The Times has revealed today that counter-terror police officers are considering dropping the term ‘Islamism’ to describe terror attacks motivated by Islam. If it feels like we’ve been here before, we have. Ever since Islamist terror hit the West in September 2001, the circular debates over the correct way to describe terrorists has been a near-constant distraction.
In 2014, precious time and energy that could have been used to save the lives of innocent aid workers, journalists, religious minorities and civilians living under the jackboot of ISIS – or indeed stopping hundreds of our own citizens joining the frenzy – was instead spent debating whether or not we should call the group ‘Daesh’, or the ‘un-Islamic State.’
Unsurprisingly, this parochial debate did not exactly strike fear into the hearts of terrorists. One told the journalist Graeme Wood:
“‘We’re happy to have you discussing whether to call us ‘Daesh’, ‘ISIL,’ or ‘ISIS'… As long as you’re talking about that,” he said – and not about theology, politics or military operations - “we know you’re not taking us seriously.’
It is more apparent to terrorists than us that these conversations, though well-meaning, have little benefit to the actual business of countering terrorism.
Which brings us to ideology, and the attempt by police to ban the term ‘Islamist’. Islamism is the particular name for a political ideology which seeks to establish an Islamic state. Its adherents range from those working within democracy to those willing to murder civilians to achieve this aim.
According to critics of the word, 'Islamism' should be dropped because it conflates religious belief with terror. But the term ‘Islamism,’ rather than ‘Islamic’ is intended to draw a distinction between the political ideology and the religious beliefs of more than two million Brits. It is important though to understand how religion informs the political ideology. Which it does, significantly.
I was present in the police meetings where these issues arose, and was disappointed that the use of the term 'Islamism' was framed in the context of the current discussions on race. This made it near impossible to make a dispassionate case in an entirely separate debate. Islamism is not just a made-up term, or a relic of a more racist past to be expunged like a statue or American Football team name. It is a necessarily precise and accepted term to describe the ultimate objective of both al-Qaeda and, as the name suggests, Islamic State.
When innocent people are gunned down in European capitals and minorities are persecuted in the Middle East, it is of the utmost importance to understand why this is happening. We need to know that we are not simply dealing with a band of malcontents or the vulnerable, but a distinct and coherent violent programme which, as repugnant as it may be, should be respected and understood as an opponent.
The authorities are being led to believe that there is discontent over the use of the term Islamism, but they must also be aware that any backlash over its use risks being dwarfed by the response to its abandonment.
The public wants to see effective counter-terrorism operations, and they want to know that some effort is being made to challenge the ideology behind the violence. How can they possibly have any confidence that the authorities are tackling Islamism, if they won’t even name it?
Our institutions seem unaware at the moment of just how far they are drifting from the majority opinion as they – consciously or otherwise – adopt the political leanings and politically correct language of public sector professionals and supposed community groups.
The police have largely escaped the distrust bred by this disconnect, but following a series of failures inextricably linked to political correctness, from Rotherham to the failure to protect public statues, the police risk sailing ever closer to the winds of public resentment.
If they are seen to be withholding the truth over what is still the greatest terror threat to this country, then trust will deteriorate and policing by consent will be undermined.
Just imagine, in the wake of an atrocity (and there will be more) a senior British police officer using a euphemism to explain the murder of our fellow citizens. The resentment these displays can breed should not be underestimated, and the chasm between the public and institutions leaves anger to fill this vacuum.
Perhaps the most overlooked people in this debate are the formidable Muslims standing up to Islamism every single day across the country. Making Islamism more of a taboo than it already is would undo so much of their hard work, and would be a frustrating betrayal of brave men and women who need our support.
If the authorities and experts need to do a better job of communicating the crucial distinctions between the ideology of Islamism and the faith of Islam then so be it, but this is vastly preferable to a sleight of hand to describe the threat we all face together, both Muslims and non-Muslims alike.