Recently, Omid Safi, a professor at UNC Chapel Hill, advanced several points about the identifying labels commonly used in memorialization, including the 9/11 Memorial Museum, and news accounts. He responds to one question posed to him about critiques of labels, “What should we call it when acts of terrorism are committed by Muslims?” by explaining his concern with the application of the “Islamic terrorist” label,
Muslim terrorists (and all perpetuators of violence and oppression) deserve to be studied carefully. However, to depict them as embodying the essence of Islam (as Islamophobic forces routinely do) is precisely to grant them the very legitimacy that they crave.
On this point, I somewhat agree. Labeling al-Qaeda as “Islamic” without qualification implies that the organization holds elements in common with other groups who identify as Islamic, in the same way that labeling the KKK as “Christian” (to use Safi’s other example) implies a representative position that many who identify as Christian would contest.
However, I would push Safi’s point much further. Labeling any group, practice, or idea as Islamic, Christian, Buddhist, etc., whether their interpretations or practices are acceptable to you or not, has the same identifying power. Thus, descriptions of the five pillars as “Islamic” or trinitarianism as “Christian” validates a particular interpretation, which is not universally accepted, as if it represents the entirety. These labels, therefore, serve to cloak the contestation and diversity—whether in the hands of those with whom we agree or those with whom we disagree (vehemently so, at times).
Within Safi’s post itself, he demonstrates some of the problems with his attempt to police the application of these labels. Safi remains dissatisfied with the 9/11 Memorial Museum’s switch from “Islamic terrorist” to “Islamist terrorist”. Al-Qaeda, in Safi’s representation, is not Islamist because they are not a political party, “not a movement working in any effective sense to establish an Islamist state.” Employing a specific notion of “Islamist” that is perhaps different from that of the museum, he explains,
Usually people use the term Islamism as a synonym for “political Islam’, meaning a political movement that is invested in taking over the state, and establishing their understanding of Islamic law as the law of the land. [As with everything else involved scholars, there are all sorts of contestations of that broad parameter, and the required nuance brought to that discussion.]
But embedded within his declarations are the problems with his own application of the label; it requires a disregard for disputes over the nature of Islamism, a particularly narrow conception of the category “political,” and a dependence on his own judgment that al-Qaeda is not operating “in any effective sense,” an interesting addition to his definition in itself. Only if the reader accepts his declarations without question does his rejection of the term “Islamism” work.
The internet comments on Safi’s post illustrate further the problems of scholars (or others) attempting to police who counts as truly Islamic (or Christian or Hindu or…). One of those commenters, for example, references al-Qaeda’s alleged interest in restoring the Caliphate to argue that al-Qaeda indeed fits the Islamist label. Other commenters illustrate some of Safi’s concern with Islamophobia, as they disagree with Safi’s declaration of true Islam and argue over what the edicts of the Qur’an and Hadith actually require. Thus, Safi’s assertions leave him in the position of debating what is an accurate interpretation of particular texts and traditions, something that people who identify as Muslims, as Christians, as Buddhists, etc., have continually debated (on both major and seemingly minor points).
While Safi’s goal seems to be to protect a particular understanding of Islam, as well as those who identify with it (an academic goal that is also contested, as is the label academic), a different academic approach can alter this dynamic. Analyzing what different groups gain from applying the labels emphasizes how the labels are manipulable social constructions in anyone’s hands. To maintain that approach, though, scholars need to avoid valorizing particular positions by refraining from debating the correct application of labels (and thus avoid applying the labels themselves), a point I have argued more extensively previously. Instead of debating whether al-Qaeda operatives are Muslims, scholars should acknowledge who is selecting particular labels for them and the ways that the labels promote a variety of interests for different groups who employ them.
For perhaps Safi concedes too much in his effort to shift the labels. In acknowledging the self-identification of the attackers, he never fully questions the assumption that their identification as Muslims is what is primary in their actions. He could have proposed a whole range of identifications that would provide a more consistent basis for labeling than his solution of “al-Qaeda terrorism,” a designation often contested as to which acts are actually by al-Qaeda and which are not. We could identify the perpetrators according to their ethnicity, nationality, or ideology. Would labeling the 9/11 perpetrators as Saudi terrorists (generally), or simply male terrorists, change the conversation (perhaps in ways some do not want the conversation changed)? We could identify them, perhaps, as “geo-political terrorists” or “anti-Westernization terrorists,” to give just two other options. Simply put, why does the standard discourse select an Islamic or Islamist identification as primary?Assuming that the various ideas and practices that we commonly label religion are primary and always causal in people’s actions does its own work of validating particular viewpoints and marginalizing others. Whose interests does the focus on another religion serve? In my analysis it cloaks other interests and motivators that inform the actions of many people and other ways of labeling and thereby understanding human actions and motivations.
Asking such questions to interrogate the assumptions embedded in common labels (including the assumption that scholars should define what is the correct use of each label) can undermine the role of labels to legitimate and marginalize that Safi wants to undermine.