When President Roosevelt addressed Congress after Pearl Harbor, he cited Japan fifteen times in a speech of five hundred words. When President Bush did the same after 9/11, he uttered “Islam” or “Muslim” more sparingly — just eleven times in a speech of three thousand words. And when Senators Obama and McCain spoke at the respective conventions and debates, asking to be entrusted with America’s security, not a single reference to Islam could be found.
“Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about,” noted linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf. Based on the language used by Western governments, one must conclude that they do not want anybody thinking about the fundamental role that Islam plays in the conflict with Muslim radicals. If this self-imposed straitjacket hinders discussion of a foe that wishes to subjugate the world under Sharia law, then we have little chance of knowing him. And as Sun Tzu observed, only by knowing the enemy can he be defeated.
The seeds of this silence were planted even while rescue teams picked through the smoldering wreckage of Ground Zero. Given the intensity of those weeks, it is no surprise that words and actions would set the tone for years to come. More often than not, however, the wrong words were spoken, the wrong actions were undertaken, and the wrong tone was set. Three events in particular stand out.
First, there was the aforementioned September 20, 2001, speech to Congress. By reiterating the “war on terror” phraseology that he had introduced on the day of the attacks, Bush defined the conflict in terms of a tactic (terrorism) rather than a strategic enemy (radical Islam). Moreover, of the references to Muslims and their faith, many sought to convince Americans that there was but a tenuous link between Islam and 9/11. His claim that “the terrorists practice a fringe form of Islamic extremism that has been rejected by Muslim scholars and the vast majority of Muslim clerics” remains an egregious example of happy talk displacing reality.
The second sign arrived days later when Operation Infinite Justice became Operation Enduring Freedom. Connecting the change to fallout from Bush’s hastily retracted “crusade” remark, the BBC reported that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld “said the administration had quickly reconsidered the original name because, in the Islamic faith, such finality is considered something provided only by God.” While the initial title of the military response to 9/11 was less than inspiring, its modification foreshadowed how Muslim sensibilities, both real and imagined, would wield veto power over language at the highest of levels.