The Least, First

Monte Asbury's blog

Why “Islamic terrorism” is more insulting that we realize

with 26 comments

Body by FisherCross-cultural communication is tough. I’m told that when GM first began selling cars in Europe, the then-omnipresent “Body by Fisher” seal in the door sill was mistranslated to read “Corpse by Fisher.” I doubt it helped GM get what it was after.

Juan Cole, U of Michigan’s brilliant Middle East scholar, wrote a valuable Salon article offering cross-cultural insight into the difference between Islamic and Muslim.

clipped from
Juan Cole“Islamic” has to do with the religion founded by the prophet Mohammed. We speak of Islamic ethics … or Islamic art, as things that derive from the religion. “Muslim,” on the contrary, describes the believer. It would be perfectly all right to talk about Muslim terrorists, but calling them Islamic terrorists or Islamic fascists implies that the religion of Islam is somehow essentially connected to those extremist movements.
Giuliani complained that during their debates, Democratic rivals “never mentioned the word ‘Islamic terrorist,’
But people are not “Islamic,” they are Muslim. And one most certainly does insult Muslims by tying their religion to movements such as terrorism or fascism. Muslims perceive a double standard in this regard: Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols would never be called “Christian terrorists” even though they were in close contact with the Christian Identity Movement.
Muslims point out that persons of Christian heritage invented fascism, not Muslims
  blog it

Get it? Islamic means from the religion. Muslim describes a person.

I’m not too bothered by calling Timothy McVeigh a “Christian terrorist,” given that Christian can describe either the faith or a person. But I would be troubled if McVeigh were labeled a “Biblical terrorist;” that would suggest that terrorism would derive from following Jesus. And I’d want to oppose that idea everywhere it arose.

So it may be, a bit, with Islamic and Muslim.

Now, the argument could be made that it’s a free country and people can say whatever they want. AhmadinejadThat’s true, but it isn’t the point. If we want to seriously communicate with people of languages or faiths other than our own, we have some homework to do. Or we’ll find ourselves saying things we didn’t intend. Our communication won’t work very well. We won’t get what we’re after (indeed, this is part of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s problem: he has not understood what his words mean in western culture; journalists and politicians have failed to work hard at accurately translating the intent behind his words, opting for the simpler route of calling him crazy. Corpse by Fisher).

What do we want, then, from interaction with others? Those of us who see a part of our faith as becoming peace-makers, what do we want from communication?

Can we afford the shallowness of understanding only our own views, or talking in only our own way?  Will it get us what we’re after?

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Written by Monte

February 2, 2008 at 2:03 pm

26 Responses

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  1. I posted a quote on my blog from the chaplain who administered mass to the bombers who bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s very powerful. It is under “Japan Bombings” on my


    February 27, 2008 at 11:30 pm

  2. Thanks, Monte. (It’s what I do.) And yes, a little terrible and lonely, but unavoidable, and punctuated with joy (one has to take one to get the other).

    I’m not sure who said it, but it sounds true enough. Let me know if you’d like to read the whole poem.


    February 27, 2008 at 9:15 pm

  3. HP, I can’t imagine how it could be said more poignantly. Thank you for bringing poetry into dialogue.
    I think it was Kurt Vonnegut – or was it Zinn – who said something like, “Our American willingness to bomb is a failure of the imagination.”
    You have imagined. It changes us forever. Do you wonder why others can’t see? Or feel? Is it not terrible and lonely, and yet the only way to live with oneself?


    February 27, 2008 at 12:33 pm

  4. Monte, all I could think to add to this conversation was this section from a 15-part poem that’s the title poem for my manuscript.

    After bombs fell down like hard rain on a village in a strafe
    intended for our enemy, a man finds his wife’s body involuted
    in the rubble, around the axis of their dead daughter. His every synapse
    screams impotent rage. Reason scuttles away like a lizard.
    On the other side of the world, on a new-fangled Japanese monorail
    station platform, a little girl holds her mother’s hand, a red lollipop
    clutched in the other, not knowing their neighbor’s mind’s galvanized
    by hate. When the bomb blows up, the packed train will teeter
    on the elevated track, then plummet, smashing traffic. Terror juggles
    us all in its capable hands. Heads settle into grief like a pillow.
    Dark men accused of no crime shuffle, chained wrists to ankles.
    Terrorists breed like mosquitoes in this swamp of injustice, a fetid estuary.
    Only bomb-makers and rebuilders profit. No oracle
    need tell us the foundation of this conflict’s green as serpentine.


    February 9, 2008 at 8:44 pm

  5. I read some quotes today that I thought somewhat fit with the myth of ultimate security. Some of the quotes fit, some do not fit as much but are still good. Some of them are great, so are simply alarming:

    “Defense is a field in which I have had varied experience over a lifetime, and if I have learned anything, it is that there is no way in which a country can satisfy the craving for absolute security-but it can easily banckrupt itself, morally and economically, in attempting to reach that goal through arms alone.”-Dwight D Eisenhower

    “We (America) have about 50% of the wolrd’s wealth, but only 6.3% of its population…Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disperity.” George Kennon

    “we cannot have it both ways. We can’t be both the world’s leading champion of peace and the world’s leading supplier of arms.” Jimmy Carter

    America has the right to “unilateral use of power” to ensure “unihibited access to key markets, energy supplier, and strategic resources.” Bill Clinton

    A few other things I read are that America produces more weapons than the next leading 25 countries combined, and that if we spent 10% of what we spend on weapons on poverty, we could eliminate world hunger.

    One of the ways that we make money by making weapons is by selling them to anyone-even countries taht our own government has said is unstable and dangerous-so which one is it?

    The idea that we can make peace through violence is a myth-we have spent more and more money on weapons and military, but terrorist attacks have only increased.


    February 8, 2008 at 12:01 am

  6. Well hopefully America will step up and alter its foreign policy and stop oppressing other countries, because this is a major underlying cause for terrorists. And I think a valid question is-would terrorists even have a reason to use violence if countries weren’t oppressing them?

    Personally I think the war on terror is in some ways useless. The war on terror is based on an idea that we can rid the world of terrorists through war, and that we can secure ourselves to the point where we are never under a threat. This is a myth- we will never be so secure that no one can harm us-and we will certainly not achieve this by using violence against violence. Terrorism is more than just bad people wanting to be mean-it is more about people fighting against an oppressive world power the only way they can. It may seem cowardly, but what other way do they have to fight back when America has so oppressed other countries that there is no other power to stand up to America when it does wrong. I’m sure that not all terrorists fall under this explanation, but I sense that many of them do.

    Terrorism is wrong-but it is in the nature of humans to defend themselves by whatever means they can, and in the nature of countries to defend themselves. I wish that more people would seek the way of nonviolence-but this is a hard thing to commit to-and one that I am only committed to because I believe it was the way of Jesus. Countries do not live by this rule-including the US.

    It is absurd to want to go to war with other countries who are looking for the means to defend themselves when we have countless nuclear weapons ourselves.

    Monte Says: DB, I think this is a brilliant comment. Thank you very much.


    February 5, 2008 at 11:01 am

  7. OK, DarthBen – it’s a matter of semantics. I’ll make it simple: terrorists need to be hunt down and killed et al. To me that is opposing or countering their violence.

    The underlying causes and vehicles for the terrorists’ violence have to be stopped through other means. Either the underlying motivations are taken away or enough force is used against the terrorists that they fear to operate, or their host nations fear to let them operate.

    Violence isn’t the only way to solve the world’s problems but it is often the only way to solve for the world’s problem-makers.


    February 5, 2008 at 6:57 am

  8. […] culture – “Islamic terrorist” and “Islamo-fascism” Jump to Comments Monte Asbury has some very good comments on his blog about the way language is understood in different […]

    Monte Says: Thanks for the ping, Khanya!

  9. That is what MLK did. He marched into the face of violence and endured it without using violence.

    I don’t think it’s possible to oppose violence with violence, because by using violence you are resorting to the very thing you are confronting. You can oppose a violent person using violence, but you cannot oppose the system of violence using violence, because you will only be adding to the lie that the only way to solve problems in this world is to use violence.


    February 4, 2008 at 9:24 pm

  10. Monte, ignoring violent attacks and carrying on anyway is not opposing that violence. Violence is only opposed by violence. Enduring it without opposing it is another story and whole different – and harder – philosophy.


    February 4, 2008 at 7:13 pm

  11. But jonolan, terrorism has often been the means by which American government has advanced its interests. Assassinations, overthrow of elected democratic governments, riots, kidnapings, torture, beatings, bribery, training of gestapo-like secret police – it’s all been in America’s playbook for intimidating nations with natural resources that American business wants. There’s justification for far more than “a certain amount of anti-American sentiment.” Who will call the USA to account for starting many of these conflicts, rather than merely laying blame on those who retaliate?

    And Ghandi, King, etc. most certainly did directly oppose violence with nonviolence. Facing down Bull Connor, enduring terrorist bombings of churches, seeing black and white civil rights workers murdered, marching into confrontations with armed men – be they southern sheriffs or British army regulars: they were pitted struggles – non-violence against violence, even non-violence against terrorism – and non-violence won big against centuries of violent domination, and violence retreated. Perhaps I don’t understand what you mean – the idea that they didn’t directly oppose violence, when they were so often bloody, seems ludicrous to me.


    February 4, 2008 at 6:07 pm

  12. DarthBen,

    You may be right there – to a point. All nations protect their interests to the best of their ability, and the US has a great deal of such ability and the proven will to use it. That would account for a certain amount of anti-American sentiment among the populations of numerous nations. It doesn’t account for or excuse the choice of terrorism as means to change that involvement.


    February 4, 2008 at 5:42 pm

  13. I think you are letting America off the hook far too much here. Are you aware of the amount of times we have overthrown governments so that we can have more access to a countries resources? Our way of life is only possible because of our foreign policy.


    February 4, 2008 at 2:54 pm

  14. It is true. Monte. Ghandi, MLK, and Tutu never opposed violence. They never once tried to stop the violent behaviors of their enemies; they sought to change the underlying structures instead.

    Terrorism is often a desperate weapon used by out-gunned extremists in an attempt to change political situations. They hate America because our way of life is inimical to them and use our troops being located in the MidEast as an excuse. Then they use Islam to sanctify their actions.


    February 4, 2008 at 2:26 pm

  15. Opposing violence can only be done by invoking equal or greater levels of violence.

    I’m glad that’s not true, Jonolan! If it were, India would not be a free nation. America would be a generation behind where it is in civil rights. We would never have heard of Ghandi or King or Tutu, all of whom conquered violence.

    But I agree that underlying causes for violence are the real key, and that they have not been seriously examined in the current “war on terror.”

    Terrorism is often a desperate defense by a hopelessly out-gunned element defending its homeland. Arab and Iranian extremists (and many moderates) have consistently said that they see presence of American troops on Arab soil as part of an American attempt to dominate the entire region. They don’t hate us because they’re Muslims; they don’t hate us for our freedoms (as Bush has said so often). They hate us because they believe America and Israel want to dominate their homeland.

    Every time America opposes “violence with equal or greater violence”, the extremists’ argument appears to be true, and their recruitment skyrockets.
    American foreign policy – not Islam, not freedom – is what has nourished Al Qaeda. Americans largely don’t realize this, because we don’t study the history of the region much in school. Take a look at a brief summary of Middle East scholar Juan Cole, at A brief history of US-Iran relations, Part 1, and see some American history that Iranians know better than we Americans do. They have reason for concern.


    February 4, 2008 at 1:43 pm

  16. There is something else involved here too though. I don’t know about the history of terroism, but it seems to me that America has given much reason to terrorists to use violence by the way that American has oppressed other countries. So even though violence may be a part of the Islamic ideology, perhaps certain Muslims would not be so quick to resort to it if we were not terrorizing the world ourselves. I think there may be a pattern. Terrorists may have their own ideology of violence, but America also has an ideology of using violence as a means to stay ahead in the world.


    February 4, 2008 at 10:53 am

  17. Opposing violence can only be done by invoking equal or greater levels of violence. To reduce violence you must look at the underlying causes for it and at the vehicles for that violence. Islam is such a vehicle and must be “reviewed” when trying to reduce violence perpetrated by Muslims.


    February 4, 2008 at 9:48 am

  18. Some say the Quran recommends violence; most don’t. Some Islamic societies are repressive; some are not. The most repressive ones are sometimes propped up by the USA.

    Wouldn’t it be more productive to oppose violence itself, rather than stereotyping millions of innocent people? Will such stereotypes make us less likely to respond with violence ourselves, or more?

    As with Corpse by Fisher, simplistic understandings usually don’t take us where we need to go.


    February 3, 2008 at 5:11 pm

  19. An interesting thought, DarthBen. It is entirely possible that each and every Christian who used violence to further or support his Church failed his faith, and equally possible that each and every Muslim who didn’t violence to further or support his Church failed his faith.


    February 3, 2008 at 12:44 pm

  20. I think that we have the right to say what is true, if it is true. I’m not an expert on the Quran, but I have read experts who have said that the Quran does support violence as a means of spreading the Islamic religion. If this is true, then clearly the majority of the Muslims do not follow this way, but if it is true, I don’t think it is wrong or politically incorrect to say it’s true.

    It’s a whole other story on the practice of violence, because in this case Christians and Muslims have probably contributed to more violence than any other religions through history, although followers of both would for the most part condemn such actions in their religious ancestors.

    However, to me there is one major difference. Muhammad is the founder of Islam, while Jesus is the “founder” of Christianity (I use founder for Jesus for lack of a better term that I can think of, because I don’t believe he started a new religion, but that he revealed the Jewish God even more). However, the difference is that during his life Muhammad practiced violence, and used it to spread his religion. Therefore, if a Muslim today is using violence for religious purposes, whether it supports this in the Quran or not, s/he would still be following in the footsteps of Muhammad.
    However, Jesus did not live his life through violence, actually quite the opposite, instead he conquered through suffering.
    Whether you believe the Old Testament supports violence or not, for some reason Jesus did not follow in the tradition of holy war through violence (although some would say that Revelation portrays Jesus as using holy war to conquer, however I think this is a misinterpretation.) Clearly people can read the Bible or the Quran and interpret them however they would like, but what I think is clear is that while Jesus and Muhammad were on earth, one practiced violence and one did not. I’m not saying this to try to demonize Muslims in any way, for I know that the majority of Muslims do not live by violence. And I am not trying to say that Christian history is more righteous than Muslim history, for God knows that Christians have failed immensely throughout history in replicating Christ’s love. However, I do think that Christianity is superior and more true than Islam-if I did not think this I would not be a Christian.


    February 3, 2008 at 9:36 am

  21. What right? The right and duty of self aware ethical beings! Islam is promulgates violence and repressive, abusive nation-states across the globe. Just because other religions have done the same in the past doesn’t make Islam unaccountable.


    February 3, 2008 at 9:17 am

  22. True, we must admit that the holy book seems to advocate terrorism. The prophet commands, and the people obey, like this:

    The people … put everything in the city under the holy curse, killing man and woman, young and old, ox and sheep and donkey.

    Brutal! And this:

    Now go, attack … and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.

    That faith sounds intrinsically and irrevocably tied to terrorism, to be sure.
    Oh, wait, though – those passages are from the Bible (Joshua and 1 Samuel), not the Qu’ran. Sorry.

    Sad to say, the many misguided followers of my faith, Christianity, have given the world at least as much death as have misguided Muslims, and continue to do so. In World War I, both sides were certain they fought on behalf of Jesus Christ. In the next war, it was Christians who massacred the civilians of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; Christians who carried out the fire-bombings of German and Japanese cities, roasting mothers and babies by the thousands. And even today, Osama bin Laden will never come close to George Bush’s record of innocent lives taken by violence.

    What right have we to point our bloody fingers at Muslims, or to decry their faith as violent?


    February 2, 2008 at 8:19 pm

  23. Yes it is, but thats what occurs. It’s a little hard to misinterpret the passages of the bible that state that if you do not following the teachings of the bible then you will go to hell and endure torture at the hands of god for all eternity.

    Misinterpretation occurs in every faith, and particularly in the qur’an due to the time when it came to fruition. You should really read the qur’an. You’d see it’s beauty, and realize that passages calling for ‘extermination on unbelievers’ can be found in the bible itself


    February 2, 2008 at 7:19 pm

  24. onassar,

    It’s a little hard to misinterpret the passages in the Qur’an that call for the subjugation or extermination of unbelievers. It really quite clear. These extremists are not misinterpreting the Qur’an.


    February 2, 2008 at 6:53 pm

  25. Zechariah 14:1 Behold, the day of the LORD cometh, and thy spoil shall be divided in the midst of thee.

    Zechariah 14:2 For I will gather all nations against Jerusalem to battle; and the city shall be taken, and the houses rifled, and the women ravished; and half of the city shall go forth into captivity, and the residue of the people shall not be cut off from the city

    All faiths ‘condone’ violence in their holy texts if interpreted incorrectly. It’s very easy to find some exert that seems to tie a religious faith inherently to violence. I could assume that Christianity condones rape for non-believers based on the passages above. You haven’t introduced anything new. You’ve only shown your ignorance to understand religious text.


    February 2, 2008 at 5:46 pm

  26. Islam is intrinsically and irrevocably tied to those extremist movements. It is Islam who promotes such behavior. Islam is a religion of conquerors that sternly advocates conversion of kafir by the the sword or the subjugation or extermination of such unbelievers.

    Many modern Muslims choose not to listen to that part of their religion, but iit is a fundamental part of it. The extremists are different from “fundamental Christians” only in the level of violence they are willing to use.


    February 2, 2008 at 2:21 pm

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