More on Semantics: "The Islamic State is Not Islamic"

We've been on a roll lately about semantics, particularly with regards to terrorism, race, and religion.

Today we wanted to talk a little bit about how we often respond to semantics that we hear that don't jibe with us.

If we look back to late 2014, we find a seemingly-controversial quote by President Obama about ISIS/ISIL: "ISIL Is Not Islamic." The quote falls within a general pattern of Obama not using the term "radical Islamic terrorism" when describing threats like ISIS, al-Qaeda, etc.

A lot of people got pretty grumpy with this. Twitter and article comment sections exploded with incredulity: how could the President possibly miss the word "Islamic" in "Islamic State?" How could someone be so stupid as to not see that? 

Some news outlets and political cartoonists jumped on the bandwagon. The Daily Caller dubbed Obama's stance a "See-No-Islam Policy," Richard Dawkins' website pointed out that "If ISIS Is Not Islamic, then the Inquisition Was Not Catholic."

Something to consider: imagine if one had the opportunity to walk up to the president and remind him that the word "Islamic" is in the name, that folks in ISIS claim a calpihate and yell "Allahu Akbar" and have Imams and the other such trappings? How might he react?

Probably not, and probably we know that already.

There is possibly an interesting, abstract investigation to be had over which of ISIS' practices come from which theological or other sources (and of those practices which differ from other religious schools or groups, what sources ISIS believes makes their own interpretation more correct than someone else's), but as we discussed before,  the statement "Organization X is or is not of Religion Y" is actually a really difficult claim to prove, ever. 

So assuming that the president and his entire staff did not forget what the "I" in "ISIL" meant, it leaves us with the question that is ultimately actually an interesting one: why make a point of saying that ISIL is not Islamic? 

By considering this question, we've got a policy debate: is it the right strategy to frame ISIS as "Islamic" terror or not, and why? 

Generally a good takeaway is this: if someone that's been around the block is doing something and your immediate reaction is that it's monumentally stupid, it probably merits some further thought to understand what's behind the action.


Who Said it Matters to Us Way Too Much

The reaction to Obama's saying "ISIL is Not Islamic" also has a lot to do with the color of his jersey (blue). Had a red-jersey politician said it, the reaction may have been quite different.

While we can't know for certain (I can't find any Republicans that have said anything similar) that the reaction in this particular case would be different, there is a history of a certain Republican president being pretty consistently stiff about distancing our enemies from Islam. Does our tribal politics make it safe for one team to say such things, but not another?

One of my favorite exercises in piecing out the tribalism in our own hearts is playing "who said it?" PBS has a great quiz on this, with ten quotes about Islam by President Bush and President Obama. Can you figure out who said which?

Next week we'll explore a little more about semantics as strategy. 


Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.