George Lakoff is a professor of cognitive linguistics at UC Berkeley, and the author of Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. While Lakoff’s book is generally a great instructional tool for American progressives, he is still encumbered by a Western bias, which is evident in his framing of Islam and Muslims. Lakoff’s hidden assumption is that Islam is fundamentally violent, but that Islam in moderation is tolerable and acceptable. That is, Lakoff’s prototype of Islam is that Islam is centrally violent, and his concept of a non-violent Islam is that it is atypical or non-prototypical. Moreover, Lakoff accepts a worldview in which “Islam” and “the West” are polar opposites, and that a non-violent Islam is non-violent because it falls somewhere on the continuum between “Islam” and “the West”. Within this frame, of course, “Islam” is violent and “the West” represents non-violence.
Lakoff frames terrorism as arising from cultural difference.
Lakoff is a progressive, but his understanding of “radical Islamic fundamentalists” is borrowed from American conservatives’ understanding of “Islam”. Instead of dismantling the conservative frame that characterizes Islam as inherently violent and backwards, Lakoff keeps the conservative frame and adds the disclaimer that this characterization is not representative of most Muslims. In Don’t Think of an Elephant, p. 59, Lakoff writes:
The question that keeps being asked in the media is, Why do they hate us so much?
It is important at the outset to separate moderate-to-liberal Islam from radical Islamic fundamentalists, who do not represent most Muslims.
Radical Islamic fundamentalists hate our culture. They have a worldview that is incompatible with the way that Americans—and other Westerners—live their lives.
One part of this worldview concerns women, who are to hide their bodies, should have no right to property, and so on. Western sexuality, mores, music, and women’s equality all violate their values, and the ubiquity of American cultural products, like movies and music, throughout the world offends them.
A second part concerns theocracy: They believe that governments should be run by clerics according to strict Islamic law.
A third concerns holy sites, like those in Jerusalem, which they believe should be under Islamic political and military control.
A fourth concerns the commercial and military incursions by Westerners on Islamic soil, which they liken to the invasion of the hated crusaders. The way they see it, our culture spits in the face of theirs.
A fifth concerns jihad—a holy war to protect and defend the faith.
A sixth is the idea of a martyr, a man willing to sacrifice himself for the cause. His reward is eternal glory—an eternity in heaven surrounded by willing young virgins. In some cases there is a promise that his family will be taken care of by the community.
These are standard stereotypes of Muslims, including the Orientalist notion that West Asians are licentious, and have a stronger, more primitive motivation towards sexual gratification than white Westerners who restrain themselves. Although the assumption that terrorism is fueled by cultural difference (i.e., “radical Islamic fundamentalism”) originates from stereotypes of non-Western barbarism rather than empirical evidence, Lakoff’s claims in the above excerpt will not be debunked in this post. The quotation merely illustrates that Lakoff’s description of “radical Islamic fundamentalism” is essentially the same as the typical American right-wing frame of “Islam”.
Lakoff frames non-violent Muslims as “moderate Muslims”.
Lakoff is usually careful about avoiding language which supports a conservative frame, but ironically, he uses language that supports the frame that “true Islam” is violent, while Muslims who are non-violent must be “moderate Muslims” who do not completely adhere to Islam. On p. 60, Lakoff writes:
What about the first cause—the radical Islamic worldview itself? Military action won’t change it. Social action won’t change it. Worldviews live in the minds of people. How can one change those minds—and if not present minds, then future minds? The West cannot! Those minds can only be changed by moderate and liberal Muslims—clerics, teachers, elders, respected community members. There is no shortage of them. I doubt that they are well organized, but the world needs them to be well organized and effective. It is vital that moderate and liberal Muslims form a unified voice against hate and, with it, terror. Remember that Taliban means “student.” Those who teach hate in Islamic schools must be replaced—and we in the West cannot replace them. This can only be done by an organized, moderate, nonviolent Islam. The West can make the suggestion and offer extensive resources, but we alone are powerless to carry it out. We depend on the goodwill and courage of moderate Islamic leaders. To gain it, we must show our goodwill by beginning in a serious way to address the social and political conditions that lead to despair.
While Lakoff identifies as a “progressive”, his use of language supports the following narrative:
Islam is bad, violent, repressive, and backwards, while the West is good, peaceful, liberal, and advanced. Islam and the West are cultural opposites. Not all Muslims, are bad, however, because Muslims can exist on the continuum between Islam and the West. A Muslim who lies in the middle between Islam and the West is better than a Muslim who lies closer to Islam. If a Muslim is peaceful, then it must mean that this Muslim is Westernized, because peacefulness comes from the West and violence comes from Islam. If a Muslim is non-violent, it must be because this Muslim is less Islamic and follows Islam only in moderation.
The problem with this narrative, of course, is that it supports a Eurocentic, Orientalist, and Islamophobic frame that originated in British and French colonialist attitudes from several centuries ago. While the disclaimer “not all Muslims are violent; there are moderate Muslims,” or “most Muslims are not violent; most Muslims are moderate Muslims,” appears “progressive” relative to blatant Islamophobic bigotry, it still frames Islam as essentially violent. Instead of rejecting the conservative frame, Lakoff perpetuates a modified or compromised version.
Alternatives to the problematic term “moderate Muslims” could be “ordinary Muslims” or “Muslim civilians”.
(However, this alternative concept would not fit into Lakoff’s simplistic solution to eliminate terrorism. There are over 1.25 billion Muslims in the world separated by geography, nationality, language, wealth, etc. Expecting over 1.25 billion people in the world who have little in common except religious identification to self-organize is much more ambitious than expecting American progressives who have at least the same nationality and language to be self-organized. For the latter, Lakoff had to create a now-defunct Rockridge Institute to attempt to achieve this.)
Lakoff, G. (2004). Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate: The Essential Guide for Progressives. White River Jct. (VT): Chelsea Green Publishing.