What is the right way to talk about terrorism in a politicized atmosphere? The United Nations staged a “high-level” panel discussion the other day on this topic, under the sponsorship of the Swedish and Indonesian missions. And the right way proved to be elusive, which may suggest the depth of our problem. The U.N. filmed the conversation and has put it online under the title, “Staying Together—Dialogue in the Face of Violent Extremism.” You might want to have a look. Some sharply phrased exchanges took place. I was one of the panelists, and certain of those phrases were launched from my own microphone, and, then again, other phrases were launched in my direction by the newly appointed United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, H.R.H. Prince Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, and by other people on the panel and by diplomats in the hall. A number of differences did get aired—though I have to warn you that, if you call up the video in search of those differences, the video’s unfortunate habit of freezing from time to time may try your patience.
But never mind the video. The moderator was a TV journalist for Al Jazeera named Ghida Fakhry Khane, who reminded everyone in her introductory comments of the shocking events in Paris just recently. She invited remarks from the Permanent Representative of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, from the Director-General of UNESCO, from the High Commissioner and a number of other distinguished worthies from Sweden and Indonesia. And, when at last she turned to me, I vented my frustration at what has become by now an old and characteristic and infuriating habit of our era, which, in regard to naming the source of terror, adds up to self-censorship. At the high-level panel, every last person was a declared enemy of “violent extremism.” And yet, nobody wanted to mention that, in Paris just now, the violent extremism in question turned out to be Islamist extremism. Therefore I introduced the word Islamism into the conversation.
This was exactly what Prince Zeid, the High Commissioner, did not want to hear...You have to give Berman props for bravery. Introducing the word Islamism in such quarters is as inflammatory as drawing a 'toon of Islam's founder is to, well, the "violent extremists." The only difference being that Prince Zeid, the High Commissioner, can't/won't execute you for your "blasphemy."