Primer on Sunni terrorists includes helpful advice on the perennial labels game in news

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For the foreseeable future, journalists will be covering Muslim zealots who terrorize innocent civilians in God’s name, fellow Muslims included, hoping that violence will force the creation of  a truly Islamic society. Their revolutionary  bloodshed spans the globe -- and spurns centuries of moderate teaching by Islamic authorities.

Journalists remain uncertain on how best to name these groups, which is among matters explored in “The Mind of the Islamic State: ISIS and the Ideology of the Caliphate” by Robert Manne, an Australian media personality and emeritus professor at La Trobe University. Though publisher Prometheus Books is known for partisan and sometimes supercilious attacks on religious faiths, The Religion Guy finds this title even-tempered, as well as brisk and valuable (though Prometheus deserves brickbats for providing no index).

This readable background will help guide journalism about a complex scourge that mainstream Islam is unable to eliminate. The book covers only Sunni extremists, not the rival radicals in the faith’s minority Shi’a branch centered on  Iran. Here’s Manne’s advice on common terms and labels seen in the news.

Islamo-Fascism. This label is “quite misleading” due to fascism’s historical fusion with nationalism (Muslim radicals spurn existing nation-states and  simply divide humanity into believers vs. “infidels”), and with racism (the movement’s hatreds lie elsewhere).

Islamic Fundamentalism. Also a misnomer, this borrows a term for strict textual literalism among Protestant Christians (see the Associated Press Stylebook). Problem: Such Protestants are non-violent, and so are many of the Muslims who favor that approach to holy writ. Rather, we need to label a terroristic political faction.

Islamists. This term designates believers who seek to reshape politics in accordance with religious law (sharia). Here again, such Muslim activists do not necessarily embrace terror.

Radical Islam. Similarly, this adjective could apply to terror factions, but equally to non-violent activism, or to religious commitment wholly apart from politics.

Salafi Jihadism (or, less frequently, Jihadi Salafism). Though rare in current journalistic usage, Manne favors this option as generally accepted among  thinkers who both support and oppose the violent ideology. “Salafi” designates Sunnis who see the time of the Prophet Muhammad and his immediate successors as Islam’s “golden age” to be emulated. “Jihadism” signifies devotion to  revolution using violent means.

This movement originated with Egypt’s scholarly Sayyid Qutb (hanged for revolutionary subversion  in 1966), expanded internationally with the pan-Muslim war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and fuses Salafi Egyptian thought with the related Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia (though that nation is now in the midst of  religious flux).

The book profiles the martyred Qutb, who was repelled by licentiousness and materialism while a college student in Colorado. The movement’s founding father wrote a multi-volume Quran commentary and the 1964 political manifesto “Milestones.”

Qutb defined “jihad” not as spiritual struggle but violent revolution and a duty of all believers in order to topple corrupt regimes that falsely claim to be Muslim. Qutb opposed nation-states, demanded total submission to religious law as opposed to constitutions, preached permanent warfare till the End of Days, and was fervently anti-Semitic. 

Manne then carefully examines the key ideological writings of Qutb’s successors that reporters should also be familiar with, including Muhammad Abd al-Salam Faraj, Abdullah Azzam, Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, “Abu Bakr Naji” (probable pseudonym of Muhammad Khalil al-Hakim), and Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi. Such thinkers devised justifications for violating specific teachings about combat and suicide in the Quran and hadiths that recount the Prophet’s authoritative words and deeds. One rising segment adds homicidal hatred against Shi’a Muslims along with non-Muslims.   

To Manne, “the emergence of a genuinely new and significant ideology is one of the rarest events in political history,” and Salafi Jihadism is the world’s latest example. The spirit of this movement is captured in the title of an influential  manual issued in 2004: “The Management of Savagery.” 

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