Attention members of the media: Kindly stop referring to the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram as “Islamic terrorists,” “Islamists” or anything else involving the word “Islam.” The despicable acts taken by this militant group—from kidnapping schoolgirls to slaughtering people at churches and mosques—have absolutely nothing to do with Islam. In fact, as one well-known Imam told me, the claim by Boko Haram’s leader that its actions are based on Islamic principles is “blasphemy” of the worst kind.
Why do our media continually use terms like “Islamist” or “Islamic radical” to describe people or groups without doing the bare minimum investigation into whether there’s actually a connection between their conduct and Islam? Instead, it appears that the media assume that if the person is Muslim and claims he is acting in accordance the faith, that’s good enough for them. It shouldn’t be.
Here’s some real “breaking news”: Want to know how much of the violent acts committed by Boko Haram are based on Islamic principles? Nothing, nada, niente, rien, or any word you want to use for having no connection.
And this isn’t just my view. It’s what Muslims around the world having been saying for the past week as they have both denounced Boko Haram’s savagery and stated that Boko Haram’s actions are in no way sanctioned or supported by Islamic principles. We heard this from leaders of major American-Muslim organizations who held a press conference last week, as well as from leading clerics in Saudi Arabia, Canada and Nigeria. Hopefully, this ends the claim we hear from those who ask, “Why don’t we see Muslims denounce terrorism?”
And closer to home, in New York City, three Muslim-American leaders emphatically made this very point to me. Imam Shamsi Ali, known for his interfaith work with Rabbi Marc Schneier, Russell Simmons and others, expressed his anger that political terrorists like Boko Haram invoke Islam as the reason for their “heinous crimes.” Imam Ali called the Boko Haram leaders “blasphemous” for claiming the Koran sanctions their violence against innocent people, since it’s not only “contrary to everything Islam stands for” but also it’s “a crime against God and humanity.”
Daisy Khan, founder of the Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality, called Boko Haram’s kidnapping of schoolgirls a “horrendous crime” that “violates every major objective of Islam.” Khan explained that nowhere does the Koran ban women from getting an education or support in any way kidnapping women and selling them as slaves, as Boko Haram has claimed. Khan described Boko Haram actions as not being a “mistaken interpretation of the Koran, but a sheer fabrication of what it actually states.”
It’s also troubling to see the double standard employed by our media when they cover terrorists or extremists who are Muslim when compared to those of other faiths. For example, in the past we have seen literally hundreds of violent attacks against abortion clinics, from fire bombings to doctors being murdered. These militants are no doubt inspired by their religious views, but we don’t hear the media refer to them as “Christian terrorists.”
And why don’t the media use the term “Christianists” to describe extremists like the Westboro Baptist Church, or Bryan Fischer of the powerful Christian organization the American Family Association? Fischer has claimed that “homosexuality gave us Adolph Hitler” and that gays are the reason 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust, and who has praised the recent laws passed in Uganda making it a crime to be gay? These people believe that they are doing what Christianity demands of them.
Just to be clear, in no way do I believe that these anti-abortion terrorists or preachers of hate represent Christianity. But the same is true for Boko Haram and others of their kind when it comes to invoking Islam.
But let’s answer a question that I’m sure many have: Why do we see so many instances of people claiming they are committing violent acts in the name of Islam? As Imam Ali explained: “These terrorists use the name of Islam to support their political agenda because it’s a powerful, emotional tool to recruit and inspire followers.” Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, chairman of the Cordoba Initiative, added that these militants use the “banner of Islam” to further their own political agenda with zero regard for the principles of the faith.
Keep in mind that these terrorists slaughter more Muslims than people of any other faith—by far. A State Department report found that more than 90 percent of the victims of these types of terrorists have been Muslims. And in the case of Boko Haram, just a few months ago, they attacked two mosques in Nigeria, murdering more than 65 Muslims.
Some ask what’s the big deal if we use the word “Islamist” to describe radicals who are Muslim? Well, because “words matter,” as Imam Rauf commented, By seeing the word “Islam” embedded in “Islamist,” people will naturally, but mistakenly, believe there’s some connection between the actions of Boko Haram and Islam.
If you need proof of the power of simple word associations, think back to when the Bush administration continually invoked Saddam Hussein’s name when speaking of 9/11. Consequently, by 2003, 70 percent of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in 9/11, despite no evidence connecting him.
It’s time that the media become more responsible with their use of terms like “Islamist,” “Islamic extremists,” and the like. When, as in the case of Boko Haram, it’s clear that their actions are not predicated in any way upon Islam—and are in fact diametrically opposed to the tenets of the faith—then simply call them what they are: Terrorists, murderers, and killers with a political agenda.