Fareed Zakaria has a piece in the Post today defending President Barack Obama’s use of the phrase “violent extremism” instead of “Islamic extremism.” I encourage you to read it for its profile of an Egyptian boy’s defection to ISIS. But I disagree with his argument that the president’s choice is just a bit of political strategery:
…far from being a scholar concerned with describing the phenomenon accurately, the president is deliberately choosing not to emphasize the Islamic State’s religious dimension for political and strategic reasons. After all, what would be the practical consequence of describing the group, also known as ISIS, as Islamic? Would the West drop more bombs on it? Send in more soldiers to fight it? No, but it would make many Muslims feel that their religion had been unfairly maligned. And it would dishearten Muslim leaders who have continually denounced the Islamic State as a group that does not represent Islam.
All of those things are surely actual benefits of not using the word “Islamic.” But President Obama’s “violent extremism” is not just politically and strategically reasonable. It’s absolutely more accurate than “Islamic extremism.”
Let’s look at the first word, “violent/Islamic”. Rather obviously, there is plenty of violent extremism in the world that is not motivated by Islam, or indeed by any religion. It would be a strange use of the President’s time to hold, instead of a Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, individual conferences on countering the extremist elements of each religion. As I’ve written before, I agree with Zakaria’s insight on the causes of extremism: “economic stagnation and social backwardness. In some cases, [collapse of the nation itself].” Better to address the poverty and hopelessness that lead to extremism in general than to tackle specific ideologies.
Now look at the second word. “Extremism.” It’s used almost entirely negatively in current political conversation. Is that fair? I yield the floor to Dr. Martin Luther King and his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail:
I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.
By Dr. King’s reading, an Islamic extremist is Malala Yousafzai, the seventeen-year-old Pakistani Nobel prize-winner who took a bullet to the head for her commitment to education; a Hindu extremist is Gandhi; a Christian extremist is Dr. King. (Each of those three could equally well be – and has been – called a “radical.”)
Barry Goldwater also recognized the complexity of the word. “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” he said. “Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
“Extremism” isn’t enough by itself, and “Islamic extremism” is both too broad and too narrow. Only with “violent extremism” does President Obama accurately express his meaning.