Some of the terminology regarding Muslim-Western relations has been widely misused or misunderstood, confusing key issues and clouding constructive opportunities. In an attempt to improve ongoing communication, we have developed the following Terminology in Muslim-Western Relations guide. A downloadable PDF version is also available.
Terminology Guide
Term: Moderate Muslim / Moderate Islam
Intended Meaning: A Muslim / an interpretation of Islam that rejects extremism and terrorism; a Muslim who supports Western foreign policy; a non-practicing Muslim or sometimes even a former Muslim
Why a Problem: Implies that Islam as a whole is by definition intolerant and aggressive; that the majority of Muslims are extremist, intolerant, radical or violent - hence the need to qualify those who are not - rather than the other way around; alternatively put: equates piety with violence and by extension the religion of Islam with inspiring violence - implying that the less Islam consumed, the better

Does not allow for the fact that one can be politically "moderate" in a given context, even though they would be seen to take extreme positions on religion; understood by many Muslims to apply to any position on any political issue taken by Muslim individuals or groups that is deemed acceptable by the West

Note: the adjective "moderate" is not always negative for pious Muslims, given the importance of moderation in Islamic tradition and Muslim association of the term with a positive. Rather, it is a question of how the word is used. For instance, "the moderate majority in Muslim society" does not carry a negative connotation as it does not imply that it is the limited intake of Islam that is making this majority a good thing.
Impact: Offense: "What's wrong with just being Muslim?" "Why does Islam need a qualifier to make it alright?" Implies a Muslim who is passionate rather than moderate about their religion is one who takes extreme or exclusive positions.
Alternatives:
  • Mainstream or Mainline Muslim/Islam
  • Name of group or individual
  • The moderate majority in Muslim society
Additional Distinctions
Term:Muslim (noun/adj.)Islamic (adj.)
Definition:Denotes an adherent of Islam or a characteristic of its adherents (descriptive, adj. comparable to "Jewish")Denotes the religion or its institutions (prescriptive, comparable to "Judaic")
Example:A Muslim country is one where the majority of citizens follow the religion of Islam An Islamic country is one whose political system is based on Islamic law
Why Important: Avoids negative events, acts or ideas being attributed to the religion of Islam itself (rather than its followers)
Term:HeadscarfVeil
Definition:Worn by many Muslim women to cover their hair in public; usually accompanied by non- revealing clothes Worn by a small minority of Muslim women to cover face; usually accompanied by non-revealing clothes
Referred to as:Hijab Niqab
Why Important: Important "Veil" conjures up "barrier" and has a negative impact on bridge-building efforts
Note: neither garment necessarily says anything about one's political viewpoints