In “What I learnt from my stay with a Muslim family” in The Observer (thanks to all who sent this in), Tory leader David Cameron joins the large crowd of politicians, media figures, and law enforcement officials who believe that “Islam” or any related word should not be used in the same sentence with “terrorism.” This is a deeply entrenched idea. Once I was speaking with an anti-terrorism official who in the course of our conversation referred to the jihadists as “Muslims.” Then he looked at me sheepishly and said, “Well, I shouldn’t call them Muslims…” and then trailed off into silence, since he didn’t have an alternative.
Cameron’s enlightenment came during his stay with a Muslim family in Birmingham:
The challenges of cohesion and integration are among the greatest we face. I wrote in these pages in January that we cannot bully people into feeling British: we have to inspire them. Last week, I spent two days staying with Abdullah and Shahida Rehman and their family in Birmingham. The experience has strengthened my conviction about the right way to build a more cohesive Britain.
First, a concerted attack on racism and soft bigotry. You can’t even start to talk about a truly integrated society while people are suffering racist insults and abuse, as many still are in our country on a daily basis. We must also be careful about the language we use. No Muslim I’ve ever met is offended by Christmas, or supports its replacement with ‘Winterval’. But many Muslims I’ve talked to about these issues are deeply offended by the use of the word ‘Islamic’ or ‘Islamist’ to describe the terrorist threat we face today.
We do need greater understanding of the true nature of the terrorist threat. There’s too much complacency about it among non-Muslims, and too much denial of it in the Muslim community. But our efforts are not helped by lazy use of language. Indeed, by using the word ‘Islamist’ to describe the threat, we actually help do the terrorist ideologues’ work for them, confirming to many impressionable young Muslim men that to be a ‘good Muslim’, you have to support their evil campaign.
This might be true if only Western analysts and media reports linked “Islam” with “terrorism” — as Muslim advocacy groups in the West have sometimes suggested. But in reality the ones making this link are the jihadists. So when non-Muslims pick up on this, does it confirm to “impressionable young Muslim men” that to be a “good Muslim” one must join the jihadists?
The flow of Cameron’s thought here is strange. We have jihadists claiming to represent “pure Islam,” and justifying violence by recourse to Islam texts and teachings. And by doing this they are challenging the Islamic bona fides of peaceful Muslims, and trying to position their course of action as the only legitimate path for Muslims today.
But Cameron apparently believes that peaceful Muslims and cultural Muslims will be impervious to this presentation unless non-Muslim analysts refrain from speaking about the Islamic character of the jihadist appeal. Apparently young cultural Muslims will not be convinced by the jihadists saying they represent true Islam, but if a non-Muslim official speaks not of true Islam but simply of the Islamic content of what the jihadists are saying, that will be enough to push a peaceful Muslim into the jihadist camp.
Anyway, this view has already been field-tested. Western officials have assiduously resisted linking Islam with terrorism. Has this blunted the jihadist appeal in the Islamic community? That question is hard to answer, as no one can know what might have happened if a different course had been followed. But jihadist recruitment does seem to be continuing, as witness the Fort Dix plot and other recent evidence of jihadist activity.
And above all, Cameron is here recommending something that will ultimately undercut the same peaceful Muslims he claims to be trying to support. For the jihadists are presenting themselves as the true Muslims. Peaceful Muslims have to confront and refute that if the force of jihadist recruitment is ever to be halted. But it cannot be confronted and refuted if everyone is afraid even to mention it in the first place.