Rethinking ‘terrorism’

Language reflects and frames our sense of our condition and our prospects. More often than we like, and certainly more often than is good for us, the language we use originates from our reptilian brain.

‘Terrorism’ is a good example of a word that leads us into fear and entrapment. As often as we use the word, we are acknowledging that the ‘terrorists’ (‘others’) have achieved their primary goal. They have ‘terrorized’ us: they have raised themselves up to the point that we should fear them. Perhaps we would be less frightened, and the ‘others’ would be less empowered, if we used a term such as ‘fanatic’. Surely our language should focus on their underlying (and unsustainable) conditions, which are mental illness or evil, rather than on the negative impact these could have on us if we adopted their frame of reference.

“Islamic extremists” or “war on terror” are two other good examples of phrases that frame discussion to the advantage of those who should not be advantaged. As often as we use these phrases, we are ceding to the ‘others’ the one thing that matters to them: that they are the sword and/or the shield of “pure” Islam (extreme can be conflated with ‘perfect’); or, that they have sufficient power to engage the entire might of our sovereign nations in war. (Shouldn’t we consider that ‘war’ is a disproportionate response, conveying far too much credit to a small band of fanatics? Shouldn’t we contend with them via ‘police actions’ – even very significant police actions — rather than by means of ‘war’?)

I am reminded of Sen. Barry Goldwater telling Americans, fifty years ago, that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice”. The fact is, no moral imperative justifies immoral/extreme means. We need to constrain ourselves in how we maintain liberty, or we cannot argue that others must constrain themselves in the way they maintain a faith perspective.

Perhaps we should separate these people from the role of defending Islam (which, generally speaking, does not want anything to do with them), and separate them, as well, from any sense of being models of, or martyrs for, Islam. Instead of giving them the satisfaction of being identified as agents of Islam, why don’t we refuse to make the connection they want us to make:  why don’t we conflate them with Timothy McVeigh (the Oklahoma bomber) and Jim Jones (of Jonestown infamy) and call them, for example, ‘religious primitivists’.

We need to avoid any suggestion that these people have terrorized us. We need to avoid conceding to them that they have any role in defending or advancing Islam. We need to cut them off from Islam, and force them into the primitive past.  They are not terrorizing us.  They are not opponents worthy of a ‘war’.  They are not the spirit or voice or hands of Islam.

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