can’t kill you. When Fox News' Bill O’Reilly ponders whether or not Islam is a destructive force in the world, he is oblivious to the fact that it is not a force at all—people are forces. Islam does not cause destruction; people do.
Muslims may act upon the organized collection of beliefs that comprise their faith, which neuroscientist and author Sam Harris calls the “mother lode of bad ideas.” But it’s not because those ideas sprang to life, jumped up out of the pages of the Quran and into the minds of Muslims who were captive to their actions. If we blame the Quran for bad acts committed by Muslims in the name of Islam, logic would follow that we must also give it credit for good acts. But neither is appropriate. Muslims make conscious choices to act and when they do, for good or bad, that capacity must not be diminished by fixating on lifeless doctrines.