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Does Talking About ‘Islamism’ Make Us ‘Islamophobic’?

How a ‘high-level’ panel discussion at the United Nations danced around definitions—and why it matters

Paul Berman
February 12, 2015
Tablet magazine
Tablet magazine
Tablet magazine
Tablet magazine

What is the right way to talk about terrorism in a politicized atmosphere? The United Nations staged a “high-level” panel discussion the other day on this topic, under the sponsorship of the Swedish and Indonesian missions. And the right way proved to be elusive, which may suggest the depth of our problem. The U.N. filmed the conversation and has put it online under the title, “Staying Together—Dialogue in the Face of Violent Extremism.” You might want to have a look. Some sharply phrased exchanges took place. I was one of the panelists, and certain of those phrases were launched from my own microphone, and, then again, other phrases were launched in my direction by the newly appointed United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, H.R.H. Prince Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, and by other people on the panel and by diplomats in the hall. A number of differences did get aired—though I have to warn you that, if you call up the video in search of those differences, the video’s unfortunate habit of freezing from time to time may try your patience.

But never mind the video. The moderator was a TV journalist for Al Jazeera named Ghida Fakhry Khane, who reminded everyone in her introductory comments of the shocking events in Paris just recently. She invited remarks from the Permanent Representative of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, from the Director-General of UNESCO, from the High Commissioner and a number of other distinguished worthies from Sweden and Indonesia. And, when at last she turned to me, I vented my frustration at what has become by now an old and characteristic and infuriating habit of our era, which, in regard to naming the source of terror, adds up to self-censorship. At the high-level panel, every last person was a declared enemy of “violent extremism.” And yet, nobody wanted to mention that, in Paris just now, the violent extremism in question turned out to be Islamist extremism. Therefore I introduced the word Islamism into the conversation.

This was exactly what Prince Zeid, the High Commissioner, did not want to hear. The commissioner, it must be said, is an altogether impressive person, which you may have noticed if you saw a “Saturday Profile” of him in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago, under the byline of Nick Cumming-Bruce. The prince—he is a member of Jordan’s royal family—served with the United Nations in Bosnia during the 1990s and observed terrible events there. And, by all accounts, he was one of the people who responded most admirably. He was the U.N. official who pushed most relentlessly to investigate the U.N.’s failure to prevent the Srebenica massacre—the slaughter of Bosnian Muslims by fanatical Serbian nationalists. The capacity for relentlessness suggests that he may do well in his new position as High Commissioner, too. Yes, everyone sneers at the U.N., and, even so, a U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights who commands a sufficiently dogged zeal can achieve a lot. One of Prince Zeid’s predecessors at the High Commission was Sérgio Vieira de Mello, an old Paris ’68er—Vieira de Mello who was tragically killed in 2003 in Iraq, where he might have made a difference, and who did make a difference in East Timor, and did so precisely because of his own relentless energy and improvisatory panache. Samantha Power has written a biography of Vieira de Mello, from which I learn that he counted Prince Zeid among his friends: one more mark in the prince’s favor.

It is also true that Prince Zeid used to be Jordan’s ambassador to the U.N., and, in this capacity, he voted in favor of resolutions to outlaw the “defamation of religion”—which means, he voted to outlaw certain kinds of speech that some people might regard as needed and right, but that other people might judge to be blasphemous. These were votes in favor of obliging the world to bite its tongue on the topic of, chiefly, Islam (since the pressure for blasphemy laws has come chiefly from the Organization for Islamic Cooperation). And so, I wonder. One of these days, a human-rights controversy is going to arise that touches on delicate theological and religious matters, and how will the new High Commissioner for Human Rights react then? We will find out.

Meanwhile I found out that Prince Zeid does not approve of my own way of speaking about such matters. Zeid directed himself at me in the course of the discussion, and he took the view that “imprecision,” in his word, offers “the greatest disservice to humanity.” He had my own terminology in mind. He said, “To use the word Islamism instead of saying takfirism, I think, is an imprecision.” His own word, takfirism, may have puzzled some people in the audience, though really it ought not to do so. Takfirism is the ideology that calls upon Sunni Islamists of an insanely radical sort to slaughter Muslims who are deemed to have sunk into apostasy. In practice this means that Shia ought to be massacred. By now everyone has surely noticed that during the last many years not a week goes by without a report of some new ghastly suicide bombing of a crowd of random Shia attending a funeral, or frequenting a mosque, or shopping in a market, all of which represents the takfiri ideology at work. The massacres are shocking beyond belief. They are committed by the faction within the Sunni Islamist movement that is led nowadays by the Islamic State—the movement’s most dynamic faction, just now, though the rival factions ought not to be counted out.

It is good, then, to have the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights single out takfiri ideology as a dreadful thing. The prolonged slaughter of Shia by crazed and suicidal fanatics of the Sunni Islamist movement constitutes possibly the single most horrific event of the modern age, and yet it has never been adequately discussed. I wonder even if anyone has come up with a tabulation of the victims. The Shia all over the world stand in desperate need of a champion to speak on their behalf, and the champion plainly cannot be the Shiite world’s largest institution, which is the Islamic Republic of Iran, given the Islamic Republic’s dedication to genocidal doctrines of its own. Who, then, will speak for the victims? Here is a task for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Still, the moderator from Al Jazeera did introduce our discussion by invoking the Paris attacks, and I wondered why, under the shadow of those attacks, the High Commissioner would rebuke me for speaking about Islamism, which contains takfiri and non-takfiri strands alike. The jihadis of al-Qaida—the High Commissioner did not like my term jihadis, either, but I think it is correct—in Paris attacked the staff at Charlie Hebdo because they felt that the Prophet Muhammad required murderous revenge. And the jihadis’ comrade from the Islamic State attacked the Hyper Cacher grocery store because he wanted to defend the Muslims of Palestine, though he was also upset about the treatment of Muslims in the Balkans in the 1990s. Takfiri ideology entered into neither of these attacks. Radical Islamism was the ideological underpinning—Islamism, meaning the revolutionary political movement that invokes Islam as its justification.

I responded to the High Commissioner, as you can see on the video, by remarking that Islamism contains its Shiite factions, too—which, far from clarifying the discussion, prompted an interjection by the Iranian representative in the hall, who blamed terrorism on what he called “occupation,” meaning the crimes of Israel. And so, neither the High Commissioner nor the Iranian representative managed to condemn by name the Islamist ideology that had just produced a bloodbath in Paris.


I was struck by the response of Ghida Fakhry Khane, the moderator. Her quarrel with me offers the liveliest moment on the video. She objected that my use of the word Islamist could perhaps “play into the hands” of extremists. And I, in at least one of my replies, pretty much missed her point. I wanted to stress that calling a spade a spade was not going to inflame the already-flamed Islamist fanatics. But she had something else in mind. Her fear was that, by using a word like Islamism, with its derivation from Islam, people like me were going to inflame an entirely different group of extremists. These are the fanatics of an anti-Islam intolerance, the various movements or currents of the extreme right or not-so-extreme right in the United States and in Europe that are motivated by a doctrine of their own, which is an irrational fear of Islam, or Islamophobia. An ignorant bigotry. I never did respond adequately to her objection.

Even so, this exchange goes to the heart of the debate over Islamist terror. The Islamist terrorists do what they do because they believe that a dreadful conspiracy has been mounted against Islam—a conspiracy to “annihilate” Islam, in Sayyid Qutb’s phrase, which has been hatched by Christians and Jews who recognize that Islam is the superior religion and who therefore believe that, unless Islam is annihilated, their own religions will fail to survive. And the Islamists believe that Jews have been conspiring against Islam forever, and this is because treachery is the Jewish nature. And the Islamists wish to defend Islam. Such is their argument.

But there is a nonextremist way of entertaining a slightly different but ultimately similar view, minus the pop-eyed conspiracy theory. This is the view that glances around the world and concludes that, on a global scale, tremendous pressures and hatreds are being mounted against the Muslims, and the pressures and hatreds derive from an irrational fear of Islam, or what is called Islamophobia. A bigotry. People who entertain this second view may think of themselves as moderates and as the enemies of Islamist extremism—as people who are afraid of revolutionary Islamism. But mostly they are afraid of an outbreak of irrational hatred of Islam. When they hear someone speaking about the Islamist political movement or about the Islamic roots of terror, they begin to worry that any such discussion may serve as one more match thrown on the combustible piles of Islamophobia.

I do not mean to attribute the view I have just outlined to my sophisticated interlocutors at the U.N. “high-level” panel, whose various opinions I cannot claim to know. But I do think that, around the world, a good many people cling to this view, and its influence on the public debate is substantial, which means that it requires a proper response.

Only this cannot be a simple response. To people who live in fear of extremist Islamophobia, it has to be said: Yes, in different parts of the world, Muslim populations are right now experiencing a hostile pressure that comes at them from non-Muslim populations of various sorts—the product of Hindu-Muslim tensions in India, of Christian-Muslim tensions in Africa, of Jewish-Arab land disputes in Israel and Palestine, and so forth, unto the political tensions of China and the sundry republics along the southern border of the old Soviet Union. Muslim immigrants in Europe and North America experience pressures of their own. And all of these Muslim populations deserve the solidarity of other people, in the degree to which they are victims of injustice.

But do these several circumstances around the world add up to a single circumstance—a product of a single prejudice or irrational hatred directed not just at Muslims but at their religion? An “Islamophobia”? The word makes me uneasy. The irrational and ignorant anti-Islam bigots certainly do make themselves known—the people who have never heard of the grandeurs of Islamic civilization and would not be capable of hearing of any such thing; the people who go on believing the sort of thing that Dante believed in the 14th century, even if they have never heard of Dante; the partisans of Milosevic-style Serbian nationalism, and so forth. In America the Ku Klux Klan traditions have never entirely come to an end, as we may have just been reminded. But ignorant bigotries do not suffice to account for the global problems facing Muslims in various parts of the world, except in a few places. In Europe and the Americas, the problems of the Muslim immigrants are chiefly problems that face immigrants of almost every sort, regardless of religious background. To attribute these many problems to the irrational hatreds expressed by anti-Islam bigots can only succeed in erasing the realities.

The overarching fear of Islamophobia produces a self-pity, too, which lends itself to a broader feeling of victimhood. And the feeling of victimhood leads even the most enlightened of people to cringe at the mere sound of words that draw on Islam, or even at the friendliest of non-Islamophobic cartoons. The sense of victimhood destroys the sense of proportion. It leads the people who are experiencing these fears to demand that everyone else tiptoe around certain topics, and especially the nature of the terrorist ideology. And so, we are told to confine our discussion either to the takfiri current that specializes in murdering Muslims, or to “violent extremism” in general, which might mean anything.

We are asked, in short, not to discuss the problem. This is a way of asking us not to resist. But we have to resist, and so does everyone, and resistance has to begin with verbal precision. Imprecision, as the High Commissioner says, does a disservice to humanity.

Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.