The Associated Press, after putting up a brief defense of the English language, ceded the term “gay marriage,” then “illegal immigrant” and finally “Islamist.” The left has a long history with political language and the media, so these latest triumphs were only a matter of time.
“Don’t tell me words don’t matter,” Obama once said, while insisting that they meant the opposite of what we thought they meant. The left believes that words matter because they allow people to communicate the wrong sort of ideas. Change the words and you change the ideas.
Islamism is one of those ideas. The idea is that people ought to live under Islam. This was thought to be a bad idea, back in those dark days before we learned that Islamism is as American as Mom, Other Mom and Apple Pie.
Now we know that Islamism is actually the best defense against Islamism so long as it’s the good kind of Islamism that involves terrorist groups winning elections and shooting their people in the streets instead of the bad kind of Islamism which involves terrorist groups shooting people in the streets without first running for office.
The Muslim Brotherhood used to be the bad kind of Islamists that set off bombs and shot people in the streets, but then they disavowed violence, ran for office, shredded what was left of the law and began torturing and killing their opponents who protested the shredding.
Opponents of Islamism, the word not the idea, warn that if we associate Islamism with Islamist terrorist groups, then Muslims will get the idea that Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood are the same thing. The only argument that they present in favor of them not being the same thing is that the media always calls the Muslim Brotherhood a moderate group. And if they’re a moderate group, they clearly can’t be torturing and killing their opponents, even if the same news stories that call them moderate also report that they are torturing and killing their opponents.
In Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda are fighting side by side as the Free Syrian Army and the Al Nusra Front. The Free Syrian Army is moderate and secular, which is to say that it’s now dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood which is neither moderate nor secular, but which we support, while the Al Nusra Front is an Islamist group we oppose. Unfortunately the moderate and secular Free Syrian Army refuses to disavow the Al Nusra Front and fights alongside them. The only possible conclusion that our media should draw from this is that Al Qaeda is the very model of a moderate secular organization.
Back when we were bombing moderate secular militants in the hills of Afghanistan, it was determined that we should delink Islam from terrorism by insisting that they have nothing in common. With this strategy it was thought that we would convince potential Al Qaeda supporters to go off and support a more proper Islamic cause like the International Islamic Relief Organization, the Global Relief Foundation and the Benevolence International Foundation. Unfortunately all of those also turned out to be fronts for Al Qaeda.
Having done our best to avoid giving Muslims the impression that Islam has anything to do with terrorism on the theory that if we believe something stupid, they will believe it too, we are now working to deny any links between Islamism and Islamist terrorism on the theory that most Muslims are as stupid and illiterate as John Brennan and John Kerry think that they are.
Islamist refers to an organization which believes in imposing Islamic law on a society. This is also known as Islam. While such organizations can function non-violently, so can many Communist and Nazi parties until they come to power. The daily violence in Egypt reminds us that there is no such thing as the non-violent imposition of a system that disenfranchises a sizable portion of the population and destroys the civil rights of all the rest.
The AP’s linguistic attack is meant to distinguish between political Islamists and armed Islamists; but if Islamist refers to the goal of making Islam into the political and legal system of a country, what basis is there for distinguishing between the two?
The Muslim Brotherhood is political in Egypt, but in Syria it’s conducting a war to take over the country. If we use the AP’s labeling process, then the Muslim Brotherhood is Islamist when it is in Egypt, but stops being Islamist in Gaza where it’s Hamas or in Syria where it’s the Tawhid Brigade. When the Muslim Brotherhood set off bombs and carried out assassinations, then it was not Islamist, but when it ran for office then it became Islamist.
If the same organization can be Islamist or not be Islamist through the expedient of changing its tactics rather than its beliefs, then the AP is abusing Islamist to mean democratic or non-violent.
Islamism refers to the ends, rather than the means. By making the term conditional on the means, the AP is rendering the term meaningless. An Islamist can build bombs or run for office. Neither defines him. The Muslim Brotherhood’s diverse range of front groups and franchises show that a single movement with a common end can utilize different means.
A Communist was not defined by whether he chose to run for office or set off bombs. Either way he was a Communist. Would the AP say that a Neo-Nazi is less or more of a Neo-Nazi if he runs for his local council, rather than shooting up a house? Such is its redefinition of Islamist to mean someone who runs for office, after building bombs and with the caveat that if he doesn’t win the election, then it’s back to building bombs.
The AP’s redefinition of Islamism to exclude Islamist terrorists eliminates an entire category of terrorists. It doesn’t enhance meaning; instead it vandalizes it in another futile attempt to confuse the issue.
The new Stylebook definition insists that terrorist groups should be identified individually, and that’s true, but they should also be identified by contextualizing them within a larger trend. The redefinition eliminates the category and hopes thereby that no one will notice that the trend exists. Over a decade after September 11 this hope is badly misplaced.
Individual terrorist groups can be localized by two sets of coordinates; tactical and ideological. The tactical coordinate of Al Qaeda is terrorism. Its ideological coordinate is Islamism. Terrorism is a general category into which countless terrorist groups fit. It tells us nothing about why the group does what it does. It only tells us that it does it. It is the second ideological coordinate that gives it a more specific category and context.
By stripping away this second category, the AP Stylebook removes the context and the specific category akin to relabeling the Housewares aisle as “Objects”. It’s not false, but it removes the specific contextual information leaving a general category that is so vague as to be meaningless.
Vague and meaningless are the usual approaches that the United States has taken when talking about Islamic terrorism. Politicians do it with the unease of a father forced to discuss the birds and bees with his teenage son. The media take refuge in very vague generalities about extremism, a category that is even wider and more meaningless than terrorism.
Some of this vagueness is ignorance, but much of it is a deliberate strategy of self-censorship. The latest redefinition of Islamism is a typical example of self-censorship that trades vagueness for meaning and decontextualizes a story for political reasons.
The media has spent a great deal of time talking about Islamic terrorist groups as extremist and militant, but has avoided dealing with what they actually believe and what their goals are. Refusing to describe them as Islamist continues a hopeless propaganda strategy designed to fool Muslims and Americans while fooling absolutely no one.