The word militant, which is both an adjective and a noun, comes from the 15th Century Latin "militare" meaning "to serve as a soldier". The related modern concept of the militia as a defensive organization against invaders grew out of the Anglo-Saxon "fyrd". In times of crisis, the militiaman left his civilian duties and became a soldier until the emergency was over, when he returned to his civilian occupation and life.
Militant, as a noun, is used as a term for warriors who do not belong to an established government military organization. It can also be used as a euphemism for the word terrorist. (For more on this, see mass media usage below.) In general usage, a militant person is a confrontational person, regardless of the use of physical violence or pacifistic methods. A militant can, but not necessarily, engage in violence as part of a claimed struggle against oppression. Militant can refer to an individual or to groups displaying the aggressive behavior or attitudes. (However, Merriam-Webster does not recognize the use of militant as a noun. It defines it only as a word which functions to describe an attitude, not the person or party exhibiting such attitude. See the adjective usage for more.)
Militant is often used within some religious circles to denote the continuous battle of Christians (as church members) or the Christian Church in their struggle against sin. In particular, the Roman Catholic Church differentiates between Church militant and church triumphant. Ellen G. White, a significant force in the founding of the Seventh-day Adventist church, also refers to the Church Militant. "Now the church is militant. Now we are confronted with a world in darkness, almost wholly given over to idolatry."
Such religious meaning must not be confused with the belligerent meaning used to describe extremist religious behaviours found in some who, based on their extreme religious beliefs or ideologies, take up weapons and become involved in warfare, or who commit acts of violence or terrorism in an attempt to advance their extremist religious agendas. Such extremist groups can be Christians, Muslims, Jewish, or of any other religious subscription.
Militant can mean "vigorously active and aggressive, especially in support of a cause" as in 'militant reformers'. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, defines militant as "Having a combative character; aggressive, especially in the service of a cause". The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines militant as "aggressively active (as in a cause)". It says that the word militant might be typically be used in phrases such as 'militant conservationists' or 'a militant attitude'.
An example of the adjective usages is demonstrated when the The New York Times ran an article titled Militant Environmentalists Planning Summer Protests to Save Redwoods describing a group that believes in "confrontational demonstrations" and "nonviolent tactics" to get across their message of preserving the environment. Another usage example includes 'a militant political activist', drawing attention to behaviours typical of those engaged in intensive political activism. The political protests headed by the Reverend Al Sharpton have been described as militant in nature in The Washington Post.
Militancy is the state of being militant. The term "militant state" colloquially refers to any individual which holds an aggressive posture in support of an ideology or cause. More precisely, a person or group which is in a psychologically militant state is in a physically aggressive posture. A militant view can constitute an extremist's position or have an inherent implication of intolerance (although in the militant's view s/he is merely being consequential as a matter of principle).
The various movements that seek to apply militancy as a solution, or who use militancy to rationalize their solutions for issues in the modern world seldom share common tactics. The characteristics of a militant who is aggressive and violent to promote a political philosophy in the name of a movement (and sometimes have an extreme solution for their goal) include the following shared traits:
Persons described as militants — either individuals or groups (composed of multiple individuals) — have usually enrolled and trained to serve in a particular cause. Militants may fill their ranks either by volunteering, enlistment or by conscription.
The mass media often uses the term "militant" in the context of terrorism. Journalists often apply the term militant to movements using terrorism as a tactic. The mass media also has used the term militant groups or radical militants for terrorist organizations. The terms serve to avoid usage of the term terrorists.
Newspapers, magazines, and other information sources may deem militant a neutral term, whereas terrorist or guerrilla conventionally indicates disapproval of the behavior of the individual or organization so labeled, regardless of the motivations for such behavior. Militant, at other times, can refer to any non-military individual engaged in warfare or combat, or generally serving as a combatant.
Those resisting a foreign military occupation can be seen as not meriting the label terrorists because their acts of political violence against military targets of a foreign occupier do not violate international law. Protocol 1 of the Geneva Conventions gives lawful combatant status to those engaging in armed conflicts against alien (or foreign) occupation, colonial domination and racist régimes. Non-uniformed guerrillas also gain combatant status if they carry arms openly during military operations. Protocol 1 does not legitimize attacks on civilians by militants who fall into these categories, however.
In the UN General Assembly Resolution on terrorism (42/159, December 7, 1987). which condemns international terrorism and outlines measures to combat the crime, with one proviso: "that nothing in the present resolution could in any way prejudice the right to self-determination, freedom and independence, as derived from the Charter of the United Nations, of peoples forcibly deprived of that right [...], particularly peoples under colonial and racist regimes and foreign occupation or other forms of colonial domination, nor...the right of these peoples to struggle to this end and to seek and receive support [in accordance with the Charter and other principles of international law]."
Militants occur across the political spectrum, including white supremacists, separatists, abortion opponents and proponents, and environmentalists. Examples of left-wing, right-wing, and advocacy group militants include militant reformers, militant feminists, militant animal rights advocates, and militant anarchists. The phrase militant Islam can suggest violent and aggressive political activity by Islamic individuals, groups, movements, or governments. The phrase militant atheist is usually used confrontationally when discussing those people who are more outspoken than the general population on subjects which explicitly or implicitly promote atheism, but is also used in a non-contentious manner to describe those who persecute religion in general. Various secret societies that have been known to be militarists are known as militant.
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