“Radical Islam,” “White Privilege”—Phrases Not Designed to Win Hearts and Minds

Blue_big tent

2016-07-24 – Donald Trump likes to dump on President Obama for not using terms like “radical Islam” in the so-called war on terror. While I have a tiny amount of sympathy for Trump’s complaint (see below), I think it is wrong and that Obama has the better point:

We can win the hearts and minds of hundreds and millions of Muslims if we don’t trash their religion.

Even George Bush understood that!

There’s another phrase that has been gaining currency in the political debate over the last year or so: “white privilege.” Where the “radical Islam” complaint is used by the right-wing to bludgeon President Obama and his foreign policy, “white privilege” is used to bludgeon people who may be frightened by racial violence in this country.

Both radical Islam and white privilege exist.

Radical Islam exists in a variety of forms, the most worrisome to us in the United States are the forms espoused by violent extremists of organizations like al Qaeda and ISIS. Violence is not an attribute of all Muslims by any means. Only a tiny fraction is violent. But those who are violent, link their violence to their religion. (My tiny bit of agreement with The Donald is that denying the religious component of the violence misses an important point about the intractability of the problem.)

Most Muslims are horrified by the hijacking of their religion by violent extremists. But the crazies are out to prove that they are fighting a holy war—so that, if the West reacts with violence indiscriminately directed at Muslims, their pitch is verified, and the extremists gain converts.

Obama (and Bush before him) understood that it is in our interest to separate the extremists from the vast population of nonviolent Muslims—rather than to fuse them together. (Trump gets none of this.)

White privilege also exists in a variety of forms. I have white privilege. But there are plenty of white people who live unprivileged lives. They work hard to scrape by. The privileged ones are the folks with the millions of dollars who live in fancy neighborhoods, who send their kids to great schools, and who never have to worry about their families falling behind. Those people have White Privilege with capital letters. Those who barely scrape by have privilege with little letters—sometimes very little letters. Capital-letter folks despise little-letter folks.

And yet, we on the left, who are wary of painting all Muslims with the accusations of violence and terror, have no problem painting all white people with the accusations of white privilege.

If you are trying to make friends with the working class in America, calling all white people racist isn’t going to do it.

This doesn’t mean that white privilege does not exist. This does not mean that institutional racism does not exist. This does not mean that BlackLivesMatter is not a worthy cause.

But just as it is vital for the United States to have solid allies in the Muslim world to fight against terrorism that comes from Islamic regions, it is also importing for those fighting racism in the United States to have white allies.

We have two problems here. One is linguistic and the other is moral.

The linguistic problem is finding a way to talk about violent Islamic extremists without including all Muslims. The parallel linguistic problem is finding a way to talk about racism in America without alienating everyone who is white.

The moral problem is that many of those who talk about Islamic radicalism actually do hate all Muslims. And many of those who talk about white privilege actually do hate the white working class.

Can’t we just work against racism and privilege and violence without hating whole classes of bystanders in the process?


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