How Language Legitimizes Terrorism

Following the war in Syria and the rise of Daesh, western society is more determined than ever to curb the number of men, women and children turning to these organisations. Tactics already employed will undoubtedly have some effect; internet censorship will certainly prove useful in the goal of trying to prevent online recruitment, for example. Yet nonetheless, I believe there’s one area where we fall short: the language we use when describing such people.

Surely, if we’re trying to lower the number of ‘homegrown terrorists’ we churn out each year, the last thing we’d want to do is make terrorism sound appealing. Yet synonymous with ‘terrorist’ are words like ‘radical’ and ‘extremist’, which seem to put an exciting spin on the act of systematic murder. After all, when would the ‘extreme’ ever sound less appealing? When has the ‘radical’ option never been more attractive, at least superficially? Given that many of the potential recruits we’re talking about are children, this likely presents even more of a problem. If it’s considered a radical move to join a terrorist organisation, this may help influence such a decision, even if only subconsciously.

Another danger presented by this kind of terminology is the fact that, in the context of Islam, words like ‘radicalism’, ‘extremism’ and ‘fundamentalism’ all imply a sense of untainted purity. They legitimise the doctrine practised by Daesh or al-Qaeda as a somehow purer interpretation of Islam than that of most normal, law-abiding Muslims, which could present a further danger to the aforementioned crowd. If you cherished and respected your faith, you could easily conclude that an extreme form of that religion – a purer form of that religion – would be favourable. The problem also lies in the fact that this kind of interpretation is wholly untrue; look at most of these organisations and you’ll see that they’re not really fighting for the caliphate. They’re just angry and bloodthirsty people looking for an excuse to kill others.

Now, I’m not suggesting there’s a black-and-white separation between Muslims and terrorists, and, as someone very critical of all religion, I’ll happily make the point that much of the violence carried out by these so-called fundamentalists is rooted in traditional Islamic principles, yet it seems like they’re currently portrayed as more legitimate followers of the same creed. We need to call a spade a spade and accept that sloppy language of this kind only conceals terrorism’s ugly reality.

14 thoughts on “How Language Legitimizes Terrorism

  1. So true! And how hard for our law-abiding ethnic communities! I teach a lot of Muslim students, some of them practising Muslims, some not. Most of them can see through this window-dressing: they are VERY anti Daesh, some quite outspoken. I’m sure they find the present climate pretty uncomfortable.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, it certainly makes it more difficult for normal Muslims to counter the minority of extremist propaganda when we have western leaders and campaigns boxing us all into the “terrorist religion” camp.


  2. Yes, but which words should we use? When young we are all drawn to extremes. We are for or against, lukewarm does not satisfy. Only much later does one think that lukewarm, in an uncertain world, may be the sanest option.If a catholic some girls want to become Brides of Christ…..prostrate themselves before the high altar and bid the world farewell. Some enter extreme enclosed orders and may never see family again. Deluded? Yes, but nearly all extreme movements encourage delusions. As T S Eliot has it, Go, go, go, said the bird, humankind cannot bear very much reality. It is was not attractive to followers of Hitler, Pol Pot, Idi Amin or any of that ilk that they were just envious cruel megalomaniacs who relished torturing and killing. Fight the good fight indeed….


  3. Yes – and I especially agree with your second point about the implication of untainted purity. As for that word extreme – it hadn’t occurred to me before, but in modern life it’s often used as an accolade. Extreme sports are seen as cool, for the reckless and brave and heroic. Add that to a photo of someone looking faintly mysterious in black, with guns and flags – and the sense that these people have a clan, they have a purpose, they are significant – and your recruitment campaign is underway.


  4. Great post. Another brain whirl. The concept of connecting extremism with our innate yet utterly hopeless quest for purity.. perfection.. our attempts to escape the inescapable (and wonderful) mess that is reality .. all partic interesting to think about.


  5. But like it or not, these murderers generally profess to carry out their acts pursuant to religious beliefs, albeit perverted religious beliefs. And we have to call them something. Perhaps we should call them ‘Perverts’?


  6. Yes and agreed, as well as choosing words carefully .. we must stop making background images on news etc of IS looking like some sort of badass exciting movie poster.. perhaps instead a photo of them pushing a gay man to his death off top of building?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. So true. Language is incredibly powerful. I reckon we should create comics showing jihadis as foolish, clumsy brutes – as the Nazis were portrayed in WWII comics – might seem really old fashioned but in fact those comics probably did a good job of helping kids lose their fear of the enemy.


  8. Very interesting indeed. I once lived in an area in Belfast where there was a huge mural of a man in a balaclava holding a machine gun. I had to walk past it to go the local shop, given how forgetful I am this was a very regular trip. It began to get to me not because it looked scary or indeed enticing, it started to look normal. I stopped thinking about it or noticing it. Then one of my friends from uni came to visit and kept saying every time she went with me on my many trips to the shop for more milk (ok more wine), how disturbing the image was.

    Part of the reason I moved back to England from NI was that I decided that I didn’t want to bring children up somewhere where it was normal to have images like this plastered all over the place. I was deeply worried about how it was subconsciously effecting me and my then 2 year old. (You know her, my crazy ginger daughter – might explain a lot). Whilst I have thought a lot about images and their impact upon our subconscious, I hadn’t really thought about the language we used to describe terrorist organisations. I hadn’t even thought about the word extremist and its association with the current trend of extreme sports. But then I am an old bird whose idea of extreme sport is running round York in the rain. In Northern Ireland I just called organisations who shot and bombed innocent civilians terrorists – I suppose that was because there were terrorists on both sides. Fundamentalist in my head were different – not involving themselves in the violence but not speaking out against it either. I don’t really know why we have changed the language when the terrorists are from the East. Language changes all the time. The word for an Irish rebel which was one held in great esteem – became a word used to abuse a whole religion. Also the word barbarians in latin meant someone who was foreign (uncivilised) who was not from one of the great empires. It became a derogatory word and then became associated with violence after being described in many of Ceasar works when describing the civilisations he went out to conquer and battled with. I wonder who started referring to terrorists as fundamentalists and extremists, the organisations themselves or us?

    One of the major problems I think we face is that we don’t know what to call them because we aren’t educated enough on who they are, there history, what their motivations are, which are fundamentalist and extremist in the true meaning of the word and which are terrorists. This makes it difficult therefore to label them. I am certainly one of the great unwashed, not really knowing enough to speak on the subject. My husband however purchased a rather interesting book recently called Jihad Academy the Rise of the Islamic State by the French Journalist Nicolas Henin (managed first 3 chapters before the Crazy Christmas rush). He was reporting in Syria and got captured and held a hostage for quite a while. Luckily he survived and was released. It is for me a real eye opener. I am currently enjoying it, if I ever manage to get all my guests out of my house and return to casual reading will let you know if its any good.

    Anyway as always your blog is incredibly interesting and engaging and forces me every so often to engage my brain.




  9. Another good and thought-provoking post, Max. Keep going!
    I am glad that you call it Daesh, not Islamic State.
    The BBC calling the terrorist group “Islamic State” is another language mistake, as others have pointed out – because most Muslims would not agree it follows the central tenets of Islam, and most other countries do not recognize it as a state.
    Calling it this – or similar names like IS, ISIS or ISIL – encourages non-Muslims to see the Daesh killers as following Islam, and conflating Daesh and Islam.
    This is dangerous because such confusion leads ignorant non-Muslims to link all Muslims with the idea that some may at least be sympathetic to Daesh, which has consequences for the reception so many Muslim refugees experience arriving in Europe.

    I disagree with your view that we should not describe them as “extremists”.
    You are right that we do not want to make terrorism sound appealing. But it is the wrong direction to avoid calling them extremists or radicals: because that is what they are.
    As you say, we need to call a spade a spade – and they are extremists, because they have perverted Islam and selectively taken the most blood-thirsty aspects to follow. If we call them anything else, it would be hiding behind euphemisms.
    The answer is rather to find other appealing, even extremist, paths for such young and susceptible young men to travel down which are less harmful – football?
    If it has to be something religious, there are plenty of paths currently (unjustly) seen as “extreme” or “pure” which do not involve chopping off people’s heads – for example spirituality.
    What do you think?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Im a Muslim. I exposed an Al-Qaida plot in the USA. I mostly call them “extremist Muslims” because that is what they are. In the same way I would call some rightwing Christians (like the planned parenthood shooter) an “extremist Christians”. They may base their criminal acts in their religion, but they are acts that their religion expressly forbids.

      On the “Islamic State”, to call Da’ish that, in my view legitimises them by implying that they have the religious right to establish a state by force. Im my opinion, they neither have religious, common law or international legitimacy to claim statehood.


      • I agree with all the above comments – could I just add that the idea of the Caliphate should evoke negative feelings: my boyhood reading (75 years ago) had lots of stories of the horrible conditions for the slaves, the women, the soldiers, the sailors – typical dictatorship states. I.e. not a state to be sought or supported.


    • Thanks for your comment. I definitely agree that alternative pathways would be useful. The reason I don’t believe we should call them ‘radicals’ or ‘extremists’ is because I think, whilst, as you said, they pervert Islam, these terms imply the opposite; a pure quality to their faith.


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