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Islam / Use of religious terms

Religious terms referring to Muslims & Islam

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Terminology referring to Islam is a special case:

bullet A follower of Christianity is called a Christian.
bullet A follower of Wicca, an Earth-based Neopagan religion, is called a Wiccan.
bullet A follower of Zoroastrianism is called a Zoroastrian.

But a follower of Islam is called a Muslim.

Islam, is derived from the Arabic word "salam," which is often interpreted as meaning "peace." However "submission" appears to be a more accurate translation.

A Muslim is a follower of Islam. "Muslim" is an Arabic word that refers to a person who submits themselves to the will of God.

Having very different words for the name of the religion and the name of the believer has generated problems. By linking terrorist acts committed by Muslims to the religion of Islam instead of to the perpetrators themselves, the media, government and others convey the belief that Islam is responsible for the atrocities, not the individuals who actually committed the deeds. This has produced a great deal of anger among many Muslims.

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The problem:

Good deeds and bad deeds are done by individual people, not by religions. Religious can sometime provide the theological justification for discrimination based on race, sex, religion, sexual orientation, etc. But, oppression, murder, genocide, etc. are actually committed by individual believers. It is those individuals who must bear primary responsibility for the acts.

After Timothy McVeigh parked a rental truck loaded with explosives in front of the Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City, and perpetrated the most deadly terrorist attack on American soil up until that time, he was simply identified as a terrorist.


bullet Was a member of the Roman Catholic Church at the time of the bombing. 1
bullet Is believed to have been an Agnostic during his adult years. 2,3
bullet Appears to have been heavily influenced by the militia movement "....which believes that ordinary Americans are under imminent threat of attack, from nuclear war, communists or central government." 4
bullet Was apparently motivated by a desire to take revenge on the Federal Government for the attack on the Branch Davidians' compound in 1993, and for the 1992 shootout at Ruby Ridge; both involved federal agents.
bullet Having little regard for innocent human life, was not inhibited from triggering the bomb.

The media generally refer to him as an individual terrorist, not as a Christian, Roman Catholic, or Agnostic terrorist. Similarly, they did not refer to his partner, Terry Nichols, as a born-again Christian terrorist. 4 That is a reasonable approach because their religious beliefs and affiliations had little, if anything, to do with their terrorist act. It appears to have been motivated by their hatred of the government, their extremist militia beliefs and their disregard of the value of human life.

In contrast, those terrorist atrocities committed by Muslims, like 9-11,  are often referred to as being perpetrated by:

bullet Islamic extremists, and
bullet Islamic terrorists.

In an address by President Bush on 2005-OCT-06, he used terms:

bullet Islamic radicalism, and
bullet Islamo-fascism. 5,6

By using these terms, many view the media and the U.S. government as attributing the terrorist acts to the religion of Islam and not to the small minority of Muslims who are radical, violent, and fundamentalist perpetrators. Blaming the entire religion of Islam is guaranteed to generate an immense wellspring of anger among many Muslims, worldwide. 7,8

During 2007-SEP, pollsters and communications advisers to Republicans in Congress told the lawmakers that surveys had shown:

bullet Americans are not threatened by the word "Muslim."
bullet Qualifiers like "extremist" and "radical" are generally interpreted as people who make verbal threats but do not follow through with them.
bullet The term "Islamic terrorist" or "al Qaeda" is the preferred term for violence-prone terrorists who happen to follow the religion of Islam. 9

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Our recommendations:

To maintain a consistent approach, the best terminology might well be to:

bullet Identify perpetrators of a terrorist act as simply terrorists, if their identity and motivation is unknown. This was done, for example, in the bombings in New Delhi, India, in late 2005-OCT, when there were many suggestions circulating initially about the religious affiliation of the perpetrators.
bullet Identify perpetrators of a terrorist act motivated primarily by their:
bullet Islamic faith as Muslim terrorists.
bullet Christian faith as Christian terrorists.
bullet Jewish faith as Jewish terrorists.
bullet Hindu faith as Hindu terrorists.
bullet Support for animal rights as animal rights terrorists.
bullet Concern for the environment as environmental terrorists.
bullet Hatred of the government as extremist militia terrorists
bullet Hatred of racial minorities as white-supremacist terrorists.

That short list would probably cover most of the world's terrorist acts in the past decade.

We feel that it is preferable to be as specific as possible when identifying the perpetrators of a terrorist act. For those acts motivated by religion, we suggest that the specific wing, faith group, or tradition be specified where possible. Every major world religion includes a wide range of belief systems from the most conservative to the most liberal. By not identifying the specific group responsible, some will view the blame as spread equally over all believers of that religion.

Some people are only too willing to use the concept of collective responsibility when considering terrorist attacks. For example, they are willing to blame all Muslims for the acts of a few extremist, radical, violent, Fundamentalist Muslims.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Timothy McVeigh," NNDB, at:
  2. Lou Michel, "Portrait of a Terrorist,", 2001-MAY-09, at:
  3. Jimmy Li, "Timothy McVeigh: A Christian terrorist?" undated, at:
  4. "Profile: Timothy McVeigh," BBC News, 2001-MAY-11, at:
  5. "President Addresses Joint Armed Forces Officers' Wives' Luncheon," The White House, 2005-OCT-25, at:
  6. George W. Bush, "Fighting a Global War on Terror," The White House, 2005-OCT-06, at:
  7. Andrew Alderson, "Prince Charles to plead Islam's cause to Bush," News.telegraph, 2005-OCT-29, at:
  8. Enver Masud, "Oxymorons in News Media," The Wisdom Fund, 2005-OCT-29, at:
  9. Paul Bedard, "GOP ured to cite 'Islamic terrorists'," U.S> News & World Report, 2007-SEP-27, at:

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Site navigation:

 Home > World Religions > Islam > here

HomeBackground religious information > Terms > here

Home page >  Christianity > Terms, tools, etc. > Terms > here

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Copyright 2005 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2005-OCT-30
Latest update: 2007-SEP-28
Author: B.A. Robinson

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