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The Linguistic Front Of The War On Terror

In the global discussion about Islam, words matter. The US government apparently agrees, and has begun a review of some of the words that it had been using since 2001. The AP reports that "Federal agencies, including the State Department, … Read More

By / April 27, 2008

In the global discussion about Islam, words matter. The US government apparently agrees, and has begun a review of some of the words that it had been using since 2001. The AP reports that "Federal agencies, including the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the National Counter Terrorism Center, are telling their people not to describe Islamic extremists as 'jihadists' or 'mujahedeen.'" Bad news for fans of "Islamo-fascism": that's out, too.

According to the AP, the government has caught on to the fact that particular inflammatory terms "may actually boost support for radicals among Arab and Muslim audiences by giving them a veneer of religious credibility or by causing offense to moderates."

The decision seems to be a recognition and affirmation of the position on language of CENTCOM General Abizaid, who must have acquired his appreciation of how language affects diplomacy and relationships with Muslims during his time in Iraq. At a CSIS event last September, Abizaid said:

I mean, even adding the word Islamic extremism, or qualifying it to Sunni Islamic extremism, or qualifying it further to Sunni Islamic extermism as exemplified by government such as Bin Laden, all make it very, very difficult because the battle of words is meaningful, especially in the Middle East to people…[snip]…

The key is to figure out how we don't turn this into Samuel Huntington's Battle of Civilization's and we work toward an area where we respect mainstream Islam. There's nothing Islamic about Bin Laden's philosophy, there's nothing Islamic about suicide bombing. I believe that these are huge difficulties that we need to overcome, this notion of Christianity versus Islam. It's not that, it doesn't need to be that.

Abizaid is right, and so, in this case, is the Bush administration, whose decision is sound both politically and intellectually. It will go a long way towards warming up many of the Muslim moderates — even many in the US — who felt that the odd experiments with purposefully controversial language that the Bush administration was engaged in were detrimental to any foreign policy not aiming at antagonizing Muslims pointlessly.

It seems absurd on its face that for so long our government, which ostensibly seeks to advance a more secular worldview in the middle East, would have purposefully advanced terms that were chosen by and utilized by extreme religious fanatics. Ownership of language — what lawyers and PR people call "framing the issue" — is very important in adversarial confrontations about information (which the war on terrorism certainly is). With this decision the Bush administration is opening up the possibility of the US government devising a lexicon that allows it to evaluate terrorism, religious fanaticism, and Muslim violence on its own terms.

When the government plays fast and loose with language, the political ramifications can be severe, so the news that the Bush administration is finally adopting responsible linguistic principles guided by attention to the actual outcomes of policy, as opposed to various kinds of oneupsmanship in sanctimony, is welcome.

Having said that, we, average people, are not the government, and we ought to resist the impulse to standardize or check our use of language. Certainly we should try to employ language as accurately as possible and attend to important distinctions — for example, that between political theocrats and violent theocrats. By the same token, we should be clear in our definitions, avoid unnecessary hyperbole, and do our best not to use language illogically or ahistorically. But it would be futile to hope for a single lingua franca in discussions of terrorism, and would do little good to have one in the first place.

The fact is that the term "jihadism" has become part of the English language, just like "fatwa," "intifada," and "ayatollah." The term "Al-Qaeda" will always be associated with a conspiratorial movement engaged in violence, the same way we associate certain collectivist criminal characteristics with the Sicilian word "mafia." For the average Joe, these terms are useful means of conveying ideas, which is good enough reason to keep them around.

Perhaps most importantly of all, we should be vigilant in not allowing the government to dictate what is and is not acceptable when it comes to words. The fact that the world of 1984 and Newspeak is remote from our own isn't reason to ignore its warnings. Expressions like "un-good" and "double plus un-good" might seem unlikely to take purchase any time soon, but there is a long history of governmental and military euphemisms crowding out and eventually replacing equivalent, vivid ordinary language expressions, with the ultimate effect of making it far more difficult to talk about matters of war and peace, life and death, except in an abstract manner far removed from any actual lived experience.

Hence, at the same time we recognize that tactical and strategic imperatives obligate a responsible government to be judicious and frequently euphemistic in its use of language, that obligation on the part of the government clearly underscores our own obligation to defend and maintain our ordinary language, in all its varieties, vagaries, and vividness. A certain amount of vagueness, anachronism, regional variation, and even confusion, in addition to being a token of the health of a language, is also a vital bulwark against authoritarian politics.

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