Please Don't Say Radical If You Mean Violent

Nothing about the word radical implies approval of aggression or terrorism.


Abode of Chaos/Flickr

It's about time someone challenged the phrase radical Islamic terrorism. The most objectionable part is the word radical, since it is now popularly associated with aggression—violence against innocents—as an acceptable means to politico-religious ends.

But nothing about the word radical implies approval of aggression or terrorism. Rather, the word signifies an approach that goes to the heart of a matter, or the person taking such an approach. Violence is a tactic that can be used in the service of radical ends but also conservative ends. A radical can be a pacifist, a terrorist, or one who believes that violence is appropriate only in the defense of innocent life. There's simply no necessary connection between radicalism and aggression.

We can see further confusion over the word radical when so-called radical Muslims are also called "conservative Muslims." Radical conservative is an odd juxtaposition. We might wonder if a conservative or fundamentalist (more on this below) Muslim can even be a radical. There's at least tension in the notion.

At any rate, I protest this use of radical as a libertarian—as an unrepentant defender of the principle of self-ownership, or (another way to say the same thing) the nonaggression obligation. Many honorable people in history who condemned aggressive violence were known as radicals, so let's not allow the word to slip into a usage that could cause trouble for peaceful radicals later on, as it did at other times in American history.

As for the rest of the phrase, I hesitate to wade into the fevered discussion of whether Middle East terrorists are genuine adherents of Islam. Criticizing Barack Obama for not using the phrase radical Islamic terrorism (if he is really guilty of that) strikes me as a cheap neoconservative talking point. The people who criticize Obama over this are the same people who think his foreign policy is too weak. Everyone knows what the first "I" in ISIS or ISIL (apologies to the much older International Society for Individual Liberty, a libertarian organization) stands for, and the name Islamic State is familiar.

On the other hand, I can understand the wish to deny the claims of a violent minority to an entire religion, which has an honorable history in many respects. When the Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides was ordered to convert to Islam or leave Spain in the 12th century, he went to Morocco before settling in Egypt, where forced conversion was ruled contrary to Islamic law. When the Jews were expelled from Spain by Catholic King Ferdinand, they found safety in the Ottoman empire. Acquiescence in the claims of a violent minority can't help but stigmatize pacific Muslims everywhere, threatening their liberty at the hands of both states and vigilantes. No advocate of peace and freedom can accept that.

We should especially reject those who seek to portray Islam as intrinsically militant. Quoting violent passages from the Qur'an won't do, since they can be countered with passages that counsel peaceful relations with nonbelievers. The books of the other Abrahamic faiths also have conflicting expressions of peace and violence, which makes shopping for quotations in either direction an effortless pastime for those so inclined. We find contradictory actions in the Christian and Jewish historical record as well. When Christians lynched black people and burned crosses, this was not generally attributed to Christianity, and when Jews bomb and burn Palestinians, this is not generally attributed to Judaism. Let's give Islam the same consideration.

Roderick Long puts matters in perspective:

Any religion old enough or complicated enough to have left any sort of mark on the world is almost inevitably going to contain strands that cannot be reconciled except by interpreting one strand or the other in something other than the most obvious and literal sense, be the striving elements "Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day" and "Let there be no compulsion in religion," or "He that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one" and "They that take the sword shall perish with the sword," or for that matter "Congress shall have power … to promote the progress of science and useful arts by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries" and "Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press."

He goes on to show the problem this poses for so-called fundamentalists in the major religions:

And that means that every religious believer, so-called fundamentalists included, always chooses some provisions to interpret non-literally. Interpretation is inevitably made in the light of some vision of what is worth believing in: for example, is one's religion to be essentially a doctrine of peace, with some oddball violent passages to explain away, or essentially a doctrine of violence, with some oddball pacific passages to explain away? The answer isn't a given; it's a choice. So the would-be fundamentalists' trick of trying to evade reasoned arguments about right and wrong via appeals to authority of the form "Odin/Vishnu/Cybele said it, I believe it, and that's the end of it" are fooling themselves (unless they can find a god who said so few things that all its pronouncements are easily reconciled in their most flat-footedly literal form, but how many gods are that dull and taciturn?). You need to have some independent idea of what a worthwhile God would command in order to decide what he did command.

While we're at it, let's stop mystifying why, when, and how the San Bernardino terrorists "radicalized" themselves or were "radicalized" by others (if that's even possible). My concern here is not only to salvage a useful word but also to warn against the ominous implications of national-security measures favored by those in the West who welcome a "clash of civilizations," or World War IV.

The vigilance called for against "radical Muslims" will inevitably cast suspicion on Muslims who reject violence—if it hasn't already. The logic of the clash-of-civilizations mindset could easily rationalize widespread civil-liberties violations. After all, no American need travel to Syria, Saudi Arabia, or Pakistan to become a terrorist. He or she need not ever communicate with agents of the Islamic State or al-Qaeda. Such a person wouldn't even need access to the Internet. Sitting at home watching CNN's coverage of the violence inflicted by the U.S. government in the Muslim world may be all that it takes to give someone the misguided idea of committing violence against American noncombatants. Thus Donald Trump or one of his rivals might decide that keeping Muslims out of the country or monitoring American mosques does not go nearly far enough. (Trump has spoken of "closing" the Internet.)

There simply is no way—including a police state—to prevent people from formulating homicidal ideas. The best chance we have of reducing the already small chance of being a victim of terrorism is for the U.S. government to stop making and otherwise facilitating war in the Muslim world. Decentralizing and depoliticizing security services can take care of the rest.

This piece originally appeared at Richman's "Free Association" blog.

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  1. More Sheldon, more stupid shit.

    Yep we’re going to beat the terrorists by not doing anything.

    I’m in the get a concealed carry permit and shoot the fuckers before they shoot you camp. If most attacks ended like the one in Texas did we’d be making some progress.

    1. Yes. The best way to deal with monsters is to kill them.

    2. Hasn’t stopped Art Bell from being coerced by a shooter into going off the air recently. He carries, but a surprise attacker always has the advantage.

    3. What a wonderfully ignorant response!

      1. What’s your idea?

  2. The only violent Islamic minority that needs to be focused on is Mohammad. And someone clue Richman in on abrogation in the Quran. Older, seemingly peaceful verses can be replaced by newer, more violent verses.

  3. You have about as much chance of getting “radical” back as libertarians have of getting “liberal” back.

  4. “… When Christians lynched black people and burned crosses, this was not generally attributed to Christianity, and when Jews bomb and burn Palestinians, this is not generally attributed to Judaism.”

    Heh. Good one. Nice try.

    1. when Jews bomb and burn Palestinians

      It is their response to terrorism. I predict as attacks escalate in the US the general mood of the US will be much more accepting of what the Israelis are up to. 18 yos with machine guns (probably selective fire).

      They have a fence to keep Islam out. And especially the bombers.

    2. What a mendacious shit Sheldon is.

    3. Uh, yea it is, on both counts.

    4. I hope Sheldon is brutally murdered by some radical muslims. While he pontificates, and then finally begs, like a wino with the shakes, for his life. As they proceed to cut his head off with a dull knife.

  5. Actually the problematic word there is ‘terrorist’. Merely using the word acknowledges that they are achieving what they intend to achieve.

    1. Just rework the term to include all mass shooters and voila! Problem solved.

      We’re all terrorists now!

  6. Sheldon,

    Well. Just look at the life of Mohamed if you want to observe “true Islam”.

    1. As a protestent I believe islam is a false religion founded by a false prophet (oops, did I just commit an hate crime? I’ll find out after I post this and lynch sends her goose steppers to arrest me), however, my rudimentary reading of the quran is not what those who want to say it is saying, is in fact saying. I even read one on line that what was written in the 2d chapter was not what it seems to mean since we can look at what mohommed was doing at the time he wrote it. I think those who want to know what it says need to actually read what it says, no read and accept those who say what they want it to say.

  7. We could wonder if another kind of radicals, mainly the Saul Alinsky radicals had invaded and corrupted the ACLU when we read this article on CBS Denver?

  8. Very thoughtful piece, and I agree with it in spirit. However, just because a some “radicals” can be pacifists while others can be terrorists doesn’t mean we can’t associate “Islamic radicalism” with violence and terrorism. It’s not misleading, and it doesn’t affect the meaning of the word “radical.” If I call someone a “radical vegan” no one will assume that person is violent or a threat to commit mass murder.

    Likewise, an “extremist” can be extreme about anything, but “Islamic extremist” means something very particular and is rightly associated with intolerance and violence. The words “radical” and “extremist” are useful and meaningful when used to modify “Muslim” or “Islam,” so I don’t see a good reason not to use them in that context.

    1. If I call someone a “radical vegan” no one will assume that person is violent or a threat to commit mass murder.


      1. Pain in the ass? Did you mean PETA perhaps?

  9. As someone who’s been called ‘radical’ and threatened with physical violence I really appreciate this article. However it’s hard to argue that ‘radical islam’ is peaceful. Just open the quran to any page and see for yourself. “Give this book to the hedonists; invade, loot and kill them; then cry “Don’t say we didn’t warn you” and “Allah akhbar” and “Islam is a religion of peace!”‘

    The fact that Jews were given refuge in Islam is a testament to the fundamental decency of human nature even in the face of corrupt, violent and bellicose ideology. Fortunately peace is still possible and I agree we must stop meddling in their affairs. If they accept American values of freedom of tolerance then by all means support them. Otherwise a blood oath of fealty is worthless, despite all the wishful thinking of the neocons, whose ideology is more dangerous than can be dreamt of in ISIS’s theologies.

    1. “…Jews were given refuge in Islam…”

      As equals?

      “…the wishful thinking of neocons, whose ideology is more dangerous than can be dreamt of in ISIS’s theologies.”

      Whut? In what way? Do tell.

      1. I will gladly answer all your questions. But first, do you promise not to insult or threaten me or call me a “stupid motherfucker” or accuse me of inciting you to violence if the answers I provide are not up to the high standards to which you feel entitled?

        1. “…accuse me of inciting you to violence…”

          No one incites me to violence. I alone am responsible for my actions.

          1. *Drums fingers, waiting*

            1. OK please answer my question.

              1. I am not going to threaten you or insult you and I don’t accuse people of inciting me to violence because of their views. Argue in good faith and you will be treated with respect even if you are wrong.

                Sheldon doesnt argue in good faith, not about this subject anyway.

                1. Sorry it’s not up to you to determine if I am arguing in ‘good faith’. I would never insult or bully someone because ‘muh feels’. (Other than to repeat their own insults back to them. And of course ridicule and satire are fine.) You have demonstrated that it’s your caliphate or the highway. Maybe some other time. Though you have actually answered your own question in your responses to me. If you don’t see it that’s ok. Sometimes it takes a little longer for some people.

                  1. What the hell are you babbling about?

          2. Oh, and cute name you have there.

            1. Where did he go? I’m interested in reading his answers as well

    2. You should try a history book. Islam is spewing out militant Islamists these days because their civilization is backward even as its central tenets are roughly that it is the end of history, not because there is something uniquely violent or prone to terrorism in Islam.

      If we become what the progressives or conservatives want us to be, we’ll be churning our own out.

      1. not because there is something uniquely violent or prone to terrorism in Islam..

        Sure, the whole “Book of the Sword” has nothing to do with either violence or Islam. Just like Jesus, leading armies is the epitome of “peace”.

    3. Islam = peace.


  10. Nonsense. Islam is a religion of conquest. Jesus said Love Thy Neighbor. Mohammad said Convert or Kill Thy Neighbor. This is mantra of ISIS and those who promote Sharia Law such as the Clerics in Saudi Arabia.

    Christianity underwent a Reformation that has evolved. Islam has not. Until they revise the Qur’an and denounce conquest, slavery, and Sharia they do not belong in a secular society.

    It’s not Liberal or Libertarian to ignore the need to defend oneself. It’s suicidal.

  11. “Criticizing Barack Obama for not using the phrase radical Islamic terrorism (if he is really guilty of that) strikes me as a cheap neoconservative talking point. ”

    That is not really what they are criticizing him for Sheldon. They are criticizing him for not recognizing who and what our clear enemy is, who has openly declared war on us and are acting on that declaration.

    As for your thesis, I am with you Sheldon. We should stop calling them radical Islamists. Ditch the word radical. It makes it sound as if the average muslim doesnt support sharia law or violent means to spread Islam. We should call them what they really are: mainstream Islamists.

    Again, you prove yourself to be a stupid motherfucker.

    1. If it looks like a duck………………………………

      A spade is a spade and a shovel is a shovel.

      This is my rifle and this is my gun.

      What ever happened to elementary basics?

  12. One of the reasons that Libertarianism is not more widely accepted, that libertarians are thought of as nuts, is that people like Sheldon go around calling themselves such.

    1. Sheldon wants his word back and will hold his breath until you give it to him. Typically enough he has no trouble using the broad brush he criticizes in others.

    2. Surely non-libertarians can’t be THAT dumb lol

    3. One of the reasons that Libertarianism is not more widely accepted, that libertarians are thought of as nuts, is that people like Sheldon go around calling themselves such.

      Not really. We libertarians are not widely accepted because we make too much sense, and that threatens the touchy-feely, feel good, emotionally charged liberals and the neocons who live in the 1950’s. If the idea of being left alone by the powers that be in government so I can prosper and live in peace is a nutty thought, then put me in an asylum.

  13. Seldom Rightman missing the obvious.

  14. when Jews bomb and burn Palestinians, this is not generally attributed to Judaism.

    -1 example of blood libel dated from less than one fucking month ago.

    Nevertheless, I won’t attribute Richman’s mendacious to Judaism either.

    Chag sameach!

    1. Right. Palestinians shoot rockets into Israel deliberately targeting civilians and do so from schools and hospitals in Palestine or gather palestinian human shields around themselves, Israel shoots back to stop the bombardment and that is Jews bombing and burning Palestinians. It is all the Jew’s fault.

      I think Sheldon’s moral compass is broken.

      1. And has he written a word about the latest campaign of Palestinians using knife attacks and running over Jewish children with cars?

      2. He never had one.

        1. Children or, cars?

  15. I am also a radical libertarian. As in, I am willing to be violent in defense of liberty. The word fits

    1. When are we just going to cut the Israelis loose and let them end this crap once and for all?

      My bet’s on the Israelis and I’m willing to give points.

      Just ask the Egyptians how that all worked out.

  16. I’m afraid Sheldon is playing a bit of semantics with the term “radicalized”.

    If I said “let’s get rid of the national minimum wage” many people would consider as radical. But so what? We all know how that term is used in that context. When a radicalized Muslim argues for Islamization of the world and expresses soft support for militant organization, the word takes on a whole new meaning.

    Yeah, the Ottoman empire welcomed Jewish refugees. But offshoots of that place later exterminated a gazillion Armenians and the present day middle refuses to take in their own refugees.

  17. What’s truly radical is the violence Richman attempts to inflict on the English language.


  18. I’d there a phrase we can use which is not a PC euphemism and will not get someone’s panties in a bunch?

  19. “We should especially reject those who seek to portray Islam as intrinsically militant”

    Islam is inherently expansionist , that’s what history shows anyways , something that yields to some degree of notable militant nature .

    You mention medieval Spain, but you fail to mention that muslims invaded and subjugated that peninsula , forcing many people to convert

    1. Intrinsically, extrinsically, blah blah blah.

      The fact is that muslims in muslim majority countries in large numbers believe in Islamic theocracy, and have it. The problem is an empirical fact of reality about what they believe that won’t be changed by sophomoric arguments about what is “intrinsic to Islam”.

    2. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!

  20. For a guy who complains that “capitalism” is too corrupted he is sure interested in reviving some obscure Victorian definitions of socialist and radical.

  21. Whoopee. Go back 50 yrs. & complain about use of “extremist”.

  22. The Ninja Turtles are totally radical. They’re also totally violent.

    1. But, in a good way!

      1. Cowabunga Akbarr!!!

  23. Can someone explain to me why this guy writes for Reason? Every commenter hates him.

  24. “When Christians lynched black people and burned crosses, this was not generally attributed to Christianity, and when Jews bomb and burn Palestinians, this is not generally attributed to Judaism. Let’s give Islam the same consideration.”
    The problem with this is that the Jews are fighting for their lives and yes christianity was blamed when Christians did these things but luckly there were lots of christians also actively trying to stop these horrible acts. the Terrorist are saying there actions are for islam and Islamist are doing little to counter it. You may not want to call them radical for political reasons but they are radical and to deny it is to lie to yourself.

  25. The interpretations of Islam are even more diverse than those of Christianity. The only one that actively threatens Western Civilization is the batshit-crazy Wahhabi variety.

    Failing to call out the batshit-crazy Wahhabi jihadis by name creates all sorts of confusion … particularly the sort of nonsense that Trumpetarians blather about.

    The problem is that to call out the batshit-crazy Wahhabis is to call out about half of the Saudi ruling elite. To them there is no difference between Wahhabism and Islam: if religion does not conform to the Wahhabi interpretation, it is not Islam in their takfiri understanding of the faith.

  26. Your solution to one of the biggest problems facing the world is to rebrand it…

  27. Let’s call up an Army Corps and task Jerry Brown to lead. Then send them off to fight in the sands of the birthplace of western civilization.

    Boots on the ground!

    If it’s Brown…………………….

  28. But I understand that the Muslim religion insists that anyone born to a Muslim father is a Muslim, no matter that person’s upbringing or personal choice. So once you’re a Muslim you’re always a Muslim, you are not allowed any say in the matter.

    This authoritarian insistence is not found in other religions and is totally contrary to all civilized ideals, yet still people pretend the Muslim religion is just another religion…

    1. It’s like muslim roach motel, muslims jog in but they don’t jog out?

  29. The other Abrahamic religions say to offer God to People. Islam says to force God on people. It requires peace only to those that worship God. Atheists and Pagans beware.

  30. This was work place violence brought on by a video and weak gun control. Did I miss an obama talking point?

  31. When you cease to allude Israel’s extremely limited defensive actions as terroristic, maybe we can talk about the other badly embodied issues.

  32. Wait, why am I obligated to be non aggressive?

  33. Nothing about the word radical implies approval of aggression or terrorism .

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