Exciting new research findings were published on Thursday giving a fresh insight into the English Defence League. Dr Matthew Goodwin has produced another insightful account that helps us better understand the workings of the EDL. What first struck me about the research though was the description of the EDL as 'counter-Jihad extremists', a description which I believe unwittingly legitimises the EDL.
Correct terminology is crucial for constructive discussions about social and political issues. As someone who often talks about 'Islamophobia', I've been confronted many times about the problematic nature of the term as one that doesn't properly describe anti-Muslim prejudice, stereotypes and discrimination. People often take issue with the 'phobia' part of the term, saying that it suggests an irrational fear of Islam which is not what Islamophobia is usually used to refer to. Yet, I continue to use the term Islamophobia because it is what our intellectual forefathers coined and brought into common lexicon. It does get tiresome telling people not to take the term too literally though when I'd rather be talking about the way the phenomenon operates in contemporary society.
This is why I'm sensitive about the introduction of new terminology into debates, because I'm aware that the wrong term not only causes confusion, but can generate unhelpful assumptions that distract from the important discussions. For example, it's been painful to watch the widespread implementation of the word 'Islamist' as a highly problematic term that generates unhelpful impressions about Islam and Muslims. It seems to suggest that Muslims whose politics are inspired by Islamic morals and ethics are diverging from an authentic Muslim identity, and should rather be known as deviant 'Islamists'.
I am not sure whether Chatham House coined the term 'counter-Jihad extremists', or whether they were the first to apply it to the EDL, but as someone who regularly follows discussions about the Far Right and Muslim communities in Europe, this is the first time I 've seen the term used to describe a group like the EDL.
I would like to use this intervention to call upon academics, journalists and other commentators to avoid talking about 'counter-Jihad extremists' because of the problematic assumptions it is based on and because of the even more problematic consequences it may have as indirectly supporting the EDL.
It is not the 'extremist' part that I take issue with, but the 'counter-Jihad' part. Calling the EDL 'counter-Jihad extremists' implies that their raison d'être is to confront Jihad. On all of their many demonstrations and even more clearly on their internet platforms, EDL members have thrown insults at the Prophet Mohammad, mosques, Islamic clothing, halal food, Islamic schools, Muslim organisations, 'Muslim paedophiles', 'Muslim rapists', Shari'ah Law and even immigrants in general. In other words, the EDL's actions show they do not only oppose Jihad, but oppose Islam and Muslims in general.
That the EDL would probably embrace the idea that they are 'counter-Jihad' also reveals the limitations of this term. As a group who believes they are, to paraphrase their name, the league that defends England, it seems to suggest that they are standing up to something that should be stood up to, that they are doing admirable work in challenging Jihad, that they are countering something rather than instigating hate. It has been widely explained that the Arabic word Jihad, which is often mistranslated as 'holy war', has been entirely misunderstood. For Muslims, Jihad is unanimously understood as 'righteous struggle', which primarily takes the form of striving to improve one's character. The recent #MyJihad campaign shows efforts by Muslims to reclaim the term and correct this misunderstanding. So using the term 'counter-Jihad extremists' may imply that the problem with the EDL is that they are extreme, but that the wider public should have legitimate concerns about countering Jihad. The term thus perpetuates the ignorance that exists about Jihad which is part of the misguided principles that underpins the EDL.
Calling the EDL 'counter-Jihad extremists' is comparable to calling Al Qaeda 'anti-capitalist extremists'. It not only wrongly characterises their ideology as solely about challenging capitalism, but it would imply that they have legitimate grievances that they take too far, thus potentially generating sympathy for them that they do not deserve because their extremism can never be justified. A more suitable term for Al Qaeda, which is what is commonly used, is perhaps anti-Western extremists, which does not offer the same type of legitimacy as anti-capitalist extremists would.
The EDL would better be described as anti-Muslim extremists or Islamophobic extremists. Either would be more suitable than 'counter-Jihad extremists'. Terminology is imperative to get right, and the seemingly new use by Chatham House of 'counter-Jihad extremists' diminishes the otherwise excellent and insightful research that they have conducted. I hope the term does not acquire widespread currency which would mean for years to come, commentators will be preoccupied with justifying the term, rather than discussing the important ways in which this type of extremism targeted at Muslim communities in Europe harms our society and must be challenged.
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