AP Makes Important Revision to Misleading Terminology on Islam

April 13, 2013

Last week, the Associated Press (AP) revised its policy on the use of the word Islamist. Previously, the term was defined as:

“Supporter of government in accord with the laws of Islam. Those who view the Quran as a political model encompass a wide range of Muslims, from mainstream politicians to militants known as jihadis."

In use, the term has become synonymous with “Muslim extremists” of a wide and inconsistent variety, which lumped together democratically elected faith-based groups like Tunisia’s Nahda Party and violent extremists like al-Qaeda.

Although many who use the word claim that they only mean certain kinds of Muslims (usually the “bad” kind), it implies that there is something bad about Islam. Its catch-all use by reporters has added more to confusion than clarity. Add to that the voices of politicians and commentators who have also thrown the term “Islamist” around when turmoil strikes involving Muslims. This then cues the usual hostile voices who argue Islam cannot exist in a democracy, Muslims want to impose shariah in the West, and clash of civilizations is a fait accompli.

The new definition now in effect, while a bit longer, is more precise:

“An advocate or supporter of a political movement that favors reordering government and society in accordance with laws prescribed by Islam. Do not use as a synonym for Islamic fighters, militants, extremists or radicals, who may or may not be Islamists. Where possible, be specific and use the name of militant affiliations: al-Qaeda linked, Hezbollah, Taliban, etc. Those who view the Quran as a political model encompass a wide range of Muslims, from mainstream politicians to militants known as jihadis.”

The AP’s decision to modify its guidelines on the use of the highly charged term is part of a broader effort to rid the AP Stylebook of labels that can be vague and misleading on ethnic- and religion-based reporting. Just two days earlier, the AP announced it would discontinue the use of “illegal immigrant” to describe undocumented immigrants in order to provide a more balanced approach without relying on negative generalizations.

In 2008, the Department of Homeland Security released a statement that it would stop using the term Islamist, as well as “holy warrior” and “Islamic terrorist,” because it was hurting counterterrorism efforts.

DHS cited that “Such words may actually boost support for radicals among Arab and Muslim audiences by giving them a veneer of religious credibility or by causing offense to moderates.”

American Muslim activists have unfairly been accused of being Islamists, as in synonymous for militants, extremists or radicals. We applaud AP for this step in accurate reporting about Islam and Muslims, and we look forward to other media outlets following AP’s lead.

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