Loosely Interpreted Arabic Terms Can Promote Enemy Ideology
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
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.
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 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.
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.
Another word constantly misused in the West is mujahdeen. 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.
People can apply other words instead. "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," they wrote.