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Stoking religious hate?

Last Monday the Standard carried a story titled, “Islamists take over deserted police station and hoist flag.” (The Standard, January 15, 2018, p.6) “Heavily armed militants occupied Ishakani Police Station in Lamu and hoisted an Islamist flag there for several hours yesterday before withdrawing,” the paper reported.

“Area residents told The Standard that the insurgents were in the village for hours and left around 8am. Some of the militants wore balaclavas and jungle uniform […].”

Throughout this report the words “Islamists”,” militants” and “insurgents” are sprinkled interchangeably. But who is an Islamist? Is an Islamist always militant?These have become politically charged words, and the Standard casually got sucked into a mess.

With the rise of the so-called global war on terror, there is continuing concern that media coverage of terrorism has, eliberately or unwittingly, implicated Islam in violent extremism. Yet, authentic Islam is a religion of peace. Stories on this subject often have little context.

It is generally suggested that “violent extremists” carry out deadly attacks simply because their religion, Islam, permits it. But when one reads serious studies on violent extremism, like last year’s UNDP report, “Journey To Extremism In Africa: Drivers, incentives and the tipping point for recruitment,” one is amazed at the complexity of terrorism beyond the Islamic label.

In an article in The Christian Science Monitor, Dan Murphy argues that the now widely used term Islamist, usually in the context of terrorism, as in the case of The Standard report, is misleading.“The Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt is Islamist. So is Al Qaeda, which despises the Brotherhood for participating in politics. And so is Tunisia’s Al Nahda, which says it doesn’t even want Islamic law mentioned in the constitution.” So, who, precisely, is an Islamist? We turn to the AP Stylebook, touted as the gold standard for news writing. It describes “islamist” as follows: “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-Qaida-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 jihadi.”

That is clear, isn’t it? A Handbook on Reporting Terrorism (2016), published by the Media Council of Kenya, seems to agree with the AP Stylebook. The Handbook asks the reader: “What words have you seen your colleagues use that may simply serve to incite violence or incite hatred or fear? What words should be avoided in our coverage of violent extremism and terrorism and what words are Ok?” (p.10) “Islamist” is listed among the words to avoid. Take note..

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