(RNS) Tragedies like June 12th’s Orlando shooting seem to happen like clockwork, with the U.S. now averaging one mass shooting every day. And in cases where the shooter has a Muslim-sounding name, terms like “terrorist,” “extremist,” “radical,” joined with “Islam” quickly appear.
President Obama took a swipe at the use of such terms earlier this week. In response to Donald Trump’s accusation that he has an ulterior motive in avoiding the term “radical Islam,” the president said the term was “a political distraction.”
“What exactly would using this label accomplish?” Obama asked Tuesday (June 14). “Calling a threat by a different name does not make it go away.”
Are journalists, pundits and politicians too quick to use the hot-button terms “radical,” “terrorist,” “extremist” and “Islamist”? Do they apply the same standards to the selection of those words when the shooter is a Christian, a Jew or not religious?
And, most importantly, what are the repercussions to average Americans — those without a podium — when those words are used without caution, preparation and thoughtfulness?
Kelly McBride, an ethicist at The Poynter Institute, an organization that trains journalists, said reporters should press officials who bandy those words — what did the shooter do or say that makes them think he or she was a radical, a religious person, a terrorist?
Failure to do so leads to a kind of dangerous shorthand, McBride said.
“It happens when you use a phrase like ‘gang member,'” she said. “Some think poor black kids in the housing projects while others think Mexican drug cartel. They fill in the blanks without any level of accuracy, precision or thoroughness.”
And that can have serious consequences in both the public and private spheres.
Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, believes the careless use of such terms has contributed to the rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes and Islamophobia in the U.S., which CAIR reports to be at an all-time high.
But the damage goes beyond the Muslim community as well, he said.
“Our nation is damaged on the international level because it creates the perception that we are in conflict with the faith of Islam and not with extremists hiding behind the faith of Islam,” he said.
Hooper suggests a two-pronged test: Can you clearly define the term; and can you name a good example of its definition?
“What is an ‘extremist,’ what is a ‘radical?'” he said. “And is there a good one of this thing? If there is no good Islamist then don’t use it. Otherwise, it comes to be a litmus test for ‘we don’t like these people because they are associated with Islam.'”
“I have no objection to the term ‘Islamic radical terrorism,’ but I understand Obama’s reluctance to try and categorize it,” he said. “I think Trump, as usual, is demagoguing on the issue, but I don’t think in this case it is necessarily wrong to call something by what he thinks is its rightful name, to the extent that it implies there are more Islamic radical terrorists than there are Christians.”
Joyce Dubensky, corporate executive officer of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding says the misuse of such terms by media and politicians “reinforces incorrect stereotypes” that ultimately lead to bullying, racism and religious hatred.
“Every day, people who are Muslim or are perceived to be Muslim are targeted because people are using those words,” Dubensky said.
Worse, she said, such words play into the real extremists plans — a charge Hillary Clinton made earlier this week in response to Trump’s accusations that she would not use the phrase “radical Islam.”
(In a break from the Obama administration’s policy, Clinton said she would use the term “radical Islamism.”)
“We believe at Tanenbaum that when you treat people this way — when you mistreat them in daily life, when you alienate them, you are inviting them to find another place of community,” Dubensky said. “And if ISIS offers that to them — and in their propaganda, they do — a few will be drawn to it. So we are actually fueling what we condemn.”
John Esposito of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, sees a double standard in the use of these terms, especially in “Islamist.”
An Islamist, he says, is someone whose life is dedicated to the religion of Islam in his or her private life, and wants it to be implemented in the public sphere, as well. By that reasoning, he says, we should be calling Christians who want public policy decisions to be based on faith, “Christianists.” But we don’t — even when one of them shoots up an abortion clinic.
“If we used some of these terms against the dominant culture, editors would never run it because they would see it for what it is — hate speech.”