If you follow coverage of international news, then you have probably noticed that many mainstream journalists -- for a variety of reasons -- have struggled to find consistent language to use when covering events linked to terrorism and Islam.
The word "Islamists" had its day. Some journalists simply use phrases such as "radicalized forms of Islam." Some say "militant."
Use of the term "Jihadists" is complicated by the fact that the spiritual term "jihad" has been redefined in many ways by thinkers within different streams of this massive and complex world religion. There are also journalists and experts who focus on parts of Islam that can be viewed, together, as a political "ideology" -- as opposed to part of a system that is both theological AND political.
This may seem like a picky issue, but words matter in journalism. Also, it's impossible to write about divisions inside Islam, many of them bitter and deadly, without having some understanding of who is who and what is what. If the goal is to separate the beliefs and actions of "moderate" or "mainstream" Muslims from those of the radicals -- clearly a task journalists should attempt -- then you need to have some language to use in public media for people on both sides of these conflicts.
Recently, The National Geographic jumped into this debate with material describing the role of the Salafist movement within the Islamic world, and Egypt in particular.
I think this is really interesting stuff, in part because National Geographic editors -- whether they intended to do this or not -- may have come produced a kind of unified theory or a grand statement of what the mainstream press thinks is happening with radical forms of Islam. Let's look at some key thoughts at the top of an online piece of this package:
This month's deadly attacks on Paris and Beirut, along with the recent downing of a Russian airliner, represent the latest attempts by the extremist group known as the Islamic State, or ISIS, to terrorize world powers and spread chaos. Those involved in the attacks were part of the ultraorthodox Salafist movement, a growing segment within Sunni Islam whose tenets have been twisted by ISIS to become the inspiration for much of today's terrorism.
So, the implication is that there is one definitive body of Salafist doctrines that are recognized as authoritative by all believers in this strain of Islam? What body, within the movement, would determine that? Would other Muslims agree?
As it turns out, according to this article, there are also multiple forms of Salafist faith in the modern world.
According to the Institute for National Strategic Studies, there were roughly 50 million Salafists worldwide in 2009, the most recent year for which estimates are available.
Salafists believe in a fundamentalist approach that emphasizes literal interpretations of the Quran and the words of the prophet Muhammad, as well as support for Islam's sharia law above any government policies.
Salafists generally can be broken into three groups. The smallest is made up of the jihadists, who represent a militant minority –– about 250,000 people –– but have a notorious presence across the Middle East, Asia, and Europe because of some militants' willingness to use random attacks on innocent people to draw attention to their radical views of Islam and punish those they see as "crusaders," those who are too influenced by the West.
A second, much larger group of Salafists rejects such violence and generally avoids politics altogether, seeing it as a distraction from their devotion to religion. A third group, also significantly larger than the jihadists, is nonviolent but has embraced political activity and has a growing influence in some countries, including Saudi Arabia.
The goal of the National Geographic article appears to be simple -- to expose readers to the pacifist wing of the larger Salafist movement. That's good, but that would also require addressing their doctrinal differences with others in the movement. Right? Why do some embrace violence -- against "crusaders" or even wayward Muslims -- while others do not?
So there are only 250,000 who approve of the use of violence? Really? The number is that low?
Also, what does it mean to say that Muslims have been "too influenced by the West"? The Shiites, Yazidis and others opposed by Jihadists have been shaped by the West?
Read it all. Reactions to this think piece? Like I said, the contents of this passage seem to wrap up, in one package, the information I see in the mainstream press day after day.