What we do and what we say

Yesterday, Hillary Clinton acquiesced to Donald Trump’s demand that she name the  massacre at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub as a product of “radical Islamism.” Her supposed failure to do so had become something of a cause celebre on the radical right, and Donald Trump claimed a victory in making her say it.

Trump’s preferred term is “Radical Islamic Terror” (elsewhere, simply “Radical Islam,” also in title caps), but Clinton presented her response in typical fashion–as a little red meat to the xenophobes she’s now courting, seasoned with a little bit of good-government militarism for the liberal supporters she already has. She began by belittling Trump for focusing so much on semantics.

[I]t matters what we do, not what we say. It mattered that we got bin Laden, not the name we called him.”

Military actions, not words, are what matters. But then, she continues, if it means that much to you, fine, whatever, I’ll say it.

“But if he is somehow suggesting I don’t call this for what it is, he hasn’t been listening. I have clearly said that we face terrorist enemies who use Islam to justify slaughtering innocent people. And, to me, radical jihadism, radical Islamism, I think they mean the same thing. I’m happy to say either, but that’s not the point.”

The right-wing blog Red State huffed illiterately in response:

Sure it matters what we do, but it also matters what we say. Curing disease is nice but you sorta have to understand what the disease is and it is useful if the disease has a name so cancer and smallpox and boils on the ass aren’t all called “maladies.”

Nowhere in Red State’s statement on this semantic controversy is Omar Mateen’s target–a gay nightclub–ever mentioned. Trump buried it in the third paragraph of his statement, obliquely saying that “Radical Islam advocates hate for women, gays, Jews, Christians and all Americans.” Instead, the shooter’s plainly opportunistic and delusional claim of ISIS inspiration has predictably inflamed a media and political establishment so enamored with ISIS that if the terrorist bogeymen didn’t exist, they would have had to invent them (oh wait–they did!)

But since this is a language blog, why the obsession with naming the attack “radical Islamism”? Red State is right, insofar as words and more broadly, the ideologies they shape, cannot be separated from actions as Clinton claims they can. But the political meaning of the word “Islamism” is, of course, not what they think it is.

Islamism, in fact, peaked between 1820 and 1840, where it was used synonymously with “Mohamedanism,” as you can see here.

Screen Shot 2016-06-14 at 1.48.26 PM.png

(Islamism with a capital “I” gains in popularity through the later half of the 19th century.)

There, as now, “Islamism” was used with hostility, to denote a superstition or an apostasy. Like “popery,” it named the religion as a set of deviant practices. The Anglican Orientalist Charles Foster, archbishop of Limerick in Ireland and a prolific author on Islam, made this equation between “Islamism” and “Popery” explicit. “Islamism is the Popery of Ishmaelism,” he wrote in an 1830 book defending his earlier tract Mahometanism Unveiled. “Popery,” “Mohametanism” and “Islamism” were intended to define Islam or Catholicism as superstitious and subversive practices, rather than coherent belief systems of their own. Hence the all-important important suffixes, which identify the religions not as faiths but as actions–Catholics are conspiratorial agents of the Roman pontiff, and “Mohametans” the proselytizers of the “Ishmaelite heresy.”

The point now is less theological than it is political, nationalist, and racial, but I’d say the basic meaning remains–you can’t honestly declare war on “radical Islamism” and also disown the racist discourse of a “clash of civilizations,” as Clinton would have us believe, which is why Red State and Trump are so invested in the phrase.

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