Define 'radical Islam,' please: Is this a candidate for 'scare quote' status? Really?

If you have read GetReligion.org for any time at all, you are probably familiar with the whole idea of "scare quotes."

Actually, I would assume that this piece of media jargon is now in common in just about any setting in which critics, news consumers and journalists argue about issues linked to news coverage and, especially, media bias.

So what does the term mean and what, on this day, does it have to do with discussions of "radical" forms of Islam? Wait. You see the quote marks that are framing the word "radical"?

Here is one online definition of this term:

scare quotes -- noun
quotation marks used around a word or phrase when they are not required, thereby eliciting attention or doubts.

For example, this online dictionary notes that, "putting the term 'global warming' in scare quotes serves to subtly cast doubt on the reality of such a phenomenon."

Here at GetReligion, many of our discussions of scare quotes have started using them to frame a perfectly normal term in discussions of the First Amendment -- religious liberty. Religious liberty turns into "religious liberty" whenever religious traditionalists, usually in conflicts over the Sexual Revolution, attempt to defend their free speech rights, rights of freedom of association and rights to free exercise of religious beliefs.

A GetReligion reader sent me a recent piece from The Atlantic and asked if another important term in public discourse is about to be shoved into "scare quotes" territory. The double-decker headline on that piece saith:

The Coming War on ‘Radical Islam’
How Trump’s government could change America’s approach to terrorism

You knew Trump had to be involved in this somehow, right? Here is the overture, which shows the context of the question that was raised by our reader:

In the fall of 1990 -- around the time U.S. troops arrived in Saudi Arabia, enraging Osama bin Laden -- the historian Bernard Lewis sounded an alarm in The Atlantic about brewing anti-Americanism in the Muslim world. “[W]e are facing a mood and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them,” he wrote. “This is no less than a clash of civilizations -- the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both. It is crucially important that we on our side should not be provoked into an equally historic but also equally irrational reaction against that rival.”
America’s two post-9/11 presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, attempted a balancing act: combatting jihadist terrorism while seeking to avoid the impression that the Western and Muslim worlds were engaged in the kind of clash Lewis described.
Donald Trump may soon steer the government in a different direction. Several of the president-elect’s national-security appointees have argued that the United States is at war with “radical Islamic terrorism,” or “radical Islam,” or something broader still, such as “Islamism.”

Here is the really crucial slice of the story that journalists need to stop and think about. Here is the heart of this language and journalism style issue:

For years now, Republicans have condemned Obama’s avoidance of the term “radical Islam,” arguing that it represents the president’s failure to properly assess and address the threat. Radical Islam, Obama’s critics contend, is what it sounds like: radicalism rooted in the religion of Islam. Where Obama sees “violent extremism,” his critics see militant religiosity. Where Obama sees a clash within Islamic civilization -- between a tiny faction of fanatics and the vast majority of Muslims -- his critics see a clash between Western civilization and a small yet significant segment of the Muslim world. Where Obama sees a weak enemy that is getting weaker, his critics see a strong enemy that is getting stronger. Where Obama sees limits to what the U.S. can do on its own to eradicate radical interpretations of Islam, his critics see an appalling lack of effort by the U.S. government.

Now, please, please, please try to forget about the personalities and policies of Obama and Trump for a moment.

Instead, try to focus on the terms that journalists need to use if trying to describe a conflict that, as GetReligion has described it from the beginning, is a battle INSIDE Islam between millions of ordinary Muslims (avoiding the shallow label "moderate") and the many Muslims who have adopted radicalized forms of the faith.

There are journalists who agree with Obama that the term "radical Islam" should not be used at all, since it might be seem as an affront to other Muslims. But stop and think about this for a moment. If there is a battle taking place inside Islam between radical elements and traditional elements, what does it mean when journalists put scare quotes around the term radical Islam?

At this point, does anyone disagree with the idea that radicalized forms of Islam exist?

At this point, does anyone doubt that the Islamic State, al Qaeda, Boko Haram and similar groups can be called examples of radical Islam?

So why scare quote the term when writing groups such as these? In a way isn't that expressing some kind of doubt about whether "radical" Islam is real? And if that is the case, then wouldn't that imply that Islamic State is somehow normal? Is that fair to ordinary Muslims?

So if you scare quote the term radical Islam, what is the meaning of those quote marks? Are you saying that it is the mere opinion of a public figure who uses this term that radical Islam exists and that readers should doubt that? Is the goal to suggest that it is mere opinion that groups such as ISIS represent a radical form of Islam?

Help me out here. Help me understand.

What is the purpose of the quote marks in this case? And if journalists do not strive to use clear language when writing about radicalized forms of Islam, what are they saying to ordinary Muslims who are on the other side of this crucial struggle inside Islam?

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