Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones But...

What's really in a name?

Posted Feb 20, 2015

Neil Farber
Source: Neil Farber

A Rose by Any Other Name…

“We spend more time talking about what you call it, as opposed to what do you do about it,” says Attorney General Eric Holder. While Holder will not blame Muslim Extremism for the acts of terrorism, he is quick to blame Fox News for “concern about radical Islam.” Further, Holder claims that there is probably not much to be gained by referring to this form of terrorism as Radical or Extreme Islam.

Is this true? Are Holder and Shakespeare correct?  If you believe that “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” does it necessarily follow that there is no utility to accurately naming and identifying terrorist groups? Or is it, as President Obama has stated, that these terrorist organizations are not Islamic?

We are all familiar with roses. We recognize their thorny vines, fragrant blossoms, and vibrant colors. Calling roses dandelions won’t change what they are. Although research has shown that when highly allergic subjects are told that poison ivy is touching their skin (when in fact it is a harmless, non-toxic leaf) they all break out in rashes. When they are told that it is a harmless leaf (and it is actually poison ivy), only two developed a skin reaction. Sometimes, names really do matter.

Does Naming Equal Blaming?

If, as our administration contends, terminology does not matter, why not call them Islamic Terrorists or Radical Islamists or Muslim Extremists? Is it that these terms are not correct or is it that naming might lead to blaming and we don’t like to be accused of blaming anyone? We must ask ourselves, is there a purpose in this case to attribute cause? Would it help in our ability to understand these terrorists  - their plans and ideologies? Would it potentially lead to improvements in our capacity to contain or dismantle these groups? Would it help guide us to predict potential targets and thus enhance safety? If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” then it may seem to be appropriate to proceed with the process of causal attribution; making the parties responsible, accountable for their actions. They have no issues with and, in fact, proudly claim responsibility. We should not have issues with attributing accountability to them. Why are some so concerned with offending those who just burnt a man alive and carrying out daily beheadings?

Hillary Clinton has stated that we need to have empathy for our enemies. I won’t go that far. I do not and will not empathize with a terrorist who is beheading, burning, or enslaving people. However, we should do our best to identify and understand those who are sworn to destroy us. Who are they? What is their mission statement? What are their beliefs?

The White House and the current administration label these terrorist groups, “Violent Extremists”. In accordance with this worldview, State Department spokesperson, Jen Psaki stated that the four Jews killed in a Kosher Butcher shop in Paris were “…not all victims of one background or one nationality” and that the people were targeted individually. Wrong! In fact gunman Amedy Coulibay called from inside the store to a broadcast news outlet and said: “I have 16 hostages and I have killed four, and I targeted them because they were Jewish.” These Jews are now all buried in Israel. The White House has continued this assessment by labeling the twenty-one Coptic Christians recently beheaded in Libya, as “Egyptian citizens” and “innocents.” Pope Francis denounced the murders, stating accurately, “They were assassinated just for being Christian.”

Using similar logic, basketball celebrity Kareem Abdul-Jabbar recently wrote in Time (1/9/15) “I look forward to the day when an act of terrorism by self-proclaimed Muslims will be universally dismissed as nothing more than a criminal attack of a thuggish political organization wearing an ill-fitting Muslim mask.” His article was entitled, “These Terrorist Attacks are Not About Religion.” I wish that Abdul-Jabbar was correct. I wish that these vicious assaults were not religion-based. I also wish that Hitler would have loved the Jewish people. Wishes only take us so far… The facts are the facts. These terrorist attacks are targeted strikes against Jews, Christians, and Muslim apostates because of their religious beliefs. They are carried out by radical, extremist, Islamic religious zealots.

Let’s assume that the President and Abdul-Jabbar are correct. These terrorists carried out indiscriminate and random acts of violence. What is the solution? What steps would one take to disenfranchise such an organization? Perhaps an effective resolution would be to offer free anger management classes as part of another national entitlement program. Or, as State Department spokeswoman, Marie Harf recently stated, “We can’t kill our way” out of war with ISIS. “We can work with countries around the world to help improve their governance, we can help them build their economies, so they can have job opportunities for these people.” Not naming our enemy significantly curtails our ability to clearly delineate who they really are. Indeed, there are some disaffected, adventure-seeking, unemployed members from Europe, the US, Africa, and the Middle East. However, at the core, these are mainly religious Islamic zealots who are not interested in job opportunities or improved governance.

As there is little debate about who is carrying out these murders, why are some afraid to use language that accurately describes them? There are several possibilities. First, these terrorists are not religious. Second, they are religious, but not Islamic. Third, they are Islamic but using this language may instigate racism against non-violent Muslims.

Terrorist Groups

Let’s examine the first two possibilities. Here is a list of designated (by various governments) terrorist groups in alphabetical order: Abdullah Azzam Brigades, Abu Nidal Organization, Abu Sayyaf, Aden-Abyan Islamic Army, Ajnad Misr, Akhil Bharat Nepali Ekta Samaj, al-Aqsa Foundation, al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, Al-Badr, al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, Al Ghurabaa, al-Haramain Foundation, Al-Itihaad al-Islamiya, Al-Mourabitoun, Al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Al-Shabaab, Takfir wal-Hijra, Al-Umar-Mujahideen, All Tripura Tiger Force, Ansar al-Sharia (Libya), Ansar al-Sharia (Tunisia), Ansar al-Islam, Jamaat Ansar al-Sunna, Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, Ansar Dine, Ansaru, Armed Islamic Group of Algeria, Army of Islam, Osbat al-Ansar. That covers most of the A’s. Perhaps you have noticed a subtle pattern in the names. 

There are non-Muslim terrorist groups. However, few of them are currently on our high threat list. For a list of Islamic Terrorist Attacks, you can click here. Who is our greatest threat? Our most dangerous adversary at the present time is ISIS - The Islamic State. Is ISIS simply a random collection of misunderstood antisocial psychopathic killers?  No, ISIS is a religious, terrorist organization. President Obama has referred to ISIS as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jay-vee team.” I contend that these erroneous labels have had and will continue to have adverse affects on our ability to understand, identify, and dismantle this group.

In his Time article, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s states that any violence perpetrated in the name of religion is not about religion – it’s about money and improving business. Making this about money is indeed a far stretch when you actually delve into the groups’ philosophy and ideology. Abdul-Jabbar bases this opinion on his view of religion which is “People wanting to live humble, moral lives that create a harmonious community and promote tolerance and friendship with those outside the religious community.” Unfortunately, not all share his peace-loving view of religion (see below).

Islamic or Not-Islamic, Is that the Question?

A recent article by Graeme Wood (3/15) in The Atlantic entitled, “What does ISIS really want?” is an encyclopedic compendium of information about ISIS and does an excellent job comparing and contrasting ISIS to other Islamic Extremist organizations. I highly recommend reading this editorial from which I will borrow some ideological descriptions of ISIS as an Islamic religious radical sect:

  • While ISIS does not represent mainstream Islamic ideology, they follow the Koran as their holy book and as the basis for their guiding principles and decisions or what it calls, “the Prophetic methodology.” They revere Mohammad as their most important prophet and historical figure.
  • According to most countries in Europe and the Arab world, ISIS are Islamic Jihadists. Yes, even Muslims in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, and Egypt view ISIS as violent Muslim Extremists.
  • According to the Koran, Muslims should establish a khilafa – a caliphate. According to accepted Islamic law all Muslims are obliged to immigrate to the territory where the caliph is required to apply Sharia law. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi the leader of ISIS is considered the caliph. He meets the Sunni Muslim criteria including being an adult man of Quraysh descent. As such, he has an essential duty of waging war to expand the caliphate – what Islamic law refers to as “offensive jihad” or forcible expansion (at least once per year) into countries that are ruled by non-Muslims.
  • Bernard Haykel, Princeton scholar and authority on the Islamic State’s ideology, believes the group is an authentic throwback to early Islam, dedicated to the text of the Koran and emulation of Mohammad. Muhammad’s earliest conquests were violent. Laws of war were passed down in the Koran and this behavior includes slavery, crucifixion, and beheadings. For example, enslaving families of infidels and taking their women as concubines is an accepted aspect of Shariah (Islamic) law as practiced by Mohammad. While moderate Muslims can state that slavery, crucifixion, and amputations are wrong, they cannot claim that slavery, crucifixion, and amputations do not have a basis in the Koran and the actions of the Prophet. The Koran (K 5:33) and Sunan Abu-Dawud, Book 38 (Sunni prophetic traditions), encourage execution and crucifixion as appropriate punishments for many offenses including being an enemy of Islam. To this day, several countries practicing Shariah law (including Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran, and Qatar) carry out public beheadings and executions for such crimes as drug use, homosexuality, adultery, and apostacy. Certainly there are very few if any, claiming that Saudi Arabians are not Muslims.
  • ISIS shares some well-accepted Sunni Muslim beliefs 1) there will be only 12 legitimate caliphs, 2) the armies of Rome will mass to meet the armies of Islam in northern Syria, 3) Muslims who acknowledge one omnipotent god, but die without pledging themselves to a valid caliph and incurring the obligations of that oath, fail to live a fully Islamic life, 4) Islam’s final showdown with an anti-Messiah will occur in Jerusalem after a period of renewed Islamic conquest. Eventually, they believe that most of their group (all but 5,000) will be killed before they are finally led to victory. Thus, setbacks are expected, and will not be significant deterrents.
  • Islamic law does not permit any lasting peace treaties, accepting any border to its territory, or recognizing any authority (ie, any government) other than God and The caliphate. All violators are considered apostates. The caliph will be replaced if he violates these laws.
  • ISIS identifies with a branch of Sunnism called Salafism (Arabic for the “pious forefathers.”). These forefathers are the Prophet himself and his earliest adherents, whom Salafis honor and emulate as the models for all behavior, including warfare and family/social life. Not all Salafis are Jihadist. There are some peaceful (quietist) Salafis whose priority is personal purification and religious observance. For the quietists, while war is forbidden, they do agree with the Islamic State that God’s law is the only law. Similarly, it is against their law to vote in any elections or have a democratic government. These would be considered peaceful Muslim Extremists.
  • Takfir, the practice of excommunication, comes directly from the Koran and practices of Mohammed. The punishment of apostasy is death. Denying the holiness of the Koran or Mohammad, shaving your beard, voting in any election, wearing Western clothes, or being a Shiite Muslim (Sunnis claims that some Shiite practices are not based in the Koran or teachings of the Prophet). This is why Shia are targeted – not random killings. We call this terrorism, ISIS calls this religious practice to purify the world. In fact Christians and Jews who do not resist the caliphate, acknowledge their subjugation, and pay a jizya (tax), may be exempted from execution. This practice is also founded within the Koran (Surah Al-Tawba, ninth chapter). As Graeme Wood points out, it is ironic that Obama a non-Muslim son of a Muslim (technically he is an apostate), practices takfir when he calls Muslim Extremists, non-Islamic.

Group Blaming?

When a masked executioner says Allahu akbar while beheading an apostate, he’s doing so for religious reasons. ISIS is Islamic, so is there a downside to labeling these groups Islamic Extremists? Why is the President of the United States and his administration so against these classifications? What initially appeared to be a concern of not encouraging racial bias against non-terrorist Muslims, has now turned into a pathologic dangerous avoidance of reality.

By labeling Islamic Extremist groups as such, does this, in any way, implicate the peaceful, non-violent Muslims of the world? The answer is a resounding NO! There is no and should be no guilt by religious association.

The label Radical Islam does not and should not be interpreted as blaming all Muslims for terrorist attacks. Recently, President Obama blamed all Christians for mass murders that occurred during the inquisition. He exclaimed that modern Chirstians should get off their high horses when they criticize the Muslim religion.

First, I do not believe that Christians today are critical of the entire Muslim religion. They are appropriately critical regarding violent Muslim Extremists. Second, Christians today are not the same Christians who persecuted Jews and Muslims 800 years ago. Third, most people including historians acknowledge that the inquisition was born out of the Catholic Church and do not deny that this is a branch of Christianity. Further, modern day Christians can claim that their practice is much different than those practiced by Christian Extremists during the 12th and 13th century. Similarly, Jews in the ancient past practiced ritual animal slaughter for sacrifices. These acts were based on biblical references. Jews today no longer continue these practices yet would not deny that these Hebrews of the past were also Jews.

Peter Weber has written an article in The Week (1/22/15), “What if Muslims blamed moderate Christians for Terrorist Attacks?” Even the title of Weber’s article is misleading. Asking about the implications of Muslims blaming moderate Christians for terrorist attacks is not on point. The obvious answer is that blaming anyone who is not involved in any way with terrorist attacks would be wrong, hurtful, and harmful – irrespective of their religious beliefs. However, no one, not even Fox News, is advocating this tactic. Moderate Christians should not be blamed for terrorist attacks by Christian extremist groups, nor should moderate Muslims be blamed for terrorist attacks by Islamic extremist groups. The extremist groups are acting under the guise of their beliefs and ideologies of their particular sect; they do not represent the entire religion or any other sect.

Weber’s article contends that most terrorist attacks are 1) not religious-based and 2) not carried out by Muslims. He cites the FBI as a source of information regarding terrorist attacks in the USA. Weber emphasizes that Latinos, Left Wing groups, and Jewish Extremists have played a greater role in terror attacks than have Islamic Extremists. Further, he states that most Terrorist attacks in Europe are due to separatist actions, rather than religious fanatics. Contrary to this assertion (that was prior to 2013), the number of religiously-motivated anti-Semitic attacks is rising exponentially. In France, the number of anti-Semitic attacks doubled from 2013 to 2014. While you may not be comfortable with the thought of Latino, Left Wing, Christian, or Jewish Terrorist groups in this country, you are probably not overtly concerned about what they may do next to place your life in danger.

How many of you reading this article are seriously concerned about the Jewish Radicals hijacking your next flight to Miami or bombing the Empire State Building? I am not denying that there are religious extremist groups of every sort. Fortunately, the last bombing in the US by the Jewish Defense League (JDL), according to FBI data was in the mid-80’s. Most of their attacks were against Soviet targets. Offshoots of the JDL, called Kach and Kahane Chai were also outlawed in Israel as terrorist organizations.

The existence of non-Muslim, religious terrorist groups is not an argument against the use of the label Islamic Extremist. As a Jew, I agree with the labeling of the JDL as a terrorist organization. Even though the vast majority of world Jewry has vocally deplored the actions of the JDL, members of this group follow ancient Jewish Biblical teachings and refer to themselves as Jews. Further, I am in no way offended by referring to them as a “Radical Jewish Terrorist group” or “Jewish Extremists.” I do not feel that I am being indicted, accused, or blamed for any wrongdoing when those terms are used. That is who they are. That is not what I am. Thus, while I am condoning accurate labeling as a form of causal attribution, I am not endorsing Group Blaming where the non-violent Jewish majority is indicted for acts committed by a few.

Similarly, using the label “Radical Islamic Terrorist group” or “Muslim Extremists” in no way accuses or implicates non-violent, peace-loving Muslims. This is not Group Blaming or “guilt by religious association”.  In terms of percentages, very few of the world’s population of 1.6 billion Muslims believe in or practice Radical Violent Extremism. Labeling the terrorist groups as such, do not insult and should not offend those Muslims with more mainstream beliefs.

The President, referring to three Muslims killed in North Carolina, said that no one should be targeted because of his or her faith. I agree, but it does happen. It is curious that the President used this specific example to blame religious targeting as the facts of the case are not clear and this may have been due to a parking space dispute. However, when there is undeniable evidence of Jews being targeted and killed in a Kosher butcher store or a synagogue or 21 Christians killed for being Christians in Syria, the administration avoids accusations and refers to them as “citizens” and “innocents.” When radical violent Muslims target and kill Christians, we need to acknowledge that it was religiously motivated. Losing sight of the groups’ purpose and ideology inhibits rallying recruitments from a moral perspective.

President Obama told the nation on 2/19/15 that the perception the west is at war with Islam is an “ugly lie.” I’m not sure who is spreading this lie. Neither Republican nor Democrat believes that we are at war with Islam. Even the conservative pundits on Fox News refer to a war against Radical Islamist Extremists, not against Islam.

The President went on to say, “Efforts to counter violent extremism will only succeed if citizens can address legitimate grievances through the democratic process and express themselves through strong civil societies.” He discussed the economic and political grievances as causes for people becoming terrorists. He cited freedom of religion, diverse societies, better education, advancing job opportunities, free democratic elections, and a “virtual exchange program” to bring young people together as mechanisms to stop people from joining terrorist groups. These statements reflect a poor understanding of the ISIS ideology. I believe the lack of understanding is due to an inability to define and clearly delineate who ISIS really is. Their “grievances” aren’t economic, the need for better jobs, or the desire to have more democratic elections.

President Obama blames high unemployment, poverty, and lack of education as being responsible for the rise in terrorism. This assertion is unreasonable for so many reasons. The poorest nations in the world are not high on the list of terrorist states, many countries around the world including the USA have had high unemployment levels without a significant rise in terrorism, and the majority of ISIS recruits are from middle class families and are in full-time education. Even if the President’s contention was true, it is ridiculous to believe that we, in the United States have any control over the economy, education or job opportunity of Yemen or Syria or any other foreign country. We can’t even control our own economy. We have also proven time and time again that we have no control over the governments of Middle East nations. I also believe in optimism but only with a hefty dose of realism and this proposal is unrealistic.

Causal attributions – naming the Islamic Extremist groups as the cause of Violent Extremism allow us to understand some of their past actions and predict some of their potential future behavior. An example given by Graeme Wood is that occupying critical parts of Syria and Iraq to stop expansion and dismantle the caliphate, is one mechanism “to un-cast the Islamic State’s spell over its adherents.”

The White House believes that ISIS is guilty of committing random acts of violence. With this viewpoint, it would be counterintuitive to cogitate any other purpose for these killings. Stopping a psychopath killing innocent victims at random is far more difficult than to apprehend a criminal who has a well-planned attack with a well-understood motive.

We need to attribute accountability to those responsible – Radical Islamic Jihadists - this may save many lives. We should not and do not irresponsibly blame those not directly involved – non-violent, moderate Muslims.

I look forward to your comments.

Copyright, Neil Farber, MD, PhD, 2015

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