At a conference to combat radicalization held last week in Toronto, a prominent local imam called on the federal government to stop using language linking Islam to terror.
“Lead by example, change the rhetoric, and stop saying these words. They hurt,” said Dr. Hamid Slimi, former chairman of the Canadian Council of Imams and current chairman of the Muslim seminary, the Canadian Centre for Deen Studies.
The plea, met with overwhelming applause, referred specifically to remarks made by Prime Minister Stephen Harper weeks before that characterized mosques as potential spaces of radicalization.
Several days later, U.S. President Barack Obama, whose government has refused to use words such as “Islamic” or “jihad” to characterize violent extremism, found himself under fire for taking the opposite side of the semantic battle.
“What’s wrong with this man that he can’t stand up and say there’s a part of Islam that’s sick?” former New York Mayor Rudi Giuliani reportedly said, after the president defended his government’s position this week at a White House summit on combating extremism.
“We are not at war with Islam,” Mr. Obama said. “We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.”
While the commitment to combat extremism is undeniable on both sides of the border, the debate over just what language to use — and whether or not it contributes to the problem — is raging as fiercely as ever.
Many Canadian Muslims are unnerved by the government’s use of the language of Islam to describe terror and see it as stigmatizing.
In the Qur’an, the term “jihad” means exerting oneself in a difficult task such as debating, family struggles or armed conflict, says Sheik Aarij Anwer of Khalid Bin Al-Walid Mosque in the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke.
He calls the use of the term jihadism to describe terror “careless,” saying it draws an inaccurate link from “irrational violence” to theology — and implicates all Muslims in violent extremism.
Clothing terror in Islamic terms “has skewed the public’s perceptions of Canadian Muslims as some kind of dangerous and ‘un-Canadian’ group and reinforces stereotypes of the Muslims as some kind of fifth column and whose loyalty is suspect,” said Ihsaan Gardee, executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims.
But overlooking the religious roots of groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq & Al-Sham (ISIS) poses another serious problem, say others.
“By trying to de-link Islam from Islamic terrorism, [Mr. Obama] is engaging in an act of deception and self-deception,” said Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Ethics & Public Policy Center and a member of three past Republican administrations. “In order to defeat an enemy you need to understand the nature of the enemy you face.”
Michael Jackson Bonner, a historian of Iran at the Paris-based research group Projet CTESIPHON, agrees.
“Disguising the threat of militant Islam under the cover of ‘violent extremism’ makes Obama seem soft on [ISIS] and its allies,” he said.