Dr. Faheem Younus is a clinical associate professor of medicine at the University of Maryland. He is a frequent lecturer about Islam, winner of the Presidential Service Awardan award, and the founder of Muslimerican.com. Photo courtesy Dr. Faheem Younus

COMMENTARY: 5 reasons the 9/11 museum should drop 'Islamist'

(RNS) On May 21, the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York is scheduled to release "The Rise of Al Qaeda," a seven-minute film telling the story of the attacks. Full disclosure: I have not watched the film.

The National September 11 Memorial & Museum, photographed in Aug. 2011.

The National September 11 Memorial and Museum, photographed in August 2011.

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

But last week, The New York Times reported how American Muslims were concerned that the film uses words such as "Islamist" and "jihadist," leaving some viewers with an impression that Islam promotes extremism. And that is troubling for a practicing Muslim like myself.

Here's why the 9/11 museum should drop these terms from the film.

1. It's guilt by association

An implied association of Islam with the heinous attacks of 9/11 maligns the faith of the world's 1.5 billion Muslims. If "Islamist" means one's admiration for the values of an Islamic system of governance, it would make the founder of Islam and his companions Islamists of the highest order. And it would make me one, too, since I cherish equality and justice as values championed by Islam. "Jihad" as an inner struggle would make me a jihadist every time I get up at night to take my toddler to the bathroom. So nuanced are these terms that even Muslim scholars disagree on their interpretation. And you want me to believe that the museum visitors will not walk away associating Islam with extremism?

2. It's a double standard

The KKK, Army of God and Phineas Priesthood all draw inspiration from twisting Christian texts, yet no one calls them "Christianists." No museum film tells the story of the -- shall I say Christian? -- roots of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing or the 1996 Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta. No one coined a term "Hinduist" for Narendra Modi, the front-runner of Indian elections, who never disputed his ties with Sangh Parivar, a Hindu political ideology.

3. It's pejorative and broadly rejected

That the word "Islamist" has become an undercover slur in America is no secret. If you don't want to say "these angry savages, hell-bent on enforcing Shariah law in America," just use the shorthand "Islamists." Acknowledging this fact in 2013, The Associated Press cautioned journalists not to use it as a synonym for Islamic fighters or extremists.  And it's not just the American Muslim groups that are concerned about the use of "Islamist" and "jihadist" in the 9/11 museum film; Jews, Christians and families of the 9/11 victims have all expressed concerns about how and why it's used.

4. It's harmful

"The Rise of Al Qaeda" reminds us that the roots of whether we heal or hurt often lie deep in the words we use. When politicians, televangelists and media tycoons repeatedly use such terms in voiceovers with a video of the falling World Trade Center towers, it incites people. Starting after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported an average of 180 anti-Muslim hate crimes -- annually -- through 2008. Heck, even Hindus and Sikhs have paid the price of being Muslim look-alikes.

5. It's a misrepresenation

The current use of the word "Islamist" creates an aggressor/victim paradigm, in which the aggressor is always the Muslim and victims are always non-Muslims. American Muslims constitute approximately 1 percent of the nation's population, while accounting for about 2 percent of the 9/11 victims (about 60 of nearly 3,000 killed were Muslims). If the film must describe the religion of the hijackers, why should it be silent about the same religion of Mohammad Salman Hamdani, a Muslim cadet with the New York Police Department who died in the attacks and was initially suspected as one of the perpetrators?

Dr. Faheem Younus is a clinical associate professor of medicine at the University of Maryland. He is a frequent lecturer about Islam, winner of the Presidential Service Awardan award, and the founder of Muslimerican.com. Photo courtesy Dr. Faheem Younus

Dr. Faheem Younus is a clinical associate professor of medicine at the University of Maryland. He is a frequent lecturer about Islam. Photo courtesy of Dr. Faheem Younus

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

"If we don't use the word Islamist to describe the al-Qaida in Afghanistan, Taliban in Pakistan and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, then what should we call these fanatics?" you ask. That's not hard to answer: Call them al-Qaida fanatics, Taliban lunatics or Muslim Brotherhood extremists. Use the worst word in the dictionary since such groups violate the universal human rights; just don't associate my faith with their actions.

(Faheem Younus is the Baltimore president of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA and a senior fellow at the Hoffberger Center for Professional Ethics at the University of Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter @FaheemYounus)



  1. Islamicist is probably the better term.

    Islamicism is the term used for the politicization of Islam for fundamentalism. The extra “c'” makes the difference between a basic religious belief and a specific political movement. If a more conscious effort was made in use of terminology to distinguish the extremists from the entirety of the religion, there would not be so much confusion here.

    Jihadist is as much a term the terrorists use to describe themselves and it is by others.

  2. “The KKK, Army of God and Phineas Priesthood all draw inspiration from twisting Christian texts, yet no one calls them ‘Christianists.'”

    Google says you are incorrect on all three counts.

    As for the museum, it is clear that removing the term “Islamist” is not nearly enough. The museum must concoct entirely new identities for the hijackers and the organization they were associated with. I suggest identifying them as members of a gardening club, or perhaps a quilting society.

  3. I’m not sure you’re putting enough extra syllables in there. What about Islamicianister?

  4. Funny. 🙂

    But Islamicism is the term usually used for the Islamic fundies. They even use it to describe themselves when in public. The AKP Party of Turkey, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Queda and Hezbollah all call themselves Islamicists.

    Think of it as the difference between calling the KKK and skinheads white terrorists and white supremacist terrorists.

  5. The problem is that so many terrorists make a big deal about the fact they are acting in the name of Allah. And it is not just the work of a few fanatics, but just about every Islamic majority country treats those of other religions like garbage, terrorizing minorities in their countries all across the Islamic world to flee for their lives.
    There is no way history should be sanitized to virtually hide the name of the community from which so much terror comes.

  6. Welcome to fundamentalism. The whole point of their rhetoric and acts are to give the impression that they represent the entire faith.

    You see it in all faiths. All fundies claim they are the only true Muslims/Christians… and try to deny the legitimacy of all others.

    As for Islamic nations, you mean the Middle East. All save 2 are the worst autocratic governments out there. Islamicism is political under the guise if religious. When fundamentalists have any sway in a government, its bad news. Just like here

  7. Be fair and honest – stop trying to hide the fact that a faith has inspired violence, regardless of which faith that is.

    His point #2 is spot on – those are clear cases where Christianity too has inspired violence, just like the crusades, the inquisition, the Wars of Christianity in Europe from 1500 to 1700 CE, and the list goes on.

    He’s right that we need to stop mollycoddling Christianity when it comes to violence in it’s name. Similarly, we should not hide the fact that the attackers on 9/11 were indeed motivated by Islam. The same goes for other religions, Abrahamic or not – we need to be open and honest when they inspire violence.

    Otherwise, we are back to a theocracy with blasphemy laws, where the truth can no longer be spoken.

  8. @Jon I think that it is clear that Islam and Christianity have both had their share of violence; however, I do disagree with everyone who is making the claim that both of the causes for the violence are similar. I’ve researched a good bit on the topic of texts in the Quran and have found it interesting what I’ve found. It is clear throughout the Quran that they are, indeed, promoting the murder and warfare that “extremists” of the faith are so often doing. In fact, the Quran says that there is special reward after death for those who attack those against Islam.


  9. Really Hunter! you think it is prudent to learn about Islam from people who are clearly anti Islam. Why not ask a Muslim what they think Quran teaches them about dealings with people of other faiths or no faith. I would not learn about Christianity from a Jew or about Hinduism from a Muslim.
    Here is my answer to your understanding of what Quran sanctions:
    Does the Quran sanction violence?

    As far as the allegation that the Qur’an sanctions violence, consider that the Qur’an repeatedly condemns those who create disorder and violence:

    ‘Eat and drink of what Allah has provided, and commit not iniquity in the earth, creating disorder.’ [1]

    ‘And they strive to create disorder in the earth, and Allah loves not those who create disorder.’ [2]

    ’And create not disorder in the earth after it has been set in order…’ [3]

    ‘…create not disorder in the earth after it has been set in order. This is better for you, if you are believers.’ [4]

    The verses critics cite to show that Qur’an espouses violence are either mistranslated or they are partially quoted out of context to deceive the readers
    – See more at: http://www.muhammadfactcheck.org

  10. Religion news: this just in, believing in crazy ideas leads to crazy actions. We should ridicule every crazy idea, no matter how “important to their life” it is. In the quran, women are worth less inheritance than men, so literally by definition not equal. wives are allowed to be hit. alternate hands and feet are to be cut off of certain criminals, etc, etc. the bible too. nobody gets off easy here. If your book that you claim is so amazing incites violence, we can laugh at you and point it out 🙂 Best wishes, and peace (actual peace)

  11. lol. Picking the peaceful bits from a book doesnt make the whole thing good. You realize this, and its why you specifically picked good stuff, not just a random assortment of stuff. 4:34, hit your wife. 9;5, kill them all. 2 can play at that game. The whole book isnt bad, but denying the actual mandates and support of violence is dishonest. And if you factor in the hadiths and tafsirs it gets worse. Muhammad, according to hadith literature, beheaded 600-900 jews himself. So did muhammad preach violence? according to the hadiths, he talked the talk and walked the walk. plus, the quran isnt in chronological order (i’m sure you’re very aware of this) and it progressively gets more violent in time, even though the order of the book is based on chapter length.

  12. Funny how the secular atheists and their violence gets ignored or whitewashed in debates like this. But a number of reputable historians over the years have added up the body count secular atheist governments piled up in the 20th Century and they won the blood prize.

  13. @ Hunter-

    I fully agree that there are verses in the Qu’ran which support violence. However, if you’ve “researched this quite a bit”, they you are probably aware there are plenty in the various Bibles too.

    Perhaps the clearest example is where Jesus himself tells about ordering people to execute non-Christians in front of him (Luke 19:27) – and it’s far from the only one. Both the Old and New Testaments are filled with stories of God commanding his followers to kill people for their religion. The whole mythical conquest in Numbers, Deut, etc. has too many examples to list – include gruesome slaughters like God delighting in a basketful of children’s heads (1Kg 10:6-8 & 30). We could list the literally dozens of other examples too. In the New Testament, the killing ordered by God/Jesus continues, such as for not giving enough money to the church (Acts 10:1-5), Jesus attacking people himself (John 2:5), saying he doesn’t bring peace “but a sword” Mt 10:34, advising his followers to arm themselves (Luke 22:36), and many more.
    And Christians throughout time have used these and other verses to justify killing on a massive scale, going back at least to Augustine who used the parable of the wedding banquet (“go get people off the street, and force them to come in”) as justification to use torture and killing to force people to become Christian.

    As Bobby pointed out, sure there are good parts – but that doesn’t change the fact that there are terribly harmful parts, advocating violence, too.

    @ Doc Anthony – All “secular” ideologies are not the same, any more than all hobbies that aren’t stamp-collecting are the same hobbies. If you have a beef with marxism, or some other ism, fine. I won’t defend an ideology – religious or not, which leads to that kind of killing. But your lumping of all non-theistic ideologies together makes as much sense as if I lumped all non-Zeus worshipping ideologies together, and blamed Christians for the killings of Stalin.

  14. correction – that last part of the last comment was in response to Decon John. Sorry for the mistake.

  15. Because you are referring to Communists. People who were atheist(ish), but not secular. Replacing irrational belief in God with irrational belief in the state.

    A dead ideology with no relation to secular atheists that you are trying to tar and feather with guilt by association. No reputable historian adds up body counts like that but a lot of disreputable people ignorant of history making phony points bring it up like that.

    Nowadays religious fundamentalism is the greatest threat to the peaceful existence of people in the world. And in no way do Christian Fundies represent anything of an opposition to Islamic Fundies. (something akin to the idiots who thought Nazis were a reasonable alternative to Commies back in the day) They are just in a feedback loop which feeds both of them on hysterical nonsense.

  16. Even more fair and honest would be not to ignore the political nature of the places where these Islamicist terrorists are coming from. Islamicism is borne from autocratic governments. Governments who two generations ago embraced radical secular nationalism as the inspiration for terrorism.

    Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran all use fundamentalism as a political tool to export potential revolutionaries away so the government is not threatened by disaffected youth.

    Anyone trying to hunt and peck nasty passages of scripture as “the cause of religious violence” is full of crap. Islamic based terror was fairly regional and isolated during the decades of professional radicalized terror. It has more to do with post-cold war politics and how autocrats save their hides than religion. It doesn’t wash historically, culturally and is just plain lazy.

    Pakistan was an Islamic state in name only prior to a series of wars with India and involvement in supporting Mujahadeen in Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia did not become a Fundie state until Iran scared the bejesus out of them when Shia terrorists seized Mecca in 1979. Middle East Terrorists mostly used to be atheist radicals prior to the rise of Al Queda (like the PLO).

  17. This is why Bosnia is such a troubled place right now, right? Oh wait, no it isn’t.

    Indonesia is just a massive killing field where the Muslim majority has wiped out all of the various other faiths? Oh wait, no it hasn’t.

    Islam inspires such violence that the major Muslim populations of the US are violent dangerous neighborhoods practically under siege. Oh wait, they are actually more sedate than much of their surroundings.

    Your thesis is not being supported by reality. The Islamaphobe websites which you guys get your citations from are working off of a ridiculous premise. If you want to see how Christianity has similar embarrassing scriptural texts, I am sure Atheist Max will post them somewhere. He always has about half a dozen ready for such discussions.

  18. “Islamist” should be replaced with “Religionist”.

    and this motto should be engraved over the entrance to the 9-11 museum:

    “Science builds planes,
    Religion flies them into buildings.”

  19. When did Christians purposely fly planes into buildings filled with innocent people??????

  20. Christians like to use science
    to kill in slower, more personal ways:
    “The Rack”, “The Garrott”, “The Wheel” etc…
    It was all there at the Inquisition.

    But for Christian mass killings look at Rwanda 20 years ago and the use of scientifically perfect machetes. Many of the Catholic priests themselves felt the need to wipe out entire villages with the best machetes they could find.

    You see, religion lets you call someone the devil – then all’s fair.
    “Bring to me those enemies of mine who would not have me as their King, and EXECUTE THEM in front of me.” – Jesus (Luke 19:27)

    Ask a dead witch what Christians did with the technology of “The Match”

  21. Jesus was impatient – he wished it was already time to burn the world down and smash civilization !

    “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and HOW I WISH IT WERE ALREADY KINDLED! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on Earth? No, I tell you, but division.”
    – Jesus – (Luke 12:49-51)

    Christianity is a blunder.
    To wish for Jesus is to wish for the dark ages.

  22. @Deacon John – are you seriously suggesting that the horrors done in the name of Christianity don’t exist? Should we go through them? We’d be here all day and not even be through most of them. Have horrors been done in the name of Islam? Of course. Are some even worse than 9/11? Of course. Are they worse or more plentiful than those done in the name of Christianity? They are both too great for that to matter- I hope we agree.

  23. @Deacon John,

    Father Athanase Seromba was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment
    by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda
    for his role in the massacre of 2000 Tutsis.

    The court heard that Seromba lured the Tutsis to the church, where they believed they would find refuge.

    When they arrived, THE PRIEST ordered bulldozers TO CRUSH the refugees alive within THE CHURCH and Hutu militias to kill any survivors.

    Tell me how Father Seromba’s morality is better than mine.
    Tell me how morality is not possible without religion!
    Tell me again how Al Qaeda and Christ have nothing in common.

    “bring to me those enemies of mine who would not have me as their king, AND EXECUTE THEM in front of me.” – Jesus (Luke 19:27)

  24. Don’t forget to mention that Seromba was sheltered and defended by the Vatican, as were other priests and nuns who participated in the Rwandan genocide. So his actions cannot be written off as the actions of a rogue priest.

  25. TGGP,

    The Catholic Church is a criminal enterprise in countless ways.
    The beliefs must be abandoned and the regime prosecuted.

  26. Atheist Max, you just broke down the church door with that one.
    Makes you wonder, if Jesus was God why would he have any trouble figuring out how to make things happen faster? The bible makes. no. sense.

  27. Father Seromba dumped a church onto 2000 trapped people to bury them alive – while he was wearing holy orders.

    The Vatican must have thought he did a good job because they covered for him, helped him change his name and hid him in Italy. Until he was discovered by international tribunal and sent to jail.

    There are no checks and balances in religion.
    And that will always lead to absurdity and constant war
    on reasonable people.

    Let me know when you are ready to give up on it.
    Atheists aren’t born again – we sort of appear into reality.

  28. The disorder referenced there is anything other than the “order” provided by Islamic rule. There are very few passages in the Quran which, when taken with Islamic understandings of the terms used, are wholly benign.

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