The Battle of Words: Why Terminology Matters

The Battle of Words: Why Terminology Matters



Recently, the White House defended its rejection of terms like “radical Islam,” for better and more specific terminology like “violent extremism.” The reason, explained White House spokesman Josh Earnest, is twofold:

1. Accuracy. What is said at the bully pulpit matters, and as such, if something can be properly and specifically addressed, it should. Those who use the power of the bully pulpit responsibly have the power to change public perceptions and attitudes. For example, in 2013, the Associated Press (AP) announced that it would no longer use certain terminology like Islamist when describing “an advocate or supporter of a political movement.” The AP’s decision to modify its guidelines on the use of the highly charged term is part of a broader effort to rid the AP Stylebook of labels that can be vague and misleading on ethnic- and religion-based reporting. The AP announced the change in order to provide a more balanced approach without relying on negative generalizations.  

Terminology is key especially when it comes to countering violent extremism (CVE). In light of the White House’s recent announcement that it will convene a “Summit on Countering Violent Extremism” next month, it is all the more imperative that we understand the nuances of words and how they affect our national security and national resiliency. Furthermore, if we use terms like “radical Islam, Islamic jihad, or jihadists” we make enemies out of an entire faith, rather than a minority group of people who practice a perverted ideology.

American Muslims are the most valuable resource in defeating the twisted ideology of extremists who seek to use Islamic justification for their criminal actions. Being accurate with terminology, especially when it comes to the CVE and national security contexts, divorces the perception of religion and terrorism, and focuses our national security resources on any and all potential threats, thereby making our strategy more effective and precise. “All forms of violent extremism would certainly be discussed in the context of the Summit,” stated Earnest. “Including the threat from people who invoke the name of Islam, there are other forms” of violent extremism that will be addressed.

2. Delegitimizing baseless justifications. The second reason Earnest highlighted the importance of terminology is the fact that when we use terms that violent extremists use, we essentially validate their baseless religious claims. Avoiding religious terminology in our efforts to counter violent extremism denies these criminals the religious affiliation they severely lack and so desperately seek. Groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda and their affiliates justify their criminal actions through distorted justifications of Islamic teachings. Taking away these religious labels in our national conversations is a strategic move in fighting these groups, not just with military might, but with powerful counter-messaging. The worst thing we can do is unknowingly find ourselves in a situation where we are legitimizing illegitimate justifications for acts of violence.

MPAC seeks to clear ambiguity by defining appropriate terminology in a more substantive manner through our fellowship program with a full policy report to be released later this year. Using accurate terminology will not only empower and embolden valuable resources in the partnership to counter violent extremism, it furthers America’s strategic interests in securing our nation while being mindful of building a resilient and cohesive citizenry.

We look forward to the White House including the importance of terminology as part of its summit on CVE next month. The conversation around Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) is taking place amongst policy-makers and the media. American Muslims must be an integral part of this conversation. Our approach at MPAC has been clear since day one on this topic: American Muslims must be seen as partners, not suspects.