The linguistic and political trap of “extremism”

Islam and violence have become synonymous in many imaginations

In the current political climate, in which Islam is increasingly seen as a subversive and mostly unwelcome social and political force in the Western world, so too are an increasing number of Muslims adopting the very terms and ideas used to degrade Islam, writes Joao Silva Jordao.

One such example is the use of the term “extremism” and its adoption by the Islamic community itself.

Specially after events that call into question Islam’s relationship with violence in the public domain, such as the attacks of 9/11, the 7/7 bombings or more recently, the murder of United Kingdom soldier Drummer Lee Rigby, many Muslims feel the need to come forward and denounce such acts.

Though such denouncement is not in itself incorrect nor counter-productive as means of increasing knowledge about Islam, the manner in which it is done and the language that is adopted is often permeated by the very misunderstandings which Muslims are trying to clarify.

One such way in which Islamic communities are adopting deeply Islamophobic ideas which carry a profound misunderstanding of the essence and values of Islam is the use of the term “extremist” as applied to seemingly unjustified acts of violence.

Both “moderate” Muslims, Islamophobes, extreme-right wing leaning commentators, Western governments, security agencies, NGOs and other such actors all say in a coordinated and well-rehearsed (and oft-repeated) chorus that such acts are “extremist,” a result of what happens when people take their religion too seriously, when they are not pragmatic enough and not able to isolate their religious beliefs from their everyday lives.

However, what is implicit in such a stance is that there is something fundamentally wrong, violent, even vile, about Islam, and that therefore such acts of seemingly illegitimate violence are the result of that ideology being fully put into practice.


The answer, one is led to believe, is to be “moderate,” – that is to say the solution to the problem of violence in Islamic communities is to practice Islam more “moderately” – to take it less seriously, to accept, even to welcome the watering-down of Islam with other ideologies and principles, even if they are in direct contradiction with Islam itself.

In this context, any Muslim that attempts to practice Islam fully, without compromise, taking his/her religion seriously is liable to being called an “extremist.” The term “extremist” itself is practically indissociable from the term “violent,” no matter how much any dictionary indicates to the contrary.

However, this train of thought only seems plausible if one is ignorant about what Islamic principles actually are. The very genesis of Islam, both as a religion and way of life, and as a political force and governmental regime, reflects a profound preoccupation with tolerating other ideologies, letting people of all faiths and nationalities live in peace under Islamic rule, emphasising the importance of forgiveness, peace and tranquility, the attempt to understand others and the commandment of learning knowledge wherever it may be found, as well as the scientific study of the universe via observation and analysis.

Maajid Nawaz, the government's favourite "moderate" Muslim
Maajid Nawaz, the government’s favourite “moderate” Muslim

The conclusion that one easily reaches is that those who engage in mindless acts of violence in the name of Islam are not the extremists at all, since the term “extreme” denotes only a measure, and in order to be “extremely” Islamic one must first of all obey its principles.

If anyone, on the other hand, prefers vengeance to forgiveness, if one prefers speculative thought to careful study, if one prefers hastiness to patience, and antagonism to intelligent dialogue, then I would say the problem of illegitimate violence is not the result of practicing Islam too much nor of taking it too seriously, quite the contrary, the problem stems from a lack of understanding of Islam and thereafter a lack of capacity to put it into practice.

Following this train of though a vengeful, violent, uncompassionate Muslim is a hypocritical Muslim, an undisciplined Muslim, and a Muslim that only behaves in a manner that is moderately or not at all Islamic, not an extremist Muslim.

Though this may seem a lesser debate for the Islamic community, it most certainly is not, because when one is discussing the term “extremist” and its applications and uses, one is not only discussing semantics, but rather this leads us to the central question, which should be “Is Islam, if applied coherently, a force for good or for evil?”

Islam and violence

By adopting the term “extremist” and the underlying philosophy many Muslims, some consciously, other unconsciously, are implicitly accepting that Islam is a force for evil, disruption and violence, and as such should only be put into practice every now and then and always in moderation, just as a person on a diet may take the liberty of ingesting unhealthy food (accepting that it is a bad idea) but tolerating it insofar as it is kept to a minimum.

In the same way, Western governments accept that Islam be practiced under their jurisdiction, as long as it practiced in a incoherent, apologetic and increasingly diluted fashion. The reason for this is because there is a consensus forming that Islam is a negative force, and one of the ways in which this consensus is being formed is via the terms we use and the context in which we use them.

Many have come to question why Islamic communities seem to have a lack of capacity in undertaking meaningful political organization, of asserting their rights and their identity collectively.

Though the pressures applied by institutional forces such as the government and its satellites – especially in this case the security and intelligence sectors – is a factor that must be considered as a part of the explanation for Muslims’ lack of assertion, we must collectively start to deconstruct the linguistic and philosophical mechanism of oppression that is being unleashed on the community at large.

Moreover, it is urgent that such work be done quickly, thoughtfully, and on large scale in great part because of the resurgence of neo-fascist groups all over the Western world, with Islamophobia having become an acceptable and accepted facet of Western culture, and with the military aggression towards Islamic countries continuing to escalate with little or no opposition in public opinion.

So perhaps it is time we rally against stupidity and lack of discernment rather than concentrating our struggles against empty and increasingly meaningless terms such as “extremism” and “terrorism.”

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