Former Democratic Party head Howard Dean has caused a controversy with his remarks on Wednesday criticizing people who call the murderers in Paris “Muslim terrorists.” Dean certainly makes a strong point when he says “They’re about as Muslim as I am,” he said. “I mean, they have no respect for anybody else’s life, that’s not what the Koran says.” It is easy to forget that most Muslims are as appalled and outraged as non-Muslims by these horrific crimes. However, I do not agree that we have to adopt another verboten term. The fact is the “Muslim extremist” or “Muslim terrorist” refer to the motivation and self-identity of the killers not their adherence to the proper reading of Islam. I have used it in publication as the most accurate descriptive term for those committing these atrocities.
While Dean is getting a lot of heat over this, I think that this is a fair point to raise, even if you reject the suggestion.
Here is the exchange:
HOWARD DEAN: You know, this is a chronic problem. I stopped calling these people Muslim terrorists. They’re about as Muslim as I am. I mean, they have no respect for anybody else’s life, that’s not what the Koran says. Europe has an enormous radical problem. I think ISIS is a cult. Not an Islamic cult. I think it’s a cult.
BRZEZINSKI: Interesting, yeah. Hmm.
DEAN: And I think you got to deal with these people. The interesting thing here, is we talked about guns the last time in regarding the United States, regarding how guns get in the hands of the kind of people that kill the two police officers here two weeks ago.
France has tremendous gun control laws, and yet these people are able to get Kalashnikovs. So, this is really complicated stuff, and I think you have to treat these people as basically mass murderers. But I do not think we should accord them any particular religious respect, because I don’t think, whatever they’re claiming their motivation is, is clearly a twisted, cultish mind.
Obviously, these murderers were motivated by their view of Islam, even yelling “Allahu akbar” as they fired and screaming that they have “avenged” Mohammed for being put into cartoons. Obviously, some Muslims agree with such violent action given the murder of dozens of non-Muslims after the Danish cartoon controversy in 2006.
The fact is that we would refer to Hindu or Christian terrorists if a crime were committed in the name of their faiths. Referring, as Dean suggests, to all such terrorists as “mass murderers” denies specificity in reporting and commentary on these particular criminals. The use of “Muslim” in stories like those coming out of Paris is meant to add specificity and distinction in the description of these terrorists from other terrorists. Unfortunately, we live in a world filled with such individuals of various faiths including stories on “Hindu terrorists” and other faith-based attacks. After all, shouldn’t Guy Fawkes be referred to as a “Catholic terrorist” for his role in the Gunpowder Plot (meant to to blow up the House of Lords over the persecution of Catholics)? Fawkes was motivated by his religion even though most Catholics are appalled at the notion of destroying Parliament.
Dean’s point is still worthy of discussion. There is a danger that these extremists will be taken for representatives of their faith. After all, it was a Muslim police officer who was gunned down begging for his life on the street.
However, that point can be made clear in the context of coverage. Indeed, I often refer to such individuals as “Muslim extremists” to convey not just their motivation but their position on the fringe of their faith. The concern is to add yet another prohibited term added to what seems an ever-lengthening list.
Dean’s comments however do serve to force a legitimate debate over whether it is far to refer to such extremists by their faith. I would be more convinced if the murderers were not expressly acting in the name of their faith and simply happened to be Muslim. It would then be inappropriate in my view to call murderers who acted for other purposes (like personal or economic crimes) by their faith. Yet, here you have extremists who acted clearly in adherence to their own warped view of religion. Notably, the New York Times, USA Today, NPR, and other major publications continue to use the terms “Muslim terrorists” or “Muslim extremists.”
What do you think?