In “Loosely Interpreted Arabic Terms Can Promote Enemy Ideology” by Jim Garamone of the American Forces Press Service (thanks to all who sent this in), we hear that if we just start calling the jihadists bad guys, they will — voila! — become bad guys in the eyes of the Muslim world:
BAGHDAD, June 22, 2006 — The pen is mightier than the sword, and sometimes in the war of words we unwittingly give the advantage to the enemy.
In dealing with Islamic extremists, the West may be giving them the advantage due to cultural ignorance, maintain Dr. Douglas E. Streusand and Army Lt. Col. Harry D. Tunnell IV. The men work at the National Defense University at Fort Lesley J. McNair in Washington, D.C.
I am surprised to see Douglas Streusand involved in this. He is the author of this relatively realistic 1997 article on the meaning of jihad.
The two believe the right words can help fight the global war on terror. “American leaders misuse language to such a degree that they unintentionally wind up promoting the ideology of the groups the United States is fighting,” the men wrote in an article titled “Choosing Words Carefully: Language to Help Fight Islamic Terrorism.”
A case in point is the term “jihadist.” Many leaders use the term jihadist or jihadi as a synonym for Islamic extremist. Jihad has been commonly adapted in English as meaning “holy war.” But to Muslims it means much more. In their article, Steusand [sic] and Tunnell said in Arabic – the language of the Koran – jihad “literally means striving and generally occurs as part of the expression ‘jihad fi sabil illah,’ striving in the path of God.”
This is a good thing for all Muslims. “Calling our enemies jihadis and their movement a global jihad thus indicates that we recognize their doctrines and actions as being in the path of God and, for Muslims, legitimate,” they wrote. By countering jihadis, the West and moderate Muslims are enemies of true Islam.
It is a perfectly legitimate tactic of warfare to call the enemy names, to impugn his legitimacy, to support his own internal enemies. In doing this, however, the National Defense University should not let it overwhelm a sober and realistic understanding of the fact that the core Islamic texts — the Qur’an as well as the Hadith and Sira and the principal schools of Islamic jurisprudence — all teach violent jihad (as Streusand seemed to know in 1997). To understand this is not to give Osama legitimacy; it is simply to state a fact that must be reckoned with, for like all facts it is perilous to ignore it.
It is not the business of the NDU or any non-Muslim to say whether the jihad of Osama bin Laden is legitimate or not. But there is no doubt that many Muslims the world over believe that it is legitimate. It is not the NDU that needs to declare this illegitimate; it is the ulama of the various Muslim countries that needs to do so — but they have not, because they know that Osama and Co. are working within the broad range of Islamic tradition. The NDU should not pretend that this is not the case, but deal with the facts as they are.
The men asked Muslim scholars what the correct term for Islamic extremists would be and they came up with “hirabah.” This word specifically refers to those engaged in sinful warfare, warfare contrary to Islamic law. “We should describe the Islamic totalitarian movement as the global hirabah, not the global jihad,” they wrote.
This is not a new idea. The Free Muslims and others have advocated the same thing. But again, the NDU calling it “hirabah” will do nothing to stop mujahedin from making recruits by calling it “jihad” — and until we acknowledge that, we cannot defend ourselves adequately against it. Calling it by another name will do nothing — unless you think that if Churchill had stopped calling Hitler’s men “Nazis” and started calling them “Idiots,” he would have compelled the Germans to lay down their arms.
Another word constantly misused in the West is mujahdeen [sic]. Again, in American dictionaries this word refers to a holy warrior – again a good thing. So calling an al Qaeda terrorist a mujahid legitimizes him.
The correct term for these killers is “mufsidun,” Streusand and Tunnell say. This refers to an evil or corrupt person. “There is no moral ambiguity and the specific denotation of corruption carries enormous weight in most of the Islamic world,” they wrote….
Sure — and again, as a propaganda effort, this is fine. But if non-Muslims in the West are reinforced in their assumption that most Muslims actually think of today’s mujahedin as mufsidun, this would be false and self-defeating.
The men also want officials to stop using the term “caliphate” as the goal of al Qaeda and associated groups. The Caliphate came to refer to the successors of the Prophet Mohammed as the political leaders of the Muslim community. “Sunni Muslims traditionally regard the era of the first four caliphs (A.D. 632-661) as an era of just rule,” the men wrote. “Accepting our enemies’ description of their goal as the restoration of a historical caliphate again validates an aspect of their ideology.”
But they do want to restore the historical caliphate. Their idea of “just rule” and that of the NDU differs considerably, I’m sure — and I suspect that the NDU is overestimating the difference between the jihadists’ caliphate and that envisioned by most Sunni Muslims. For there are historical parallels within Islamic history for all of the enormities noted here about the jihadists’ caliphate:
The men point out that an al Qaeda caliphate would not mean the establishment of just rule, but rather a global totalitarian state where women would be treated as chattel, music banned and any kind of difference severely punished. “Anyone who needs a preview of how such a state would act merely has to review the conduct of the Taliban in Afghanistan before Sept. 11, 2001,” they wrote.
The correct term for the al Qaeda goal is global totalitarian state – something no one in the world wants.
Finally, the men urge Westerners to translate Allah into God. Using Allah to refer to God would be like using Jehovah to refer to a Hebrew God. In fact, Muslims, Christians and Jews all worship the God of Abraham. Using different names exaggerates the divisions among the religions, the authors say.
Most Westerners do translate Allah into God. And Arabic speaking Jews and Christians use the word. Nevertheless, there are serious differences between the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim views of God — serious enough to warrant keeping a distinction between them. This is especially true in light of the fact that the Islamic claim to be an Abrahamic faith is a supremacist claim which denies all legitimacy to Judaism and Christianity as they exist today.
In any case, as shallow and flawed as it is, the effort by Streusand and Tunnell is influential:
The men have launched an education effort. “Our work is an attempt to educate the interagency community about the challenges of communication with Islamic audiences,” they wrote in answer to written questions. “Our particular effort is in its infancy, but is showing some level of success.”
Scholars at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College use the essay in class, and the Marines are using an earlier version of the essay as part of their lessons-learned Web site. The final version of the essay is on the National Defense University’s Center for Strategic Communications Web site.