It is unsurprising to see not a single Democrat applauding when President Donald Trump announced in his Feb. 29 address to Congress that he and his administration are “taking strong measures to protect our nation from radical Islamic terrorism.” After hearing Trump utter these words, one could almost hear, “Keep your hate speech off this campus!” from the girl at Hampshire College who came to be pejoratively known as Trigglypuff, arms flailing in the air like Rush’s Neil Peart playing before a Madison Square Garden audience.
But the lack of Democratic support is hardly the point. The point is Trump’s choice of words and their significance, since former President Barack Obama steadfastly refused to use the term “Islamic extremism” when addressing this global problem.
British Muslim Maajid Nawaz, author of “Radical” and a liberal reformist of Islam, coined the term “the Voldemort effect” to allude to Obama’s verbal circumvention. The Voldemort effect describes the proclivity of refusing to name Islamism as the principal ideology behind Islamic extremism.
If the reader is familiar with the Harry Potter series, he or she will know that the wizards and witches in the series abstain from uttering Voldemort’s name as if simply saying it will awaken him from the dead. It’s such a monumental taboo that anyone brave enough — or foolish enough — to say it is subject to reproach.
“The Voldemort effect in this context entails not naming Islamism, nor distinguishing it from the multifaceted religion,” Nawaz says in his book “Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue,” co-authored by prominent atheist Sam Harris.
Nawaz surmises that avoiding using the term actually backfired.
He writes, “By highlighting the need to ‘tackle the Islamic State’s ideology’ but refusing to name it, President Obama only increased the public’s fear and made it easier for Muslimphobes, who will naturally assume the ideology Obama refers to is ‘Islam,’ to blame all Muslims.”
“Islam is just religion,” he continues. “Islamism is the ideology that seeks to impose any version of Islam over society. Islamism is, therefore, theocratic extremism. Jihadism is the use of force to spread Islamism. Jihadist terrorism is the use of force that targets civilians to spread Islamism. The Islamic State is merely one jihadist terrorist group. The problem was never ‘al-Qaeda inspired’ extremism, because extremism itself inspired al-Qaeda, and then inspired the Islamic State. It is extremism that must be named — as Islamism — and opposed.”
He concludes, “We must name the ideology behind the Islamic State so that we can refute it … Merely calling it ‘extremism’ is too relative and vague, and sidesteps the responsibility to counter its scriptural justification.”
Nawaz’s remarks remind us that we can’t solve something by muting ourselves. We can’t avoid truth — no matter how painful it is — by convincing ourselves it doesn’t exist, and we can’t pretend a problem doesn’t exist simply because it’s difficult to confront. As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, admission is the first step to redemption. Trump’s utterance consequently puts one foot in front of the other.
By Garrick Hoffman
Beacon Managing Editor, 2014-2015