Words are Important or; Why Everyone you Disagree With isn’t a Terrorist

While my next couple posts will focus on the different ways that Muslims have been actively involved in politics both at the state and national level, this week I wanted to comment on a controversial claim that Rick Perry made during the GOP primary debate on Monday night in South Carolina. During the section on foreign policy, Perry was asked the following question:

“Since the Islamist-oriented party took over in Turkey, the murder rate of women has increased 1,400 percent there. Press freedom has declined to the level of Russia. The prime minister of Turkey has embraced Hamas and Turkey has threatened military force against both Israel and Cypress. Given Turkey’s turn, do you believe Turkey still belongs in NATO?”

Perry responded by saying:

“Well, obviously when you have a country that is being ruled by, what many would perceive to be Islamic terrorists, when you start seeing that type of activity against their own citizens, then yes. Not only is it time for us to have a conversation about whether or not they belong to be in NATO, but it’s time for the United States, when we look at their foreign aid, to go to zero with it.”

Turkey is run by “Islamic terrorists”, eh? To quote a childhood hero of mine:

To claim even indirectly (which he does here by using the infamous “some would say” card which allows you to place a controversial view out there, use it as a premise in an argument and all the while not explicitly endorse it) that Islamic terrorists rule Turkey is simply baseless and irresponsible. But after you take a step back and pay careful attention of how he words his response what’s going on becomes clearer. This is the key part:

“…what many would perceive to be Islamic terrorists…” (emphasis added)

We can’t contest the fact that Perry and others look at, say, the ruling party of Turkey and see “Islamic terrorists” in the same way that we can’t deny the fact that many who look at atheists and see nothing but amoral, potential sociopaths who are one Richard Dawkins book away from seeking a legal ban all religion. They’re, of course wrong, but that does not change the fact that that’s what they see when they look out at the world. This is, of course, in and of itself the issue. When we can no longer tell the difference between the rulers of secular country with a democratically elected government and people who trick children into becoming suicide bombers, we have a problem.

It all comes back to a fundamental truth that politicians on both sides of the aisle should internalize: words are important. Just like when you call someone a “Nazi” or a “fascist”, when say somebody is a “terrorist”, that’s supposed to mean something. These words that describes the darkest parts of civilization are not and should not be used as catchall terms for everything we don’t like. It’s through semantic abuse that terms like terrorist become useless and nothing more than a wide brush used to paint political targets with negative connotations in order to discredit and dehumanize without debate. From what I can tell, this is exactly what Governor Perry was attempting to do here. Riding the high tides of Islamophobia, he wanted to make it look as if he was taking a stand against a common enemy. Either that or he really does believe that terrorists run Turkey. I can’t tell which option is better.

Here’s the worst part of all of this: when it comes to Turkey, there are plenty of things to criticize. There is plenty to take issue with. Turkey’s recent rash of journalist arrests, their use of terrorism laws as a means to squash political protest, and whether or not the government is doing enough to stem the tide of honor killings (warning: pdf) that have been on the rise in the past 10 years are all important issues that need to be addressed. But instead of having a conversation about some worrying recent political and social trends in what is a close ally, we get this…from a man who was at one point seen to be a viable candidate for President of the United States. Hopefully with Perry suspending his presidential campaign today, some of the hyperbolic Islamophobic rhetoric, pandering to the far fringes of the American political spectrum and poor reasoning that has dogged this political cycle will leave with him.

But who am I kidding? It’s only January. We’ll be lucky if we get to next week without something equally as absurd being said. ‘Tis the season after all.

Adam Garner is a senior at the University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign studying philosophy and religion with a focus on epistemology, applied ethics, and British Empiricism. He is the Vice-President of Campus Outreach for the UIUC group Interfaith in Action, a Better Together Coach for the Interfaith Youth Core’s 2012 Better Together Campaign, and is the head of the Education Committee for the Illinois Interfaith Service Challenge. Raised Mormon, Adam is now an atheist that has one goal in life: to leave the world a little bit better than he found it through the power of rational discourse and interfaith cooperation. When not interfaithing or philosophizing, he enjoys watching cat videos on the internet, finding new Sci-fi shows to become addicted to, and teaching other people how to do handstands

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