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Is language being used unfairly against Muslims?

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) officials walk through the parking lot of the Pulse gay night club, the site of a mass shooting days earlier, in Orlando, Florida, on June 15, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Adrees Latif

(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.'”

But Victor Navasky, the recently retired chairman of Columbia Journalism Review, a media watchdog, said such words have their place and their use should be determined on a “case-by-case basis.”

“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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About the author

Kimberly Winston

Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

3 Comments

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  • The use of the word Christmas is considered offensive. Many have stopped using it because they are Christianityphobic. Are Americsn Muslims becoming American-phobics because they think that Americans are against them ? How have they come to that conclusion? And what right gives them the right to perhaps view me or label me or as an Islamophobe?

  • This is so typical. You Christians must always be victims. Blessed are those who think they are persecuted for my name’s sake.

    The word Christmas is not considered offensive. But Not everyone is Christian. Not everyone shares the beliefs about Jesus that you have. Stores that say happy holidays are recognizing this very simple truth. They are trying to be inclusive of e ermine.

    Why is it that you are not? WHy can’t happy holidays be a sufficient greeting for you?

  • Interesting your comment. You have label me a “Christian” when I have not identified myself as one. I simply said that the word Christmas is now considered offensive or as you have come to believe “not-inclusive.” When I wish someone “Merry Christmas” what I mean is “Merry Christmas” nothing else. If you as a “christianist” want to make something religious out of it fine… I still mean it to be “Merry Christmas” and for me that is all inclusive no matter religion or not. It is the hearer of the word “Christmas” who is insensitive by taking offense when none was intended. I have celebrated every religious and nonreligious family, social or cultural event I have ever been invited to. I have never turned one down because I thought it was offensive to my “belief” whatever that may be. It is in vogue to show people of all faiths enjoying a Ramadan meal with a Muslim family as a show of inclusivity. Who made that Ramadan feast inclusive — yes the invitation, but also the invited who accepted without question the invite. It is just as in vogue to show someone of perhaps a different faith than Christian feeling lonely and left out and blame or accuse the so called dominant Christian Culture for their feelings of loneliness on Christmas Day. Yet it was they who turned down the invite to join in — to participate, to enjoy. You can wish me Happy Holidays at my Merry Christmas time if you like, but why are you afraid to wish me Merry Christmas. If you are so inclusive as you say you are why can you not see Merry Christmas as inclusive as I do and many others do who are simply celebrators of Merry Christmas! It seems you are not inclusive enough to see it that way or not willing to accept the diversity of the “christianized” people living among you and recognize and accept their difference from you by wishing them a Merry Christmas. Are your beliefs so closed that they keep you from saluting or honoring the religious beliefs of others? By the way Happy Ramadan to everyone! It is a wonderful time of the year especially when you know how to join in and celebrate it with others no matter how they believe. Peace.

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