This New York Times op-ed defends the government’s new PC guidelines forbidding use of the term “jihadists” to describe the people who are waging war against the U.S. It does so artfully, but ultimately in a way that exposes the faulty assumptions of this entire initiative.
“What Do You Call a Terror(Jihad)ist?,” by P. W. Singer and Elina Noor in the New York (aka New Duranty) Times, June 2 (thanks to all who sent this in):
IMAGINE if Franklin D. Roosevelt had taken to calling Adolf Hitler the “leader of the National Socialist Aryan patriots” or dubbed Japanese soldiers fighting in World War II as the “defenders of Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.”
To describe the Nazis and the Imperial Japanese Army in terms that incorporated their own propaganda would have been self-defeating. Unfortunately, that is what many American policymakers have been doing by calling terrorists “jihadists” or “jihadis.”
This is a terrific way to present this argument. My hat is off to P. W. Singer and Elina Noor for their rhetorical skill. If Roosevelt had called Hitler the “leader of the National Socialist Aryan patriots,” or the Japanese the “defenders of Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere,” he really would have been purveying Axis propaganda. Would he, however, have been purveying Axis propaganda if he called Hitler a National Socialist (or a Nazi), or the Japanese State Shinto imperialists?
No, of course not. In the scenario offered by Singer and Noor, the terms are indeed propagandistic, but in the scenario I’m offering, they’re merely descriptive. At issue here is whether it is propagandistic, and playing into the hands of the enemy, to call Osama bin Laden and others like him “jihadists,” or whether it is merely descriptive to do so — in which case avoiding doing so would be playing into the hands of the enemy, for if we cannot name the enemy correctly, we certainly cannot defeat him.
That is the key question at hand in all this, but it is not even being asked, much less answered. Rather, it is simply being assumed across the board that the jihadists have no theological argument to make within Islam, and that thus it is simply dignifying them to call them by that name.
Unfortunately, this argument has not yet been made in the place where it needs to be made the most: in Muslim communities worldwide, where jihadists continue to make inroads by presenting themselves as the exponents of “true” and “pure Islam.”
While the State Department recently circulated an internal memo advising foreign service officers to avoid such terms, President Bush, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and members of the news media continue to use them.
The word “jihad” means to “strive” or “struggle,” and in the Muslim world it has traditionally been used in tandem with “fi sabilillah” (“in the path of God”). The term has long been taken to mean either a quest to find one’s faith or an external fight for justice. It makes sense, then, for terrorists to associate themselves with a term that has positive connotations. For the United States to support them in that effort, however, is a fundamental strategic mistake.
Here is the fundamental assumption of the new State Department guidelines, as well as of Singer and Noor: that the jihadists are twisting the meaning of jihad within Islam, appropriating for their own purposes what is in traditional Islam a spiritual struggle or a struggle for justice. Singer and Noor appear unaware that the term jihad fi sabeel Allah in the Qur’an and Islamic tradition refers specifically to warfare. They also probably do not realize that in Islamic theology justice is equated with Sharia, such that an “external fight for justice” is a fight to impose Islamic law, with its denial of the freedom of conscience and institutionalized discrimination against women and non-Muslims.
Al-Qaeda and other contemporary jihadists did not originate this definition of jihad from Ibn Arafa, a scholar of the Maliki school of Islamic jurisprudence, who explains that jihad is “fighting by a Muslim against a kaafir [unbeliever] (who does not have a treaty with the Muslims) to make the word of Allah the highest.” Nor did they originate the Shafi’i manual of Islamic law that was certified in 1991 by the clerics at Al-Azhar University, one of the leading authorities in the Islamic world, as a reliable guide to Sunni orthodoxy, which stipulates that “the caliph makes war upon Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians…until they become Muslim or pay the non-Muslim poll tax.”
Osama bin Laden did not whisper into the ear of Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), the pioneering historian and sociologist, the idea that “in the Muslim community, the holy war is a religious duty, because of the universalism of the Muslim mission and (the obligation to) convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force.” In Islam, the person in charge of religious affairs is concerned with “power politics,” because Islam is “under obligation to gain power over other nations.”
It wasn’t al-Zawahri who inspired the great medieval Islamic theorist Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328) to teach that “since lawful warfare is essentially jihad and since its aim is that the religion is God’s entirely and God’s word is uppermost, therefore according to all Muslims, those who stand in the way of this aim must be fought.”
And to those who will inevitably say, “Spencer is saying the jihadists are right!,” let me remind you that I didn’t originate this material either.
The contemporary jihadists are traditionalists. They are trying to revive these ancient understandings of jihad, which in any case have not been modified, since there has been consensus (ijma) on these issues — thus closing debate — and the gate of ijtihad, or legal innovation, has been closed on serious issues for many centuries.
As such, they are calling upon peaceful Muslims to join their movements precisely on the basis of the Islamic legitimacy they claim for themselves. It consequently may seem wise for us to try to impugn that legitimacy by calling them other names, but then we must ask ourselves: which authority carries more weight for a pious Muslim — an Islamic scholar renowned for centuries, or the non-Muslim American government?
But even aside from that, the new State guidelines actually interfere with our ability to understand why the jihadist appeal has such resonance within Islamic communities, and to formulate genuinely effective ways to counter it. Saying that the jihadists’ Islam isn’t real Islam isn’t going to help one bit, because the jihadists have plenty of evidence to support their claim that it is, and a non-Muslim voice, however powerful, isn’t going to make any headway against that.
Instead, State could be sponsoring positive presentations of the freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, equality of rights of all people, and other principles that many Muslims accept today, but which are denied by Sharia. State could, in other words, be offering an alternative to Sharia — not by way of a verbal frontal assault, but by attacking the elements of Sharia that many Muslims as well as non-Musims reject. Instead, it is reinforcing Sharia by pretending that there is a positive jihad that is not threatening to unbelievers.
First, to call a terrorist a “jihadist” or “jihadi” effectively puts any campaign against terrorism into the framework of an existential battle between the West and Islam. This feeds into the worldview propagated by Al Qaeda. It also serves to isolate the tens of millions of Muslims who condemn the violence that has been perpetrated in the name of Islam.
Tens of millions of Muslims have condemned violence perpetrated in the name of Islam? Do Singer and Noor mean the flimsy and loophole-ridden condemnations of terrorism by American Muslim groups? Do they mean condemnations of violence but not of Islamic supremacism by Muslim spokesmen?
If Muslims really reject the worldview propagated by Al-Qaeda, they can show it best not by getting huffy about Western nomenclature, but by actually fighting against the jihad ideology and Islamic supremacism in their communities. Where is this happening? Where in the world are mosques preaching against Osama’s Islam, and presenting a viable Islamic alternative that advocates peaceful coexistence with non-Muslims as equals on an indefinite basis? Why, nowhere.
Is it an existential battle between the West and Islam? The jihadists certainly think it is. Is this challenge best countered by being ignored, or by pretending it has not been issued, or should it be responded to? I think if it is ignored, it will only metastasize.
Second, these words locate the ideological battle exactly where the extremists want it to be. The terms of discussion are no longer about the murder of innocents in terrorist acts; they are about theology.
Here is one of the key points on which this debate really matters: we can’t discuss the murder of innocents without establishing who exactly is innocent. Jihadists say that non-Muslims, or at least Americans and Israelis, aren’t innocent at all. But we can’t discuss that without discussing the theology of jihad, which the State guidelines have ruled off-limits.
Third, when American leaders use this language it sends a confusing message to the Muslim world, showing ignorance on basic issues and possibly even raising doubts about American motives. Why, after all, would we call our enemy a “holy warrior”?
If we want to say what we mean, what terms better describe Qaeda members and other violent extremists? “Muharib” or the more colloquial “hirabi” or “hirabist” would be good places to start. “Hirabah,” the base word, is a term for barbarism or piracy. Unlike “jihad,” which grants honor, “hirabah” brings condemnation; it involves unlawful violence and disorder.
I responded to the hirabah suggestion at some length here. By calling the jihadists “hirabists” or whatever, we are suggesting that there is a legitimate jihad, leaving untouched the core Islamic doctrine that warfare against unbelievers must be waged, and only suggesting that it not be waged at this time. Is that a position we really want to take?
What’s more, you’ll see at that link that the Muslim Brotherhood is behind this “hirabah” talk. Does confusing and obfuscating the nature of the enemy we are facing have anything to do with the Brotherhood’s “grand Jihad” aimed at “eliminating and destroying the Western civilization from within and “˜sabotaging” its miserable house by their hands and the hands of the believers so that it is eliminated and Allah’s religion is made victorious over all other religions”?
The Times op-ed ends up with some unintentional irony:
Of course, it’s probably best not to engage in these nuances at all. Which is why American leaders would do best to call terrorists by their rightful name: “terrorists.” The label may seem passÃ©, but terrorism is an internationally recognized word for an internationally recognized crime. If we want to win a war of words, we would do well to choose the ones we use with greater care.
Whoops! “Terrorism” is verboten too, in our new Orwellian age.