Philip Hensher: We need straight talk when it comes to terror

To suggest that it is a coincidence that all the September 11 attackers were Muslim is absurd
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The Independent Online

A leaked document from the Home Office addresses the difficult question of how officials are supposed to talk to Muslims about the terrorists and fundamentalists in their midst. It's an interesting document, largely because it seems determined to avoid the sorts of political euphemisms which have been the subject of ridicule since Orwell, and to unpack the routine assumptions behind ordinary official phrase-making.

Nothing, in short, but political correctness in the best sense. Political correctness has acquired a terrible reputation, and has become associated with euphemisms – talking about people in wheelchairs as being "differently abled", and so, fictitiously, onwards. In fact, political correctness was originally the intention to talk to people on their own terms, to describe them as they themselves would want to be described. The association with euphemism came later.

The Home Office document says, however, "This is not about political correctness, but effectiveness – evidence shows that people stop listening if they think you are attacking them." There is no particular reason why political correctness and effectiveness should be incompatible. It's clear that the Home Office's problems arise, in fact, from a neglect of political correctness, and a cult among the administrative classes of the idea of political-correctness-run-mad, of the preferred self-describing terms of a group being nothing more than euphemism or evasion.

We all know someone who will confidently say "You can't even say 'yid' or 'Paki' these days; it's political-correctness-run-mad." Why the Home Office, in seeking to talk to people in terms that they recognise and categories they find helpful, should be so keen to disown the label of political correctness and to distinguish it from basic civility is an interesting question.

The statements which the Home Office disowns and suggests improvements on, however, are deeply confused and show how very difficult it is for them to find any kind of direct, adult way of talking about this frightful subject. Here are some things which they suggest should not be referred to: "Islamophobia" (suggests that Muslims are being singled out). "War, battle or clash" (gives heroic dignity to terrorist criminals). "Radicalisation" or "Islamic extremist" (suggests a direct causal link between the practice of Islam and terrorism). "Moderate/radical" which, I can only quote, is "perceived as a means of splitting Muslim communities or stigmatising points of view/lifestyles". And finally, "Islamic/Muslim community/ world". This last is a bad thing since, it is claimed, it implies that Muslims form a homogenous group. The Home Office should, instead, highlight diversity.

That last one shows how deeply misled the whole business is. The expression "the Muslim world" corresponds very closely indeed to the ummah wahida, the "one community" of believers, which not just Islamists but Muslims of all stripes hold dear as an ideal.

Much of this seems absolutely sensible, however. You can understand the fury and despair of many Muslims, practising or not, when they are told by officials and the commentariat that it is their responsibility to weed out the mavericks and murderers in their midst. There is no reason to think that most moderates are at all likely to shield or shelter a murderer, and the Home Office is right to warn against any official suggestion that it's up to Muslims in particular to take action, or face the consequences. That suggestion has a particularly nasty ring of the Third Reich about it.

But it is perfectly absurd to suggest that we should all pretend that some forms of terrorism, some forms of extremist thought, have no connection whatever with Islamic communities. I know perfectly well that the vast majority of practising Muslims, and probably every single person who is only regarded as Muslim by their ethnic history, has no experience whatsoever of these things. But no one becomes a terrorist in the name of Islam without becoming a Muslim first, and it's absurd and disgraceful to say that we shouldn't refer to terrorists who are also Muslims, or suggest that it is a curious coincidence that all 19 people who commandeered the planes on September 11 happened to be Muslims.

To say that is not to say, as some extreme commentators would, that any Muslim is potentially a murderer. In this area, exactness of speech is of the essence. Not all terrorists are Muslims; not all Muslims are terrorists. But some terrorists are Muslims, and some Muslims are terrorists. To deny this obvious truth, not to distinguish a set of such people, is to run the risk of vagueness. If you don't concede even the possibility of a distinction between moderate and extremist Muslims, against all good intentions of the Home Office, the effect will be, once again, to place huge ethnic groups under undistinguished and oppressive suspicion.