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Global Affairs Blog

The Origins, Evolution, and Impact of the term “Radical Islam”

By: Engy Abdelkader, LLM ’13

Excerpted from the presentation of a paper at Harvard Divinity School.  

Contemporary references to “radical Islam” generally trigger associations with terrorism perpetrated by non-state actors or organizations such as ISIS and al-Qaeda. A closer examination of the term’s root origins and evolution reveals that this has not always been so. This article provides a brief historical overview of “radical Islam” from an American perspective. It also highlights myriad social, political, and legal implications that such language carries.


While the term “radical” dates back to 1817 when it conveyed the meaning “reformist” regarding the British Liberal Party, “Islam” describes the world’s second largest religion so named some 1500 years ago.


In contrast, “radical Islam,” i.e. a term that uses the two words in conjuction, has a modern history.


It was first referenced in January 1979, when the New York Jewish Weekly published an article titled, Carter pushes Sadat to demand West Bank link, Jackson says. The author interviewed then-U.S. Senator Henry Martin “Scoop” Jackson (D-WA) about Ayatollah Khomeini’s rise in Iran. The article quotes Jackson referring to the Ayotallah’s “anti-Christian, anti-Jewish, anti-Bahai” rhetoric as “radical Islam.”


It was not until August 1979 that “radical Islam” was associated with death or violence, however. Specifically, the Associated Press reported on the assassinations of two of Khomeini’s supporters as having “…been the work of a radical Islamic group.” In fact, it is in the context of the news media that “radical Islam” flourished, as explained further below.


Approximately five years later, during the 1984 vice-presidential debates between George Bush and Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro, political officials publicly identified “radical Islam” as a threat to American interests and synonymous with international terrorism. During the debate, Bush addressed the importance of strategic partnerships with “moderate Arab states” to “guard against international terror or radical Islam perpetrated by Khomeini.”


At that historical moment, “radical Islam” represented a security threat perpetrated by Khomeini’s distinct brand of religion. And, that threat was still limited to Iran.


Soon, “radical Islam” would grow in its geographical reach and perceived influence.


In 1985, the Wall Street Journal first reported on “radical Islam’s” arrival in the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Beyond Southeast Asia, in 1986, the Chicago Tribune reported on “radical Islam” in Libya and Syria. In 1987, U.S. News & World Report added Egypt to that list. In 1988, scholarship published in the Third World Quarterly described “radical Islam” in Algeria as having existed for more than a decade.


Some years later, in June 1990, an article titled Egypt: Success and Uncertainties, published in American-Arab Affairs asserted, “the magnitude of human rights violations by the [Egyptian] government reflects the perceived threat posed by radical Islam, whose adherents are far and away the major targets of these measures. Because much of the public shares the government’s fear of and hostility towards radical Islamicists, it condones steps taken against them.”


Here, “radical Islam” appears to justify state-sanctioned abuses to curb or contain its influence and potential power. Interestingly, this narrative persists even today, well beyond Egyptian borders and in the context of state responses to acts of terrorism (consider, for instance, widely documented human rights violations in France following the terrorist attack in Paris in November 2015).


Soon thereafter, “radical Islam” made its first appearance in America. In January 1993, the Wall Street Journal published an article, Egyptian Jihad Leader Preaches Holy War to Brooklyn Muslims, about Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, the blind Egyptian cleric convicted for the World Trade Center bombings that same year.


Today, “radical Islam” is a hotly contested term.


During the 2016 U.S. presidential election cycle, for instance, debate has not only centered on proposed policy solutions to myriad challenges confronting our nation, but the most effective language to implement and effectuate such ends.


In November 2015, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), former presidential candidate, appeared on ABC News’ This Week and questioned why former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “wouldn’t use the term ‘radical Islam’.” He went on to draw the following provocative analogy: “That would be like saying we weren’t at war with Nazis because we were afraid to offend some Germans who may have been members of the Nazi party, but weren’t violent.”


More recently, in the aftermath of the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump publicly criticized President Obama for describing the tragedy as an “act of terror and an act of hate” without making any specific references to “radical Islam” or “Islamic terrorism.” Mr. Trump went so far as to suggest President Obama “step down” from high office for the apparently egregious omission.


During a September 2016 presidential town hall meeting, an audience member questioned President Obama about his refusal to engage in such language. He responded:


“This is an issue that has been sort of manufactured because there is no doubt, and I’ve said repeatedly, that where we see terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda or ISIL, they have perverted and distorted and tried to claim the mantle of Islam for an excuse, for basically barbarism and death. These are people who kill children, kill Muslims, take slaves. There’s no religious rationale that would justify in any way any of the things that they do. But, what I have been careful about when I describe these issues is to make sure that we do not lump these murders into the billion Muslims that exist around the world, including in this country, who are peaceful, who are responsible, who in this country are our fellow troops and police officers and firefighters and teachers and neighbors and friends. And what I learned from listening to some of these Muslim families, both in the United States and overseas, is that when you start calling these organizations “Islamic terrorists,” the way it’s heard, the way it’s received, by our friends and allies around the world is that somehow Islam is terroristic. And that then makes them feel as if they’re under attack. In some cases, it makes it harder for us to get their cooperation in fighting terrorism.”


It is significant to note that Obama’s position is a politically strategic one. During the presidential election cycle, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has employed a similar narrative to the consternation of some. Many Muslim Americans have openly expressed concern and disappointment with being viewed exclusively through the lens of national security.


Rather, they point to the stigmatizing effect of language that blurs the lines between criminality or terrorism and their faith. Such language harms the community’s reputational interests and may help contribute to anti-Muslim bias and discrimination in school, at work and in the public square.


Indeed, the ideological divide concerning the use of “radical Islam” proves to be along largely partisan lines. Significantly, this mirrors American public opinion about Islam, suggesting that the way we speak about Islam impacts the public’s understanding and literacy.


Research from the Brookings Institute shows, for instance, that 73 percent of Republicans—the political party that typically employs “radical Islam” to refer to terrorism—hold unfavorable opinions about Islam. This figure contrasts sharply with 51 percent of Democrats who view the religion in a positive light.


Additionally, according to the Pew Research Center, 83 percent of Republicans are concerned about the rise of violent extremism (by Muslims) around the world as opposed to 53 percent of Democrats. Pew also found that 68 percent of Republicans believe Islam is more likely to encourage violence among its adherents while 30 percent of Democrats hold that negative opinion (arguably still a sizable number).


This was not always so.


In the immediate aftermath of September 11, President George W. Bush spoke of Islam favorably by explaining, “this great nation of many religions understands, our war is not against Islam, or against faith practiced by the Muslim people. Our war is a war against evil.” According to Pew, just two months post-9/11, 59 percent of Americans held a favorable opinion of Islam.


In sum, the term “radical Islam” has evolved significantly since 1979 when a politician described Ayatollah Khomeini’s rhetoric in Iran as unconventional or extreme. Its origin, evolution and negative impact should give us pause.




Engy Abdelkader is a full-time faculty member at Georgetown’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. A senior fellow at the Bridge Initiative, a multi-year research project on Islamophobia housed in the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, her research interests lie at the intersection of religion, law and society. This article was excerpted from a longer paper selected for presentation on October 29, 2016 at the annual Ways of Knowing conference on religion at Harvard Divinity School.