Another battle has been raging alongside the vicious terrorist attacks: a war of words over what to call those who carry out these heinous acts. Watching TV news this morning I heard the killers variously described as “Islamist militants,” “radical Islamists,” “jihadists,” “Islamic terrorists,” “terrorists,” and “violent extremists.” The Obama administration refers to them exclusively now as “violent extremists.” And the Global War on Terror launched under the previous administration has been relabelled Countering Violent Extremism.
In refusing to say the I-word in any discussion of terrorism, President Obama is joined by Pope Francis. In his annual foreign policy address to diplomats at the Holy See this past Monday, the pope avoided any word that might connect the Paris attacks with Islam. He chose generic language that could apply to any religion or any religious group (in his mind, anyway). “Religious fundamentalism” was behind the atrocities, he claimed. The murderers were enslaved by “deviant forms of religion.” He called for a unanimous response from the international community to put an end to “fundamentalist terrorism” and urged Muslim leaders, in particular, to condemn “extremist interpretations of their faith that seek to justify such violence.”
Why are the American president and the pope avoiding the I-word? I’m not sure about President Obama. Maybe it has something to do with his having a Muslim father and stepfather; or maybe it has to do with his school days in Muslim-majority Indonesia. Or maybe there’s something else going on. As for the pope: When Pope Francis assumed the papacy in March 2013, he made it clear that one of the priorities of his pontificate would be outreach to the Muslim world. This explains, I believe, the would-be Bridgbuilder’s refusal to do or say anything that might upset Muslims.
On his way home from Turkey last year, the Pontifex is reported to have said, “We have our share of them [fundamentalists]. All religions have these little groups.” Unbelievably, the one whom Catholics regard as Christ’s Vice-Regent on earth equated Christian fundamentalists with Islamic terrorists! And, as for “little groups”? Intelligence and security analysts believe there are up to 5,000 jihadis in Europe.
En route to the Philippines on Friday, the pope condemned killing in the name of religion, calling it an “aberration” (that’s putting it mildly). He then went on to suggest that there should be limits on free speech, saying things like “You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.” Furthermore, he claimed that “each person not only has the freedom, but also the obligation to say what he thinks in the name of the common good.”
Ahh, and who determines what constitutes ‘the common good’? Who gets to define ‘extremism’? Extremism is a very subjective concept. One definition is, ‘belief in and support for ideas that are very far from what most people consider correct or reasonable’. How far is ‘very far’? In the last while I have noted a disturbing trend in some of the articles I read, where terms like ‘extremist’ and ‘religious fundamentalist’ were used interchangeably. If you hold to the fundamentals of the Christian faith–the true definition of a Christian fundamentalist–are you then an extremist?
The recent case of a Christian Colorado baker is an unsettling one. In 2012, two gay men approached Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cakeshop to bake the wedding cake for their same-sex marriage. Because of his Christian beliefs, the baker turned them down. They filed a complaint against him, and won. A Colorado Civil Rights Commissioner called the baker’s decision to invoke religious freedom rights to refuse to bake a pro-gay marriage cake comparable to slavery and the perpetrators of the Holocaust. In the commissioner’s view, the baker was an extremist of the worst kind.
Can the West defeat an enemy it refuses to name? When the Kouachi brothers had finished their killing spree in Paris, they loudly proclaimed that they had “avenged the Prophet Muhammad.” The American president and the Catholic pope may refuse to acknowledge the Islamic connection to terrorism but, thankfully, there are men like General El-Sisi of Egypt, a Muslim, who recently called on Muslim clerics to revolutionize Islam. The root cause of the scourge of worldwide terrorism is the ideology of violent jihad , period. Obscuring this reality by blaming something called ‘violent extremism’ will not put an end to the vile phenomenon. Linking jihad with ‘extremism’, moreover, poses a threat to those who don’t go along with Western society’s rapidly changing notions of what’s correct or reasonable.