The terminology we use to describe our enemy in the war on terror matters a lot. A spirited debate is underway among specialists and in the press.
An op-ed published Monday in the New York Times entitled "What do you call a Terror(Jihad)ist?", by P.W. Singer and Elina Noor, attempts to defend the recent State Department memo advising government personal to refrain from using theologically-laden terms-"jihadi," "mujahidin," "caliphate," "Islamo-fascism," "salafi," "wahhabi," "ummah"-when describing Islamic radicals and their motives. Instead, generics-"terrorists," "extremists"-should suffice.
The article begins by making a highly flawed analogy. It suggests that when a U.S. president labels al-Qaeda-type radicals "jihadists," that that is akin to referring to Adolf Hitler as "the leader of the National Socialist Aryan patriots." Aside from the need for labeling Hitler and his party as evil, surely such a title was not completely inappropriate when referring to Hitler. (In the next paragraph, the authors themselves relent, using the word "Nazi," an acronym for National Socialist.)
How about the fact that Hitler subscribed to a racist ideology? That fact was hardly taboo to discuss or censored from American discourse. Should we today insist that he killed six million Jews simply because he was an "evil man," without ever once indicating the racial ideology that motivated him?
These questions better reveal the true parallel between Nazi and Islamic fascism, as they both share one common denominator: radical ideology, one unforgiving of the "other," be he infidel or racial inferior. The word "jihadi" is suggestive of ideology no less than "Nazi"; and, just as the latter connotes many intolerant aspects, so too does the Arabic word "jihadi" -- which is precisely why it should not be dropped from the lexicon: it offers precision and context.
Next, the article offers us the same tired hackneyed interpretation of jihad (in a tone suggesting that the matter is closed): "The term has long been taken to mean either a quest to find one's faith or an external fight for justice."
This is totally unsatisfactory. Yes, self-professed Suffis (who make up perhaps 5% of the Islamic world) believe that the "greater jihad" is a struggle against the self. As for "an external fight for justice," that is absolutely correct; however, Islamic "justice" is antithetical to 21st century liberal justice. Thus jihad, according to every authoritative Islamic book of exegesis is nothing less than offensive warfare in order to spread sharia law - "Islamic justice" -- around the globe.
The article further insists that we not bring theology into the mix, which is the main reason we are exhorted to not invoke these theologically-laden Arabic terms. According to the article, by using words such as "jihadi" we make it an "existential battle between Islam and the West. The terms of discussion are no longer about the murder of innocents in terrorist acts; they are about theology."
But what alternative is left us? By not bringing theology into the discourse, how can we ever hope to understand what motivates the Islamists? Indeed, to ignore theology, is in many ways to exonerate the murder of innocents -- precisely what the article claims to be guarding against. We are always left with the "Why?" -- why did al-Qaeda strike on 9/11? There are only two answers: religion (ideology) or retaliation (political grievances). If we omit theology entirely, it is then that we fall directly into the Islamist trap, which is to believe that their animus is a product of grievances and frustration at our foreign policies. We become the aggressors, they the victims fighting back any which way they can, and the innocents become mere collateral damage.
In fact the "extremists" -- to rely on the vague lexicon of the NYT op-ed (for all we know it may be talking about a heavy metal band) -- do not want us to understand the context, the ideological background, but rather to fall for the default alternative, that it is somehow "our" fault.
As someone well acquainted with al-Qaeda's writings and communiqués (see The Al Qaeda Reader), I can confidently state that their messages to the West are markedly different from their messages to fellow Muslims. To Americans, al-Qaeda, just as the U.S. memo recommends, rarely evokes Islamic theology; instead, the discourse is entirely about the Muslim world's political grievances at the hands of the West. Their more clandestine writings to Muslims, conversely, rarely revolve around political grievances, but instead are grounded in Islamic theology and law, and stress how Muslims are commanded to have antipathy for infidels and to constantly be in a state of war with them. Even the 9/11 strikes are justified through the strict rules of Islamic jurisprudence.
The NYT article suggests that,
"If we want to say what we mean, what terms better describe [al] 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."
Now, as a native Arabic speaker, I regret to say that usage of these terms -- that is, Americans trying to be at once politically-correct and descriptive, in, of all languages, Arabic -- is, alas, somewhat comedic. I further suspect that Arabs, especially al-Qaeda types, would find it hilarious and consistent with their interpretations of wishy-washy Americans, who go to great lengths to learn a language only to censor themselves and compromise their precision in that same language, all so they can appear the "nice guy."
Which leads to a final point: Arabs and Muslims are not waiting around for Americans or their government -- that is, infidels -- to define Islam for them, much less to confer Islamic legitimacy or condemnation on al-Qaeda through the use of subtle word-games. Calling this or that a "hirabi" or "jihadi" is not about to make any great impression on them, since only an authoritative Islamic entity (e.g., Cairo's al-Azhar university) is qualified to determine such matters. Thus the US government would do well to worry less about which words will better humor the Arab/Muslim world, and worry more about providing its citizenry with accurate and meaningful terminology.
Ironically, those Muslims and Arabs who do embrace moderate Islam agree. In an article entitled "Call radical Islam by its name" appearing in the NY Daily News recently, former jihadist turned reformer Tawfik Hamid, onetime protégé of Ayman Zawahiri, writes the following:
The real way to strengthen moderate Muslims in their fight against the radicals is to spotlight radical teachings and flush out those who believe in them. ....This is especially true in war: define your enemy correctly, and you will rally legitimate allies to your side. Blur what a battle is about and, stuck in the muddle, you are bound to lose.... Calling angina a "common cold" does not change its nature. It only prevents us from taking the necessary steps in treating it, which will only lead to further sickness, and possibly death. Playing word games with jihadists is not only meaningless, but plays right into the hands of the radical Muslim terrorists-who, to be defeated, must first be called by their true name.
In short, yes, words do matter. Who those words are directed at matters even more. The world's Muslims aren't holding their breath to hear what sort of Islamic legitimacy the US government is about to confer on al-Qaeda, since it is not for non-Muslims to decide what is and is not Islamic in the first place. Americans, on the other hand, who are still asking "why do they hate us," are in desperate need of understanding. Using accurate terminology is the first step.