The police are looking at dropping the terms “Islamist terrorism” and “jihadis” when describing attacks by those who claim Islam as their motive.
Proposed alternatives include “faith-claimed terrorism”, “terrorists abusing religious motivations” and “adherents of Osama bin Laden’s ideology”.
The reform was requested by a Muslim police organisation that blamed the official use of “Islamist” and “jihadi” for negative perceptions and stereotypes, discrimination and Islamophobia.
The problem was discussed at an online event last month addressed by Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu, the national head of counterterrorism policing, and attended by more than 70 attack survivors, victims’ relatives, academics, experts and advocacy groups. The police emphasised to The Times that the reform was not certain to go ahead.
“Islamist extremism” is one of the terms alongside “extreme right-wing” and “Northern Ireland-related” used by counterterrorism experts to label attackers according to their ideology.
Atrocities from the London bombings of 2005 to the Westminster, London Bridge and Manchester Arena attacks, all in 2017, have been formally attributed to “Islamist terrorism”.
The 3,000-strong National Association of Muslim Police, whose representative Alexander Gent addressed the meeting, has proposed “a change in culture by moving away from using terms which have a direct link to Islam and jihad. These . . . do not help community relations and public confidence.”
It suggested an Arabic word unrelated to religion: “Irhabi is commonly recognised to mean terrorist within the Middle East and could be used to describe people that hold extremist ideologies.” It said “jihad” should be dropped because the Arabic for “struggle” may refer in Islam to practising faith and good deeds as well as physical struggle “for the purpose of self-defence only”.
Far-right terrorists such as Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in Norway in 2011, had adopted Christian symbolism such as the crusades “yet terms such as ‘Christianist’ or ‘crusaderist’ are not used to describe them”, it added.
Rizwan Mustafa, a former West Midlands police officer turned lecturer at Huddersfield University, wrote in a briefing paper that Muslims in counter-terrorism were uncomfortable about “Islamism” and “jihadi” as “pejorative and depicting the religion of Islam (their belief) as violent and belligerent”.
He proposed the description “faith-claimed terrorism” and that instead of attributing attacks to Islamic State or al-Qaeda, perpetrators could be identified by their group’s leaders such as Bin Laden. “I would suggest that organisational figureheads are utilised as the point of association,” he wrote.
A Muslim faith leader said after the meeting: “We are asking others to be responsible with how the word Islamism is utilised.”
David Toube, of the counterextremism think tank Quilliam, who attended, told The Times: “People do not like to feel that they are being told only the partial truth . . . there is a serious problem with Islamist terrorism. The use of any term that obscures that fact risks damaging public trust in the police.”
A counterterrorism expert said afterwards that the far right already exploited allegations that police officers pandered to political correctness by ignoring gangs of Pakistani-background men using children for sex in Britain. “It creates ambiguity, that you can’t say this because it’s Muslim,” the expert said. “There will be a lack of trust and confidence in public discourse. You are trying to avoid saying it because it is true.”
Chief Superintendent Nik Adams, the national co-ordinator for the deradicalisation programme Prevent, said that the Counter Terrorism Advisory Network had met because Muslim officers were “concerned that terminology may contribute to the stigmatising of innocent Muslims in the UK”. He added: “[Mr] Basu encouraged honest and open discussion from all sides and did not at any point suggest that terminology was definitely going to change, simply that it was right that we have an evidence-based discussion about it. We have no plans to change the terminology we use at present but welcomed the debate and contributions.
“It’s vital we get our terminology right to define the threat accurately and succinctly but also to avoid alienating communities crucial to our efforts.”
My two cents
- These terms, “Islamist terrorism” and “jihadis”, they mean exactly what they say, and they accurately report the reality of the facts in a way that everyone can understand.
- It’s absolutely true that they “do not help community relations and public trust,” as Gent explained.
- Gent is right. But perhaps should he consider that what really doesn’t help community relations and public confidence are the Islamist attacks themselves, not the way they are described, and that the best way to improve community relations would be no terrorist attacks.
- How many attacks by Jews in the name of Judaism, by Christians in the name of Christianity, did you count in your lifetime? As many as by Muslims in the name of Islam? This seems difficult because apparently, if religious leaders claim that terrorists who commit attacks in the name of Islam have a misunderstanding of Islam, why don’t Jews have a misunderstanding of Judaism and Christians have a misunderstanding of Christianity?
- Rizwan Mustafa proposed the term “terrorism claimed by faith”, which is fine by me, since all attacks claimed by faith are claimed by the Islamic faith, except that it could produce a major drawback: the vagueness of information.
- A Muslim faith leader said: “We are asking others to be responsible with how the word Islamism is utilised.” What it means is that he makes the whole world responsible but the Muslims, and he does not ask Islamists to be responsible for the way they use their references to Islam.
- The terms “Islamist terrorism” and “jihadis” may indeed be imprecise. But in the face of this imprecision, it must be recognized that they have an immense advantage: they clearly indicates the cultural affiliation of the perpetrators of the attacks, and they reflects their will and intention: they say they are acting according to a religious imperative and in accordance with the precepts of Islam.
- When Muslims commit suicide bombings on public transport and leave behind video messages full of religious references, or kill because someone has drawn the prophet, what credibility will the police have if they do as journalists do and avoid any reference to Islam? They will become what the media has become: the professional category in which people have the least confidence.
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