Words – How the power of language is used to push anti-Islam narratives

If you spend any amount of time on social media you will have heard some words and phrases often repeated. Phrases such as ‘Islamophobia is a made up word’ ; ‘not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims’; and ‘we’re against Islam not against Muslims’.

In this brief blog I will discuss how such phrases are used and what impact they have on the wider discussion surrounding Islam/Islamophobia/integration/British values etc.

Firstly the idea of ‘made up words’ (as opposed to naturally occurring words). Those who utter this phrase have little understanding of the function and history of language. Words are indeed made up, they are made up to communicate ideas and thoughts. We can say that words like ‘homophobia’ is also a made up word, which it actually is. But it doesn’t detract from the point and concept this word is derived to communicate.

Moving on to other words. One interesting point I’ve noted is the difference in the way sexual crimes are classified in the media. Men from Asian backgrounds who commit sexual crimes are classed as part of a grooming gang, while their Caucasian counterparts are said to be from a pedophile ring. This point is clearly illustrated by the google image search result of the two terms. One returns mainly brown skinned individuals while the other mainly fair in complexion. The question to ponder is why are criminals from one ethnicity classed differently from those of another, even though their crimes are very much similar. So when it comes to discussion of the issue, you’ll see someone say “ Grooming gangs are predominantly Asian – check google image search” then low and behold the results will in fact confirm this assertion. However, the fact that non-Asian have been labelled alternatively will not feature in the discussion seemingly proving the point made.

More specifically in relation to the discussion of Islam and social interactions, we come across words such as ‘Islamist’, ‘moderates’, ‘extremists’, ‘non-violent extremists’, ‘non-devout Muslim’, ‘Muslim heritage’ etc. Getting a meaningful and official definition of such terms is very difficult. The way it works, is that whoever coined the phrase or decides to hijack it, gets to determine how it should be utilised.

Starting with the word ‘Islamist’. At first glance one would think that an Islamist is a person who advocates Islam, and as such is to be commended for their efforts in carrying the message of Islam. However in reality, this term is used in a pejorative manner with a militant flavour. If you listen to the way the word is used in context by those who gave birth to it, ordinary Muslims would not want to be referred to as an ‘Islamist’. This is because what they have done is painted Islam as a threat, and then linked the word Islamist to be a person who poses that threat.

So as a natural reaction to this, Muslims will want to dissociate themselves from being an ‘Islamist’ and seek other terms to rally around. The term ‘moderate’ is offered as a better alternative to being an Islamist. However the danger here is that, once you’ve accepted the label of being a moderate, you are then hostage to its ever changing meaning. And if you should do or say anything contrary to expectation of being a moderate, your moderate label will be withdrawn. As a moderate, you will be expected to remain silent about the plight of your fellow co-religionists and make excuses for the regime that abuses them. You must never complain about the government’s foreign policy, especially where it affects Muslims across the world. If you are ever critical of the status quo, you will be re-labelled as an ‘Islamist’ or even worst, an ‘Islamist extremist’.

But what in God’s name is an extremist. If you ask Theresa May she would, in her “Brexit means Brexit” style say an extremist is a person who has succumb to extremism. So we are in fact no closer to understanding its meaning.

A little reading around would reveal that an extremist is a person (usually Muslim) who has political ideas and aspirations for Muslim self determination. Anyone who suggests that Muslims should aspire to organise their societies with systems and institutions which are based on the Islamic principles is by popular understanding the extremist.

There are some (Muslims) who don’t have such aspirations and for whatever reason they do not see the role of Islam in society at all. I’d even go as far to suggest that they resent being born into an Muslim family. In their desperation to be accepted, they distance themselves from ‘extremist Muslims’ by hiding behind the ‘heritage Muslim’ or the ‘non-devout Muslim’.

These are those who have no desire to practice Islam in their private life, nor do they want to see Islam in the public sphere, and yet they reserve the right to comment on Islam itself and how the rest of us to abandon it and adopt their watered down vision.

Moving on to the case of ‘integration’. This is a curious case. Very often you will hear it said that the Muslims perpetuate an ‘us and them’ narrative in society. However, the whole emphasis on ‘integration’ perpetuates this notion in a more powerful way. The proponents of integration see themselves as the ‘main mass’, into which ‘the other’ must integrate. So to integrate is adopt, accept, imitate and embody, everything that ‘main mass’ stands for. If you are seen as ‘the other’ you’re values, culture, heritage are to be shunned in favour of the main mass. So with that whoever can demonstrate the most integration is celebrated, and those lacking as ostracised.

At face value, this appears to be a reasonable approach, but when you consider in detail the everyday actions and activities which are mentioned as demonstrations of one’s level of integration. We start with learning the language. Historically the vast majority of the Muslims in the UK are immigrants or children of immigrants. One can easily envisage that the first generations, those who came to the UK in their adulthood, will have the weaker language skills and the younger generations will be much stronger in this field. This is in fact the case. It is reported that children of immigrants perform better at school, possibly aided by their multilingualism. Why then do we have cases of people getting agitated at the sight of immigrants speaking in their native language? Is the British culture so weak that it is threatened by a foreign language? We can move on to clothing, food, and even lifestyle choices. In each case, those calling for integration will outwardly say that they are happy for the immigrant community to maintain their native aspects with respect to clothing food and the like. But one can’t help deep down, feeling a little under pressure to give those up as well.

There is an argument which says that integration is more about accepting certain values and viewpoints, the so called ‘British Values’. The obvious question arises as to what these British Values are, and who has the authority to define them. And on a more fundamental level why must we accept these values? What’s so wrong with the values we have from our own cultures and faiths?

An example will illustrate this point. Consider the case of premarital/extramarital relationships. Muslims consider premarital sexual relationship to be against the teachings of their faith. But in wider British society such relationships are the norm. So are we to forgo our religious convictions and accept the wider societal norm so that we can be considered integrated?

The above points should make the reader reflect deeply about the terms being used when discussing Islam and Muslims. I hope that you will think twice before self describing yourself with any of the terms above. We should seek to move beyond the word play and labels and focus on the practical application and impact of the words we choose to use.

by Muhammad Patel @MohammedPatelUK


Main Image – Pininterest.com

6 thoughts on “Words – How the power of language is used to push anti-Islam narratives

  1. Thanks for this thought-provoking blog. It is very much appreciated.
    Couple of points I disagree with. Firstly, relating to paedophile rings/grooming gangs the difference does have some conceptual differences. Firstly, the groups of mostly Asian men operated on the streets as gangs preying on girls who were vulnerable on the street. Hence, they were extensions of street gangs. The paedophile rings are, normally, organised online or through person-to-person connections unconnected to street gangs. The distinction has some use as these are different phenomena.
    As for Islamist, I really don’t understand the point. Islamist is used specifically to differentiate it from Muslims. It is an extreme religio-political ideology that is followed by groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood (normally non-violent (but not always)) and then various terrorist jihadist groups. It is used in preference to Islamic extremism/terrorism as it allows for the distinction between the religion and the extreme religio-political ideology. You seem to want to deny any link whatsoever with Islam the religion. What do you propose we call Islamists? Jihadis? Would that also apply to the people who pursue the political goals rather than the violence? Incidentally, an Imam I know asked me not to use “Jihadist” as that is a Quranic term and Jihadists are not Muslim. Again, I suggest that it is much more honest to acknowledge the link between the religion and the extremism and use an appropriate term.
    Cheers

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    1. While I’m somewhat inclined to agree with you, I’d suggest that the term ‘Islamist’ is no longer useful.
      It is common to be called an Islamist for expressing normative islamic viewpoints, or saying anything which does not reach the standard of secular liberalism. In your post you defined Islamist as ‘extreme’, which I think illustrates my point. Why is secular liberalism the yardstick to measure the acceptability of an idea for a religious group that does not operate from that paradigm?
      If the definition of Islamist was simply someone believing that Islam has a role to play in public life and governance then there is no problem there. The way it is currently defined for widely used lacks objectivity.

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      1. Why is secular liberalism the yardstick to measure extremity against? Because we live in a secular (to some extent; not enough) liberal democracy which should (but doesn’t always) uphold international social and political human rights norms. I don’t think measuring a political and religious standpoint against these and then declaring it “extreme” is unhelpful at all. It is actually a pretty objective measure.
        You agree, surely, that the words we use to describe Islamic-inspired terrorists and hard-line fundamentalist political projects should have some connection to their foundational religious ideology? I am completely open to the argument that these groups misuse or even misinterpret Islam, but the fact remains that they see themselves as Muslim and it is an intrinsic part of the group identity. We can’t call them Muslims, we can’t call them Islamic, we can’t call them Islamist. I am honestly intrigued to hear how we should refer to these disparate groups united by only one thing.

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    2. I agree with the pedophile gang distinction, there is some difference in the mechanics of the two, but ultimately they have the same outcome, but one is given extra focus than the other.

      As for your ‘Islamist’ comment, it doesn’t make much sense. So called Islamists are Muslims. Who defines what is extreme? Islam isn’t just a religion, it’s a way of life that has a political system, a system that was implemented by the Prophet Muhammad SAW, and was in existence for 1400 years, it is part of Islam. Your definition also does not tally with even the political terminology given to the label. There is no such thing as Islamist or Islamism in islam, so the term is reject as its nothing but a term that is used to secularise Islam by making it look like that Politics is separate from Islam, thus someone espousing Islam & political ideals together is somehow extreme. It is non nonsensical. None of these term have any real meaning apart from being used as political tools.

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      1. I am sorry, I don’t understand your point. Are you arguing that in your vision of Islam Islamism doesn’t exist therefore everyone else in the world should not use the term Islamism? As I said above, if a movement is not in line with international social and political human rights norms then it is correct to call it extreme or perhaps fundamentalist.

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