Terms matter, now more than ever

normaldistributionAs we paint “Muslims” and “Christians” with broad brushstrokes, we concede the labels entirely too much descriptive authority. In other words, religions are simply large bundles of beliefs and ideas, with no way of discerning within them, what, if anything, is actually correct.

For example, say we survey 100 self-identified Christians to discover how one gets in to heaven or avoids hell. Do we expect 100 identical answers? Similarly, if we survey 100 self-identified Muslims to discover the true meaning of “jihad” do we expect 100 identical answers?

The answer to both of those hypothetical questions is of course, no. A part from the top layer belief that a certain deity exists, interpretations of the scriptures that underpin a particular religion fill the normal distribution curve. Given that, how could we possibly predict a specific behavior from someone, simply because they identify themselves as a Muslim or a Christian?

Hint: we can’t.

What we are really concerned with is the area under the belief curve that, when compared to universal rights and liberal values such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion, would be considered “extremist.”

We must talk about that specific area of the curve using terms other than the name of the religion or the blanket label by which practitioners identify themselves, if we are going to create the allies we need within the belief system. For these are the people simultaneously closest to the problem, and closest to the solution. We can’t expect the belief curve to evaporate, but we can slide the entire curve to the left, making the extremist area ever smaller. But to effect that movement, we have to exercise discipline and use linguistic precision.

In the case of Islam, we need to stop blaming “Muslims” for the extremism of Islamism.  But we need a word, like “Islamism,” that not only encapsulates the problem of extremism, but also recognizes the reality of the relationship of that extreme end of the tail to the rest of the belief spectrum curve.

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