That Radical Islamist Terrorism Question

Faisal Saeed Al Mutar

As the transfer of U.S. presidential power looms, it’s worth taking a look back at how outgoing President Barack Obama handled a question that’s going to be just as salient under the new commander in chief. On September 28, 2016, Obama was asked by a Gold Star mother why he refused to use the words “Islamic terrorist.”

“My son gave his life for acts of terrorism,” audience member Tina Houchins told Obama at the town hall moderated by CNN’s Jake Tapper. “Do you still believe that the acts of terrorism are done for the self-proclaimed Islamic religious motive? And if you do, why do you still refuse to use the term . . . Islamic terrorist?”

President Obama compared using the term to a scenario where a Christian murderer claimed that religion was the reason for his or her actions: “If you had an organization that was going around killing and blowing people up and said, ‘We’re on the vanguard of Christianity’ . . . as a Christian, I’m not going to let them claim my religion and say, ‘you’re killing for Christ.’ I would say, that’s ridiculous.”

I have some disagreements with that.

I think that President Obama believes that the essence of every religion and especially Abrahamic religions is peace and love. He mentioned Christians bombing and killing people as an example of not being representative of Christianity. It’s more complicated than that. Organized religion can also be a force for evil without its necessarily being against doing “good.”

According to some interpretations of both Christianity and Islam, it’s good to help the poor. And it’s also good to stone a woman to death for not being a virgin on her wedding night (Deuteronomy 22:21 and Sahih Muslim 17:4191). These two values may seem contradictory to some, but they can be held at the same time, according to an interpretation of the scripture that is sometimes plausible, in my opinion.

I consider it unfair to condemn an entire religion as evil or to allege the same of all its adherents. But I think it’s fair to say that some interpretations of some faiths are evil. I think that the interpretation of Christianity that supports, say, killing gays in Uganda is a bad one that needs to be condemned, modernized, replaced, or removed from the face of the earth. I say the same for the interpretations of Islam that are followed by Wahabis, Salafis, Khomeinists, and other Islamic schools of thought that advocate killing apostates and/or LGBTs or support sex slavery.

I fail to see why President Obama calling out Wahhabism, Salafism, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Wilyahat al-Faqih interpretation as religious justifications for terrorism would entail condemning all Muslims or the entire religion of Islam.

As someone who grew up surrounded by Muslims for most of my life, I have never had a problem with any Muslim who believes in basic human rights. In fact, I was raised by Muslims of that sort, including my parents and some of my teachers. I do, however, condemn interpretations of Islam that do not subscribe to that.

President Obama should have said that he is not in the business of deciding what “true Islam” is and what “untrue” Islam is. He should have said that those who follow interpretations of Islam that are compatible with human rights are our allies, and they should be. As for those who don’t, maybe—just maybe—they have some work to do. They need to go through a process of modernization—what Majid Nawaz and Ayaan Hirsi Ali have called an “Islamic reformation”—that makes their belief system compatible with the twenty-first century, including what we think of now as women’s rights and LGBT rights and all the rest.

Saying that is not a condemnation of an entire religion of 1.5 billion people. It is an appreciation for those who are on the right side of the debate.

In his answer to Ms. Houchins, I think Obama made another mistake by suggesting that just because a group such as ISIS kills other Muslims, it is not really Islamic. In fact, that goes against many interpretations of schools within Islamic thought that endorse the concept of “Takfeerism.” This view allows Muslims to declare other people who claim to be Muslims to actually be Kafirs or apostates (infidels), in which case it is permissible to kill them.

While I’m at it, it is genuinely fair to say that those who have been harmed the most by Islamic blasphemy laws and apostasy laws are not atheists or agnostics but rather Muslims who subscribe to a sect of Islam that a particular country’s dominant sect considers blasphemous. This happens continually in countries such as Pakistan, where members of the Ahmadiya Muslim Community are heavily discriminated against, and sometimes killed, by radical Sunni or Shias who consider Ahmadis “non-Muslims” or infidels.

In Pakistan, you are not allowed to obtain a passport without first declaring that you believe the Ahmadyia Muslim Community to be non-Muslim. That’s how deeply this discrimination is embedded into policy. Or consider the centuries of Sunni-Shia conflict, during which each side has condemned the other as non-Muslim.

We need to move past what I call the “These Muslims are killing other Muslims; therefore, they are not real Muslims” fallacy. It’s a fallacy shared by countless obscurantists and apologists in the media about whom I have written critically in previous essays.

This brings me to the terminology that I urge outgoing President Obama—and many, many others—to adopt in the interest of, first, identifying the real problem and, second, protecting our Muslim and non-Muslim allies who can be part of the solution. Let’s speak honestly and call terrorism inspired by inhumane interpretations of Islam what it is: “Islamist terrorism.” In my view, doing so offers important benefits:

  • First, it protects Muslims who are not Islamists, who hold views compatible with consensus ideas about human rights; who don’t want to impose theocracy on others; and who want to live their own lives, make their families’ lives better, and make the world better. Our enemies are not all Muslims but rather Islamists.
  • Second, it accurately identifies the main motive of terrorist groups such as ISIS, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, the Muslim Brotherhood, followers of Ayatollah Khomeini, and the rest. All Islamist terrorists have one thing in common in addition to being Muslims. They are Muslims who want to impose and force their lifestyle on the rest of humanity.
  • Third, the term Islamist terrorism directly suggests its solution: The opposite of an Islamist is a Secularist or what we sometimes called in Iraq a Madanyoon: someone who believes in a civil state, who believes that religion is a private matter, and who cherishes freedom of religion.

There are many Muslims and non-Muslims now living in Muslim countries who hold such humane views. These people are part of the solution, and denying their narrative only empowers their enemies—and ours.

I have used no generalizations in explaining my terminology. I think the failure of nuance in our conversations about Islam is a mistake. No good policy can come from either denying that the problem exists or from exaggerating the true number of our adversaries.

Further Reading

For coverage of the September 28, 2016, town hall event, see

For the Pakistani passport requirement, see

Faisal Saeed Al Mutar

Faisal Saeed Al Mutar is an Iraqi-born human rights activist and president of the newly launched organization Ideas Beyond Borders (IBB). The mission of IBB is to promote the free exchange of ideas and defend human rights to counter extremist naratives and authoritarian institutions.

“No good policy can come from either denying that the problem exists or from exaggerating the true number of our adversaries.”

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