07/23/2010 08:29 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Washington In A War Of Words On How To Label Terrorists

By Maggie Hyde
Religion News Service

WASHINGTON (RNS) In addition to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Obama administration is fighting on another front: a domestic war of words on how to describe the threat posed by "Islamic" terrorism.

Earlier this spring, the Obama administration's National Security Strategy stripped all references to terrorists' religion, saying that labeling terrorists in religious terms conveyed a backhanded sense of religious legitimacy, and was offensive to Muslims.

In recent weeks, however, conservatives have pushed back, saying vagueness conveys a sense of U.S. timidity in the face of militant extremism rooted in religion.

The latest salvo was a report issued by The Washington Institute for Near East Policy that chided the White House for not using religious labels, including "jihadist," "Islamist," and "Islamic extremism," and even "terrorism."

Republicans on Capitol Hill, too, have hammered Attorney General Eric Holder and other administration officials on whether "radical Islam" was responsible for a series of attempted terrorist bombings. Holder responded that "there are a variety of reasons why people do these things."

"I don't know why the administration has such difficulty acknowledging the obvious, which is that radical Islam might have incited these individuals," said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas. "If you can't name the enemy, then you're going to have a hard time trying to respond to them."

The debate has resurrected sensitive arguments on distinguishing between a global faith and isolated individuals who claim to act in the name of religion.

The shift away from religious labels is part of Obama's attempt to recalibrate relations with the Islamic world, including a prominent speech last year in Cairo, Egypt.

After the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration took pains to describe Islam as "a religion of peace," but as late as the 2007 State of the Union address, the White House was referring to Osama bin Laden and his followers as "just one camp in the Islamist radical movement."

Obama's National Security Strategy never uses the term "Islamist" and only includes the word "Islamic" when referring to Organization of the Islamic Conference or the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The Bush administration's strategy also shied away from any derivative adjectives of the word "Islam," instead using "terrorism" 28 times. Obama's document uses it 23 times, mostly in reference to "counterterrorism" efforts.

"Describing our enemy in religious terms would lend credence to the lie propagated by al-Qaida and its affiliates to justify terrorism, that the United States is somehow at war against Islam," said John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, in a speech before the strategy's release in May.

"The reality, of course, is that we have never been and will never be at war with Islam. After all, Islam, like so many faiths, is part of America."

The word "Islamist" has come under particular scrutiny--mostly because it can carry numerous and often derogatory connotations. First heard in academic circles, the word eventually found a home in the blogosphere, where hard-line conservatives don't use it kindly, and Muslims find it offensive.

"I have no idea what the term `Islamist' means," said Ibrahim Hooper, national spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic relations. "Muslims don't use the word."

Groups looking to disparage the entire religion of Islam, he said, typically employ the word. Terms like "Islamo-fascism" and "Islamo-terrorism" are particularly offensive, he said, and should be off-limits. He suggests phrases like "religious extremist," which can encompass violent movements in other faiths.

John Esposito, a scholar of Christian-Muslim relations at Georgetown University, said it's "perfectly accurate to refer to people as terrorists," but "Muslim" should be used for professed followers of Islam, and "Islamic" should be reserved for something "that comes from the heart of Islam."

But what if a self-professed Muslim is also a self-professed Islamist?

"There needs to be a way to distinguish between a Muslim and Islamist," said J. Scott Carpenter, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "If you aren't able to distinguish an ideology from a religion, it's the religion that always suffers."