What Do 'Radical Islam' and 'Terrorism' Really Mean?

Dr. L. John Van Til | Center for Vision & Values | Thursday, December 17, 2015
What Do 'Radical Islam' and 'Terrorism' Really Mean?

What Do 'Radical Islam' and 'Terrorism' Really Mean?

President Obama and his administration’s spokespersons continue to explain the eruption of bombings and mass shootings as “lone wolf attacks” or “work place violence.” The cause, they often say, is too many guns in society. Their response is a further demand for sweeping gun laws. Many others, however, refer to these events as radical Islamic terrorism. Is this a game of semantics or is there a real difference between the two terms?


As the title implies, there are two terms involved here: “Radical Islam” and “Terrorism.” Defining each will tell us much about the president’s confusion and the reality that has him befuddled.


Let’s look at radical Islam first. The term “radical Islam” implies that there is a normal Islam but its 1,400-year history has spawned dozens of sectarian splinter groups—that is, “radical” Islamic groups. It takes volumes to account for the history of these developments. For the last century or so, however, some parts of Islamic culture have been dominated by Western political and economic developments. In these circumstances much of Islam’s war-like missionary zeal has been suppressed, or at least pacified.


Enter Osama Bin Laden. An ethnic Yemini, Bin Laden was a Saudi Arab, born into a very wealthy family. He studied in the Saudi kings’ university. Early as a young man he was radicalized by the writings of select religious leaders who believed that Muslims should return to the teachings and practices of Mohammad, Islam’s founder. One of Bin Laden’s core ideas—influenced by the radical imams’ teaching—was a call for conquering the world and ruling it according to the religious tenants of Mohammad. Historically, this was, in fact, done peacefully at times through trade and diplomacy. But more often it was done through war, or jihad, as Mohammad labeled it. “Militant jihad” might be a more accurate term.


Jihad has a number of meanings, as any dictionary will show. Use of the term here, however, follows Bin Laden’s practice and definition. To him it was a “holy war,” specifically against all those who had entered Islam’s holy lands—the Arabian peninsula and Jerusalem. Bin Laden declared jihad against the United States in 1996 because the U.S. military had set up shop in Saudi Arabia at the invitation of the Saudi government. At the time, Americans did not pay much attention to Bin Laden’s jihad. He practiced and wrote about jihad as he moved around the Middle East—Afghanistan, Sudan, Pakistan, Iraq, and other places. At the same time, he created al Qaeda as an organization to manage his warring efforts, gathering many followers along the way. He developed fighting groups that resembled guerilla warfare units. Much of this technique he learned from Afghan fighters in their war against the Soviet Union a decade earlier. The goal and style of al Qaeda fighting was, indeed, radical when compared to neighboring quiescent Muslim nations.


Radical Islam took on a whole new dimension, however, when it also adopted a method of fighting: terrorism. Terrorism deserves further definition. Indeed, we ask: What is it?


It certainly is not a technique developed and used by Islamic fighters exclusively. Sometimes people are attacked suddenly, violently, and brutally—either individually or as a group—in a way that creates intense fear, panic, acute anxiety, and an impending sense of doom, disaster, and death. That is terrorism. Its practitioners may strike anywhere at any time. A victim of domestic violence or a robbery victim may be terrorized. And yes, it may suddenly appear in a meeting of county employees in San Bernardino, California, initiated by radicalized Islamists.


A new level of terrorism appeared soon after Bin Laden was killed. Prior to his death Bin Laden had appointed a new leader of an al Qaeda chapter in Iraq; he being pious, reserved, scholarly, Iraq-born Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In a matter of months, al Baghdadi put his stamp on this group and renamed it the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). He soon announced the formation of a caliphate, following Mohammad’s practice. His goal was to conquer the world by jihad quickly, he said, because the apocalypse draws near, necessitating a rapid and violent jihad. Thus, he is busy at work trying to expand his caliphate through the use of “radical Islamic terrorism”—his form of jihad, characterized by extreme violence.


President Obama and many on the far left do not seem to acknowledge the nature and technique of the ISIS movement; that is, a radical Islamic terrorist group using new and extreme measures. Until America’s leaders stop playing the semantics game, radical Islamic groups like ISIS will continue to use terrorism as a tool to reach their desired outcome: A world caliphate that dances on the ashes of America.



Dr. L. John Van Til is a fellow for humanities, faith, and culture with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His latest books are Thinking Cal Coolidge and The Soul of Grove City College: A Personal View