How we name our enemy’s ideology really matters

All complex thinking requires language; either words and sentences or symbols and equations. In conflicts we particularly need to think clearly. Our chosen words must pass two critical tests:

A. Have we defined the enemy accurately?
B. Will our words unite “our side” or divide it?

In state warfare, the enemy’s name is normally obvious. On 3 September 1939 Britain’s Prime Minister accurately declared that “this country is at war with Germany.”

We called Germany’s ideology Nazism; Nazi being an abbreviation for National Socialist German Workers Party.

Our word choice passed both tests:

A. There was no confusion about which country we were fighting against.
B. The only adherents of Nazism in Britain were a microscopic number of potential traitors. There were no “friendly Nazis” we might be alienating.

Ever since 9/11, America and Britain have struggled with nomenclature. Specific enemy groups are easy. “Al Qaeda” and the so-called “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” are clearly enemies. With them the only challenge is identifying their members. But what do you call their ideology?

After identifying that 9/11 was Al Qaeda’s doing, President George W Bush emphasised that America was not at war with Islam. Just six days after 9/11, he visited a mosque in Washington DC, speaking eloquently against the harassment of American Muslims and the need to respect Islam.

That still leaves the problem. If the enemy’s ideology is not called Islam, what do we call it? Political leaders have grappled with this problem ever since; some better than others.

In 2016, presidential candidate Donald Trump said repeatedly that America was in conflict with “Radical Islam.” I suspect he could no more explain what “Radical Islam” means than he could explain what “critical race theory” means. To my surprise, Tony Blair, far better read than Mr Trump, in his recent otherwise excellent article “Why We Must Not Abandon the People of Afghanistan – For Their Sakes and Ours” four times calls the enemy’s ideology “Radical Islam.”

That name fails the tests very badly.

A. It is not precise. “Islam” is clearly not what we are against. “Radical” is categorically not an adjective only ever applied to bad things. In Britain and Continental Europe, radicalism has a long and proud tradition. If our enemies are “radical Muslims”, we will find them in every country.
B. Britain, continental Europe and America have millions of Muslim citizens. How many of them will the term “Radical Islam” alienate?

So if “Radical Islam” fails the tests, what name should we use for the shared ideology of Al Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, Al Shabab, and of course the Taliban?

There is a clear answer. While David Cameron got many things wrong, this he got right. He consistently talked about the ideology of “Violent Islamist Extremism.” But what does that mean, and how do we differentiate it from other things?

My friend, Muslim academic Dr Matthew Wilkinson has given expert witness testimony on Islamic theology in over 20 terrorism trials. Regularly, a defendant found possessing proscribed publications contends that the material is mainstream Islamic religious writing. Matthew has to give his expert opinion on the defendant’s claim.

People asking him how to distinguish “sheep and goats” led Matthew to write the book “The Genealogy of Terror: How to distinguish between Islam, Islamism and Islamist Extremism.” During his writing, we debated the precise categorisations for many hours.

The book does what it says on the tin. After reading it, you will know how to tell different Muslims apart. My review is at the above link. In this case, the picture below really does tell a thousand words.

As you can see, Mainstream Islam, Islamism, and Islamist Extremism overlap. That gives rise to 5 distinct worldviews. If you are curious, I believe I fall within Activist Islam. The enemy groups listed earlier all share the worldview (ideology) of Violent Islamist Extremism. Their fellow travellers, who do not fight themselves, hold the worldview of Non-violent Islamist Extremism.

As Liberal Democrats, we should never risk alienating Muslims by referring to Radical Islam. Instead, we should consistently use the term Violent Islamist Extremism for our enemy’s ideology. We should also understand why it is vital to prevent British Muslims being drawn into Non-violent Islamist Extremism.

* Mohammed Amin MBE is a member of the Liberty Network board. He is writing in a personal capacity.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Violent Extremism is not confined to groups espousing an Islamist worldview. The modern history of Afghanistan has largely been one of self-determination and preservation of national culture independence.
    The Anglo-Afghan wars of the 19th century were largely resistance to a foreign culture that had been imposed on India and had been expanded to Afghanistan to counter the perceived threat of Russian imperialism to the British Empire.
    In the 1960s/1970s, Kabul was a peaceful place and part of the hippy trail where many young travellers ventured to experience the culture of the Orient. In the late seventies Kabul university was a foment of radical ideas that saw a highly charged contest between the ideas of political Islam and Communism. With the installation of a communist government in the late 1970s, a reign of terror began with its concomitant political trials and mass executions of religious leaders and Islamists in general. As resistance grew, the Soviets intervened to shore up the failing communist regime. Afghan nationalists again rose to expel foreign invaders with the aid of weapons and funding supplied by the USA, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
    After the soviet evacuation, Afghan was still to have no peace. a civil war broke out among the mujahideen warlords for control of territory and resources bringing with it murder and ransom kidnappings on a wide scale. Ultimately, the Taliban prevailed and a semblance of order was reestablished, albeit with severe punishment for transgressors against the Taliban’s interpretation of Sharia law.
    The US invasion saw the overthrow of the Taliban and the expulsion of Al Queda, but saw a restoration to power of many of the corrupt warlords that had been subdued in the civil war.
    It seems clear that what Afghan’s want above all is peace and security. If the Taliban can deliver that, then the majority of Afghan’s will likely accept the proscriptions of Islamic law, as they have done since the Arab Islamic conquest of Afghanistan from the 7th to the 10th centuries. If however, the Taliban revert to previous form, it is likely that violent extremism will continue to plague Afghanistan for many years yet.

  • @Lamaan Ball

    You write “Choosing a name but giving no definition is just propaganda.

    As the book’s name indidcates, it contains very detailed definitions and the history of the development of the ideology. I can only say so much in ~800 words.

  • John McHugo 24th Aug '21 - 8:49pm

    Joe Burke – you write that if the Taliban can deliver peace and security the Afghans “will likely accept the proscriptions of Islamic law, as they have done since the Arab Islamic conquest from the 7th to the 10th centuries”.

    Islamic law has not been immutable since the 7th- 10th centuries, and was far from monolithic back then. If the Taliban apply the interpretations they imposed in Afghanistan in the late 1990s, I suspect they will have real problems. I hope they will have changed their interpretations since then, at least to a certain extent. We will see. But it’s wrong to bracket all interpretations of the Sharia together – and by doing so implicitly, you are actually contributing to the linguistic sensitivities which form the subject matter of Mohammed’s thoughtful piece.

  • Peter Hirst 25th Aug '21 - 1:01pm

    Its behaviour rather than beliefs that we should focus on. The Taliban probably does not have as much control over its forces as we imagine. Any force needs to respect the rights of the civilian and if not then sanctions should automatically apply.

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