In the United States, on TV I have heard much about "radical islamic terrorism" during the republican debates and also in mainstream media.

Nearly all these cases involve a male aggressor, or a muslim (the female form is muslima).

May I please ask why the common term in media and during our debates is "radical islamic terrorism", and why I have never heard the term "radical muslim terrorism"?

Is there a literal or nuanced difference in these phrases? Or are they equal and the choice of one phrase adds repetition value? Or is it an equivocation used to speak negatively about muslims without using the word muslim?

I am only interested in the meaning and word choice. Please, no discussion on how I should vote, or the character of people that use that phrase.


2 Answers 2


Islamicadjective Relating to Islam: the Islamic world, Islamic law

Muslimnoun A follower of the religion of Islam; adjective Relating to Muslims or their religion.

Islamic relates to the religion
Muslim relates to its followers

I have no inside knowledge here (other than following news stories), but my understanding is as follows:

"Islamic" is used because the perpetrators purport to being undertaking these acts in the name of their religion, Islam.
Additionally, radical Islamic terrorism implies that the perpetrators are following a radical 'interpretation' of the Islamic religion.

On the other hand, the term "Muslim" is avoided because it is recognised that the vast majority of Muslims (followers of Islam) are generally peaceful; are not 'radical'; and do not support these acts of terrorism. Indeed, many Muslims would wish to disassociate themselves from such acts.

(One could, of course, refer to the perpetrators as "radical Muslims", but the current usage has developed, and (IMHO) does help - in the minds of non-Muslims - to disassociate the majority of Muslims from these acts.)

  • 1
    This is the correct explanation, I think. If you said "Christian terrorism" you're using the adjective "Christian" not the noun "Christian," even though they look the same. You would say "Jewish terrorism," not "Jew terrorism," after all. Jun 13, 2016 at 21:35

Rightly or wrongly, Americans tend to associate "Muslim" with a race/ethnicity and "Islam" with a religion/philosophy. (If this be wrong, what is a better way to distinguish the two?) And so, being justifiably wary of using a racial term when referring to what is, in essence, a political affiliation, the adjective "Islamic" is used rather than the adjective "Muslim" when referring to terroristic activity.

  • +1 It's interesting that a lot of westerners think of Muslims as a "race", when in fact, Muslims are present in all races, colours, cultures, countries, and everywhere.
    – NVZ
    Jun 13, 2016 at 6:58
  • 3
    @NVZ You say "a lot of westerners think of Muslims as a 'race'". I can't say that I've been aware of that in the UK, and I would suspect that other parts of Europe would be even less likely to have that attitude because of greater proximity to 'non-western' (for want of a better description) countries & cultures. I note that HotLicks confined his comments to 'Americans'.
    – TrevorD
    Jun 13, 2016 at 10:46

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