The Failures of Radical Islam

By Ahmed Khanani, Earlham College

*This memo was prepared for the “Evolving Methodologies in the Study of Islamist Politics” workshop, January 29, 2016.

The positioning of the phrase “radical Islam” has recently become increasingly clear as major media outlets have interrogated why, on the one hand, many Democrats (including President Obama and Hilary Clinton) have avoided the phrase and, on the other, most Republicans (e.g. Donald Trump and Governor Christie) have not. Emily Bazelon and John McWhorter suggest that Clinton’s refusal to use “radical Islam” is part of her effort to prevent Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis from materializing. Similarly, both analysts read critics like Christie as depicting her non-use as both pandering to political correctness and also neutering American efforts to counter groups like ISIS. To be generous to Christie (and Trump), we might contend that they hope to distinguish between the beliefs and actions of, on the one hand, violent, Islamically inspired groups (like ISIS or Al Qaeda) and, on the other, something like “everyday Muslims.” In this regard, “radical Islam” approximates a project of rescuing: of rescuing “Islam” from radicals, fundamentalists, Wahhabis, Salafis, from a great many undesirables. Yet, as this phrase gains political currency in American politics, not only does the rescuing project lessen in significance in relation to balancing narrowly identified “American security interests,” but, more importantly, the analytic value of this phrase loses in importance in relation to its use as an anxious indicator of one’s political leanings.

In this brief essay, I draw on a postcolonial perspective to highlight major problems with the phrase “radical Islam” that speak to a broader failure in Western texts and thought – evident in virtually all popular media, academic writings, and policy briefs. Specifically, phrases like “radical Islam,” “Islamist,” “jihadist,” and other such neologisms tacitly suggest that Western analysts can not only diagnose what is happening in the Arabic-speaking MENA, but that said analysts can even proffer clear prescriptions. If, for example, analysts write of “surging radical Islam” in, say, Iraq, there is a clear fix: somehow it must be curbed. I want to suggest that rather than beginning with neologisms to describe a situation that exists outside of the language currently available to Western analysts, we ought to instead listen closely to how people “on the ground” describe their lived experiences, religio-political projects, and both the banal and also the extraordinary practices of violence that shape their worlds. By attending to the ordinary language of Arabic-speaking peoples in the greater MENA, Western analysts and policy-makers will not only be able to move beyond unhelpful categorizing – that is, doing a bad job of “lumping and splitting” – but might even be able to exchange the deeply troubled project of rescuing Islam and Muslims for productive research agendas, thoughtful analyses, and successful policy initiatives.

Let me first begin by charting three significant liabilities with the phrase “radical Islam” that have been overshadowed by the essentially political debate over its use. I will then briefly discuss the central claim I want to advance herein: that actions and language are most usefully apprehended through situating them in local contexts. More concretely, to understand contemporary phenomena in the MENA (and, I imagine, much of the developing world), analysts ought to begin their work by asking, “what does this word, this practice mean in the local context in which it takes place?” Let’s turn to the failures of radical Islam, then.

In using the phrase “radical Islam,” we are necessarily acting as though there is a true Islam that we can somehow know – that we not only have access to true Islam, but we also know it to be moderate, or at least not-radical. Why not instead draw from Western scholars of the Muslim tradition like Talal Asad and begin from the premise that there is no such thing as an “Islam” out there? Differently, the term “Islam” brings together a diverse range of practices and beliefs that cohere around the pillars of monotheism and the Prophet Mohammad as the final of God’s prophets – though, of course, even these two pillars have been differently understood and acted upon by Muslims over the centuries. Since we know that both historically and also in the current moment there is incredible diversity and disagreement amongst people who identify as Muslim, then it follows that writing about Islam as a unitary entity that can be easily accessed is, at best, misguided while writing many people out of Islam and, at worst, is a rhetorically powerful, analytically empty move to discredit people with whom we disagree.

Another way of thinking about this is that if we begin from the premise that there is such a thing as “Islam” and that, therefore, some people are good at being Muslims and others are not, analytically we’re basically enacting the same moves as ISIS: the only disagreement is about who is a good Muslim and who is not. In other words, when analysts and politicians use the phrase “radical Islam,” they are tacitly referencing a not-radical Islam as the counterpoint as though they know that not-radical Islam, and in so doing they are in fact making claims about what real, true Islam actually is and are using this knowledge in service of moral criticisms of specific people with particular beliefs and actions. This not only runs the risk of essentializing Islam, it also enacts an epistemic violence that is indistinguishable from the epistemic violence engendered by the very people whose Muslim-ness is called into question with the phrase “radical Islam.” In making a claim about true Islam and criticizing, say, ISIS for their failure to correctly embody true Islam, the conversation about ISIS shifts from a register of, e.g., criticizing a group for enacting indefensible sexual violence to a theological debate, which is precisely where the Western politicians, analysts, and academics are at their weakest and ISIS is at its best.

My final major concern about the phrase “radical Islam” has to do with power dynamics. More precisely, I am concerned by the ways in which American, and generally Western, foreign policy and neocolonial imperatives coincide with who is identified through the rubric of radical Islam – and how Muslims sympathetic or expedient to these purposes are excluded from this troubling phrase. It is no coincidence that George W. Bush invoked the specter of radical Islam – and its inverse, moderate Islam – in the process of declaring retributive war in September 2001. This is all to say that we ought to remember that when we use the phrase “radical Islam” we are taking sides politically – and not just because politicians are currently making it a hot-button issue. It is a phrase that tacitly makes moral, political, and violent claims that typically rest just beneath the surface. I hope and believe we can be more creative than the for us/with the terrorists binary that has informed so much of Western discourse since 2001. The language of “radical Islam,” I want to suggest, is very much consonant with this binary, placing those who use it squarely in the “for us” camp and those who do not are rendered anti-American. Personally, I find this unsatisfying.

Thus, “radical Islam” fails insofar as it locates all Muslims in a crude binary that reifies and essentializes Islam while also profoundly limiting the realm of politics available to Western actors. Moreover, in shifting the debate to the register about true Islam, two significant consequences emerge. First, it is impossible to resolve theological debate in this world: either ISIS theologians are right about “true Islam,” or Donald Trump is – either way, there’s no way to convince anyone about theological issues by way of evidence in this world. Second, and perhaps more troubling, when Western politicians and analysts dichotomize radical and “true” Islam, they not only engage in theological debate, but they are also effectively making a claim about what kinds of religion can be tolerated. Radical Islam, then, exposes fractures in the underlying liberalism that constitutes the fabric of American politics. Moreover, “radical Islam” both undertakes normative work that renders it a failed “empirical container” and also inadequately describes the world around us.

I suspect that other Western neologisms to describe the Muslim MENA have similar failings. Elsewhere I have argued that the term Islamist has several damaging shortcomings that ultimately render it unhelpful in thinking and talking about Islamically inspired political actors and groups. Rather than simply document the ways in which commonly employed neologisms host both empirical and normative failures for Western analysts and scholars, I will briefly argue for an ethical and methodological alternative: charting the range of meaning of unfamiliar words and practices in local contexts as a first step in apprehending new phenomena. In particular, I want to suggest that policy failures in the MENA can be partially explained through scholars and analysts inability to explain politics in the region because of an inattentiveness to local practices of meaning.

As has been well documented, on the heels of removing Saddam Hussein from power, in 2003 the US-led Coalition in Iraq wanted to purge all traces of Hussein’s network from positions of power and thereby summarily removed all Baathists from the vast majority of government positions – including removing nearly 400,000 people from their military posts, taking away promised pensions, and not taking away their weapons. Predictably, this decision resulted in former Baathists going underground; party members have since emerged as a key player in contemporary politics: they are now allied with ISIS. What appears at first blush an obvious policy failure might also be productively read as a failure to understand the meaning of local practices: hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were party-members not because of an ideological or personal commitment, but for dozens of reasons from the everyday and banal (e.g. better job opportunities for Baathists and family pressures) to the extraordinary (e.g. avoiding execution under Hussein’s regime). Because analysts and policy-makers were confident that party-membership was the same thing around the world their decision to remove Baathists from public work was reasonable; yet, had they begun by asking themselves, “what does it mean to be Baathist in 2002?” the violence that is currently engulfing Iraq and Syria may well have been lessened.

More broadly, and by way of conclusion, I want to suggest scholars, analysts, and policy-makers would benefit from pausing to ask: what do people in the MENA mean with the words they use? What do key words (e.g. democracy, terrorism, human rights) actually mean in ordinary language – that is, in everyday conversations – to people in the region? And what are the actions associated therewith? Differently, I have argued that “radical Islam” fails Western analysts because it harbors strong normative commitments that shape the range of empirical referents associated therewith – these problems plague Western neologisms that seek to describe the politics of the MENA. Given the failures of “radical Islam” and other neologisms, it seems ethically sound and intellectually responsible to begin from the grammar up: to discern the meaning of everyday words and practices as understood by peoples in the region before attempting to diagnose problems or offer remedies.

Ahmed Khanani is an assistant professor of politics at Earlham College.

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