Choosing Words Carefully: Language to Help
Fight Islamic Terrorism
The United States must do more to communicate
its message. Reflecting on Bin Ladin's success in reaching
Muslim audiences, Richard Holbrooke wondered, "How can a man
in a cave outcommunicate the world's leading communications society?"1
Use Precise Terms Precisely.
The answer to Mr. Holbrooke's question is an
unsophisticated one: Bin Ladin speaks in a language that his Muslim
listeners understand. We, on the other hand, simply do not comprehend
the meaning of many words that we use to describe the enemy. American
leaders misuse language to such a degree that they unintentionally
wind up promoting the ideology of the groups the United States is
fighting.2 We cannot win wide-spread
support throughout the Muslim world if we use terms that, to them,
define the behavior of our enemies as moral. Because the Global
War on Terrorism-or more precisely the war against Islamic totalitarian
terrorism-includes a war of ideas, leaders, journalists, authors
and speakers must use the most accurate terms to describe those
The responsibility for precision in expression
rests with anyone who believes in the need to share information
candidly. But for those unfamiliar with Islamic doctrine, history
and tradition, it may often be necessary to rely on scholars or
other experts about the Islamic world to provide one with the necessary
guidance to help convey the message correctly. Muslims will ultimately
determine whether the ideology of al-Qa`ida, its affiliates, franchisees
and fellow travelers represents authentic Islam or not, but the
West can have enormous influence on their decisions. Furthermore,
it is important to make sure that the civilian community in the
United States and that of our allies and coalition partners accurately
understands the nature of the enemy that we are fighting. Unfortunately,
Western governments, intellectuals and journalists commonly use
words that inadvertently (or sometimes deliberately) authenticate
the doctrines of our enemy as truly Islamic. Correcting this vocabulary
is a necessary step to educate the wide-ranging groups who are affected
by the war; to discredit those who either passively or actively,
or wittingly or unwittingly support Islamic totalitarian terrorism;
and to reveal the truly insidious nature of our enemy.
What Are We Really Saying?
This essay discusses the most egregious and
dangerous misuses of language regarding Islamic totalitarian terrorists;
a comprehensive study would require a book. We begin with the word
jihad, which literally means striving and generally occurs as part
of the expression jihad fi sabil illah, striving in the path of
God. Striving in the path of God is a duty of 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. In short, we explicitly designate
ourselves as the enemies of Islam.
Muslims have debated the meaning and application
of the concept of jihad for centuries. Our application of the term
to the actions of our enemies puts us on their side of the debate.
We need not concern ourselves with the identification of the original
or legally correct meaning of the term; individual Muslims will
make up their own minds. As Professor Streusand has previously written,
"Classical texts speak only to, not for, contemporary Muslims."
It is also important to note that opposing jihad, a basic principle
of Islam, violates a classical text of our own. The United States
Constitution denies our government the ability to prohibit the free
exercise of religion; consequently, we should never use a term,
such as jihad, that misstates our current and historical position
Mujahid (plural mujahidin or mujahideen): one
who participates in jihad, and frequently translated in the American
media as "holy warrior." The use of this term designates
the activity of the enemy as jihad and thus legitimizes it. It was
quite proper for us to describe the warriors who resisted the Soviet
invasion of Afghanistan as mujahidin, many of whom are now our allies
in Afghanistan. To extend the term to our current enemies dishonors
our allies as well as authenticates our opponents as warriors for
Islam. Even to a Western audience it can lend a sense of nobility
to an otherwise ignoble enemy.
Caliphate (khlilafa): This term literally means
successor and came to refer to the successors of the Prophet Muhammad
as the political leaders of the Muslim community. Sunni Muslims
traditionally regard the era of the first four caliphs (632-661)
as an era of just rule. Accepting our enemies' description of their
goal as the restoration of a historical caliphate again validates
an aspect of their ideology. Al-Qa`ida's caliphate would not mean
the re-establishment of any historical regime; it would be a global
totalitarian state. Anyone who needs a preview of how such a state
would act merely has to review the conduct of the Taliban in Afghanistan
before September 11, 2001.
Allah: the word Allah in Arabic means the God,
nothing more, nothing less. It is not specifically Muslim; Arabic
speaking Christians and Jews also use it. In English, Allah should
be translated as God, not transliterated. While translation emphasizes
the common heritage of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (the three
faiths which identify their God as the God of Abraham) it does not
imply that the Abrahamic faiths share identical concepts of God.
Even though some Muslims use Allah rather than God in English, the
practice exaggerates the divisions among Judaism, Christianity and
What Are the Right Words for the Job?
Now that a few unsuitable word choices have
been addressed, it is time to begin to identify the proper expressions
to use whenever discussing the global Islamic totalitarian terrorist
movement. Many of these terms will be unfamiliar to Westerners,
but not to most Muslim audiences. Only those who actively, passively
or even unwittingly support al-Qa`ida's (and similar groups) professed
goals would find the terms, and their use by non-Muslims, offensive.
To refute challenges to the new context surrounding
these expressions, any user of these terms must be able to define
the words in order to defend their accuracy and the appropriateness
of their use. Otherwise anyone who dares to define the enemy using
its own Islamic language can be challenged by a variety of "pundits"
who still see the struggle in terms of religion or poverty rather
than political ideology; who despise Western society, capitalism
or democracy; or who oppose the war for any other reason.
Hirabah: this word, which is derived from the
Arabic root which refers to war or combat, means sinful warfare,
warfare contrary to Islamic law. There is ample legal justification
for applying this term to Islamic totalitarian terrorists and no
moral ambiguity in its connotation. We should describe the Islamic
totalitarian movement as the global hirabah, not the global jihad.4
Mufsid (moofsid): this word refers to an evil
or corrupt person; the plural is mufsidun. We call our enemies mufsidun,
not jihadis, for two reasons. Again, there is no moral ambiguity
and the specific denotation of corruption carries enormous weight
in most of the Islamic world.
Fitna/fattan: fitna literally means temptation
or trial, but has come to refer to discord and strife among Muslims;
a fattan is a tempter or subversive. Applying these terms to our
enemies and their works condemns their current activities as divisive
and harmful.5 It also identifies them
with movements and individuals in Islamic history with negative
reputations such as the assassins of the Caliph `Uthman in 656,
who created the first fissure in the political unity of the Muslim
Totalitarian: calling our enemies totalitarian
serves several purposes. There is no such thing as a benign totalitarianism.
Totalitarianism is a Western invention and it appeared in the Islamic
world as a result of Western influence (first fascist, then Marxist-
Leninist). It is also in direct contrast to the idea that the enemy
would actually establish a caliphate if they defeat the United States,
our allies and coalition partners.
Not the Last Word, Just the Beginning.
This essay is neither definitive nor complete.
It is only the beginning of a "primer" of the terminology
used to describe Islamic totalitarian movements. There should be
far more discussion about the right words to use to describe the
variety of threats posed by transnational terrorists-Islamic groups
and others. This article, we hope will help jumpstart the discourse.
Notwithstanding the fact that this article
is a small beginning, the terms proposed herein should become an
indispensable part of the vocabulary of America's leaders, reporters
and friends immediately. The wrong terms promote the idea that terrorist
elements represent legitimate Islamic concepts, which in turn might
aid in the enemy recruitment of disenfranchised Muslims because
we have identified to them a seemingly "traditional" outlet
through which they can voice their dissatisfaction. It is essential
to use the right language to address worldwide problems so that
various audiences-which include the American-Muslim community-understand
the full scope of the problem and are intellectually able to identify
with potential solutions that are reasonable and ethical.
This paper offers word choices not just for
public officials and correspondents but even students in the classroom
and others studying terrorism. In fact, anyone who is interested
in current events should have some familiarity with these words
as well as the concepts and new dialogue they represent. We must
use the right turn of phrase whenever attempting to inform and educate;
language is a key component for us to be able to, in a way that
makes sense to any audience, ask for assistance or demand action
that will help defeat the scourge of Islamic totalitarian terrorism.
1. National Commission on Terrorist
Attacks Upon the United States, The 9/11 Commission Report (New
York: W.W. Norton & Company, undated), 377.
2. The 9/11 Commission's
own report is guilty of this by using Jihad (and other variations
of the term such as Jihadists) throughout. Jihad, discussed more
in detail later, does not have a negative connotation for most Muslims-even
when combined with descriptions of terrorist purpose or action.
3. On this issue see
Daniel Pipes, "Is Allah God," FrontPageMagazine.com, June
28, 2005, at http://www.frontpagemag.com/Articles/ReadArticle.asp?ID=18577.
4. James Guirard of
the TrueSpeak Institute explains the reasons for using the term
hirabah rather than jihad in "Terrorism: Hirabah versus Jihad:
Rescuing Jihad from the al-Qaeda Blasphemy," American Muslim,
July-August, 2003 athttp://theamericanmuslim.org/2003
jul_comments.php?id=349_0_21_0_C. Guirard's approach underlies this
5. For example the leader of
al-Qa`ida in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, has stated that Shiites
are rafada or rejecters of Islam. The Salafist Sunni terrorist groups,
the most well-known of which is al- Qa`ida, do not recognize other
traditional Islamic sects as acceptable or Muslims. Use of rafada
is from Fouad Ajami, "Heart of Darkness," Wall Street
Journal, September 28, 2005, pg.16. As cited in the on-line version
of The Early Bird, https://www.us.army.mil/suite/earlybird/
sep2005/e20050928393978.html, accessed September 28, 2005. The al-Qa`ida
attack of civilian weddings at three hotels in Amman Jordan on November
9, 2005 is another case in point of terrorist attempts to promote
discord among Muslims. The attacks killed 57 people and wounded
115, the majority of whom were Jordanian and Palestinian. Direct
attacks by al-Qa`ida in Iraq against Shiite holy sites throughout
Iraq continue as of February 28, 2006.
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