CAIR OP-ED: How the Misuse of Islamic Terminology Endangers Muslim Communities 

NOTE: Media outlets are free to republish this commentary with attribution. 

By: Edward Ahmed Mitchell & Ismail Allison, Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Washington, D.C. 

Allah. Sharia. Jihad. Caliphate. Hijab.

For decades, American Muslims have been working to educate political leaders and media personalities who misuse these and so many other Islamic terms when commenting on current events. 

Although our community has made considerable progress in improving discourse about Islam in the mainstream media and the halls of Congress, our nation’s reaction to recent events in Afghanistan show that our work is far from finished–especially when it comes to two particular words that prominent voices continue to either ignorantly or deliberately abuse.

First, a little history lesson. Back in the mid-2000s, sharia became the focus of a conspiracy theory that spread from the dark corners of the internet to social media to political movements like the Tea Party to state legislatures to the floor of the House of Representatives

According to the ‘creeping sharia’ theorists, American Muslims were infiltrating our nation’s institutions in order to implement sharia law and transform America into an Islamic state. 

Then there’s “jihad,” which was and is still widely misused as a synonym for terrorism. Ditto for the term “jihadist,” a neologism coined at the turn of the last century that doesn’t have an origin in the Arabic language.

Of course, sharia and jihad are hardly the only Islamic terms that have been misused over the past twenty years.

The word “Islam” itself has been similarly maligned in the form of the imprecise, contrived categories of “Islamism” and “radical Islam.” These terms have no basis in the Islamic tradition whatsoever. Islamist is largely used to describe any Muslim individual or movement at odds with the agenda of those using the pejorative term, whether that be authoritarian regimes in the Muslim world or the American far-right.  

Again, American Muslims have made considerable progress in tamping down such inflammatory language. But our work is clearly not finished.

In the wake of the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan earlier this month, American Muslims are again seeing their religious language used in a derogatory, inaccurate way by those in our society who are supposed to know better.

In a statement posted to Twitter, Republican Representative Vicky Hartzler said that Afghan women would see “their advances crushed under sharia law.” Rep. David B. McKinley, Republican Representative of West Virginia’s first district, took to Twitter to ask if the fall of the American-backed Afghan government would mean “Sharia Law and Taliban Rule [will] rigidly govern once again?” “Will mammograms be rare, will girls be allowed to attend schools, will tribal law replace courts?”  

Similar sentiments were expressed by Rep. Beth van Duyne of Texas, who said in a tweet announcing her letter to President Biden urging him to plan an evacuation of Americans and Afghan allies that “if we do not act quickly, women will be subjected to Sharia Law, children will suffer, & our allies will surely be slaughtered.” Fred Upton, the Republican Representative of Michigan’s 6th district, said in a tweet that Afghans face a “devastating nightmare under Sharia law.” 

In a statement, Chip Roy of Texas’ 21st district talked about the need to provide “strategic clarity” to combat the threat posed by “the very sharia supremacism that led to 9/11 in the 1st place.” In his statement, Roy also thanked American veterans for fighting the “radical Islamic forces of evil” in Afghanistan.  

In a throwback to the creeping sharia rhetoric, the Republican Representative of North Carolina’s 11th district tweeted in response to an interview with a Taliban fighter that “Islamic law will NEVER reign in America,” “not if the people of NC-11 have anything to say about it.” 

Like their colleagues on Capitol Hill, right-wing media has also been sounding the horn about the horrors of Sharia. A Fox News headline said the Taliban was “poised to implement Sharia law in Afghanistan, threatening people Biden professes to fight for.” 

The media outlet also featured an op-ed by the noted Islamophobe and bigot Cal Thomas. In his piece, Thomas uncritically quotes from former Israeli diplomat Yoram Ettinger: “In 2021, the 14-century-old vision and strategic goal of Islamic terrorism is not limited to the territory of Afghanistan.” Instead, it seeks to “subordinate the ‘Infidel’ West” and attain “Islamic global domination.” The quote goes on to say that “Islamic terrorism is determined to establish a global Islamic society, ruled by the Quran and Sharia.”  

While some may say that sentiments like those expressed by Cal Thomas are directed specifically toward militant groups, an August 23rd segment by Tucker Carlson suggests that even the refugees fleeing Afghanistan with nothing but the clothes on their backs pose a threat – after all, they believe in sharia, too. The attitudes of the Afghan refugees are “very different from those of most Americans,” Carlson said. Citing a Pew poll, he said that “99% of Afghan Muslims support, for example, enacting sharia law.”  

Carlson’s guest on the segment, author and senatorial candidate J.D. Vance, joined the fun. He alleged that 40% of Afghans “believe that suicide bombing is a reasonable way to solve a problem….who wants people like that in their community?”

While it can be argued that this degree of anti-Muslim and xenophobic bile is spewing forth only from Fox News and other right-wing outlets, it must be borne in mind that Fox News’ coverage of Afghanistan pushed it to the top of Nielsen figures last week.  

The company that platforms the likes of Tucker Carlson and Cal Thomas is the main source of information about the Afghan situation for millions of Americans with no other point of reference about Afghans, Muslims, or Islam, let alone about complex concepts like sharia or jihad.  

As tiring as it is for American Muslims explain our religion over and over again, we must never cede our words to anti-Muslim bigots.

So, once again, let’s explain: Sharia is not, as Fox and other media outlets (including some liberal voices) describe, a totalitarian, monolithic system. Rather, it is a term that refers to the religious guidelines and moral boundaries by which a Muslim lives. The literal meaning of the word is “the way to water.” It informs a wide range of dimensions of life, from prayer, to fasting, to almsgiving, to business, to governance. 

While it is derived from the same sources – the Quran, practices and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (sunnah), and the consensus of the juristic scholars (ijma’), it is by no means a monolith. On any given issue, there may be hundreds of differing rulings by sharia scholars, deriving from differences in interpretation, reasoning, and cultural context.  

It was the sharia that ended the position of women as chattel in pagan Arabia. It was the sharia that ended female infanticide. It was the sharia that introduced rules of warfare that protect civilians, prisoners, and even animals from harm. It was the sharia that ordained shura, or consultation, in place of absolutism. The five objectives, or maqasid, of the sharia are the protection of life, intellect, religion, lineage, and property.  

As for jihad, it literally means “striving,” it does not mean “holy war.” It refers instead to a general striving towards the good, whether that be on an internal level against one’s base inclinations, or on the exterior level, against social injustice, aggression, or tyranny, including in a just military conflict approved by a legitimate government.

The Muslim who prays to God each day, gives charity to the poor, and maintains honesty and mercy in all his dealings is adhering to the sharia. The Muslim who struggles to become a better human being, to build a more just society, and to resist oppression is engaging in jihad.  

It is true that no matter how many times we explain this, many bad actors will ignore us and continue to misuse Islamic terms. They know the truth about Muslims, but they don’t care. They hate Islam and they want the public to feel the same way.

Why, then, should Muslims continue to speak up against their nonsense? Because the average American who listens to this nonsense is still reachable. Years of interfaith dialogue has shown that we can change hearts and minds.

There’s another, more pressing reason we have to speak up right now. Thousands of Afghans have fled their homeland in recent weeks and are set to begin new lives in America.

The demonization of Muslims in general and Afghan refugees in particular can easily lead to violence against this vulnerable population as they resettle around the world. Anti-Muslim incidents are already on the rise this year, and the rhetoric of certain politicians and media pundits is furthering this trend. The Tree of Life synagogue shooting was perpetrated by a rightwing extremist who was furious with that house of worship’s support for refugees.

If elected officials wish to weigh in on the situation in Afghanistan, Islam, and Muslims generally, they must drop the bigoted rhetoric once and for all. Media outlets must do the same. 

CAIR’s guide for journalists offers advice that everyone in the public sphere can use. We must ensure that the kind of propaganda and distortions that characterized discourse at the beginning of the failed ‘war on terror’ does not characterize discourse at its end. 

If the past 20 years of public discourse should have taught us anything, it’s that engaging in Islamophobia and xenophobia is not only idiotic and offensive; it’s dangerous and deadly.

Edward Ahmed Mitchell is the deputy director of the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization. He may be contacted at Ismail Allison is National Communications Coordinator at CAIR.