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.
The third domino fell when Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi voiced an undeniable truth. “We must be aware of the superiority of our civilization,” he stated on September 26, 2001, “a system that has guaranteed well-being, respect for human rights, and — in contrast with Islamic countries — respect for religious and political rights, a system that has as its value understanding of diversity and tolerance.” Criticism rained down on him for daring to assert that nations which uphold basic freedoms are preferable to those which do not. Soon an emasculated Berlusconi was testifying to his “deep respect” for the “great” religion of Islam — and a promising opportunity to define the ideological parameters of the war had been lost.
Seven years on, those seeds — watered by Western leaders’ intermittent praise of the “religion of peace and love” — have matured into a thicket of government policies and “suggestions” designed to remove Islam from official discourse.
British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has come to epitomize this newspeak, declaring in January 2008 that terrorism would henceforth be known as “anti-Islamic activity,” since “there is nothing Islamic about the wish to terrorize” — jihadists’ claims to the contrary. The Home Office soon confirmed that phrases like “Islamic extremism” had been jettisoned due to fears that they inflame Muslims. Previously the Foreign Office had asked ministers to stop alluding to the “war on terror” for the same reason. Yet if terrorism is “anti-Islamic activity,” would not the “war on terror” be pro-Islamic?
To keep everybody on message — and away from Islam — Smith’s Home Office assembled a phrasebook that, according to the Guardian, “tells civil servants not to use terms such as ‘Islamist extremism’ or ‘jihadi-fundamentalist,’ but instead to refer to violent extremism and criminal murderers or thugs.” The European Union has instituted similar guidelines, instructing government spokesmen to utilize “non-offensive” phrases when making statements and to avoid “jihad” or “Islamic.”
The language police have infiltrated key U.S. agencies as well. “Terminology to Define the Terrorists: Recommendations from American Muslims,” a January 2008 Department of Homeland Security paper, begins by professing that the government’s words “must accurately identify the nature of the challenges that face our generation.” But then it proceeds to do just the opposite, urging “caution in using terms such as ‘jihadist,’ ‘Islamic terrorist,’ ‘Islamist,’ and ‘holy warrior,’” based on the assumption that such words help legitimize radicals and offend moderates. By the way, “moderate Muslim” is out too. DHS has refused to reveal which “influential Muslim Americans” — “moderate” or otherwise — were consulted for the project.
The National Counterterrorism Center soon developed a follow-up document, “Words That Work and Words That Don’t: A Guide for Counterterrorism Communication,” advising on how to “describe terrorists who invoke Islamic theology.” Bullet points such as “Don’t Invoke Islam” and “Don’t Harp on Muslim Identity” make it clear that religion is to be swept under the rug. The recommendations have been adopted by the State Department and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has led by example, eliminating references to jihad from her public comments.
It is not just words intended for mass consumption that have been suppressed. The case of Major Stephen Coughlin demonstrates how political correctness threatens to disarm policymakers behind closed doors. In early 2008, Coughlin, an expert on jihad warfare, was released from his post with the Joint Staff after feuding with a Muslim official who, as Bill Gertz reported, had wanted him “to take a softer line on Islam and Islamic law elements that promote extremism.” Central to the dispute was Coughlin’s weighty thesis, “To Our Great Detriment”: Ignoring What Extremists Say About Jihad, which contends that “we do not understand the Islamic components” of the present conflict — a situation that many inside and outside of government work to perpetuate.
There are, however, hints that a backlash is brewing. A recent study by the Inspectorate of Constabulary and Audit Commission finds that the ambiguous terminology favored by the British Home Office is hampering efforts to fight domestic radicalization. “Switching language … causes confusion,” one local council head bemoans in the document. Another suggests that the guidelines have led people to say nothing because they are “worried about saying the wrong thing” and being called “racist.” Instead, many officials express “a preference for plain speaking so that issues could be dealt with openly rather than being avoided or disguised as something else.”
In addition, a U.S. Central Command “red team” has produced “Freedom of Speech in Jihad Analysis: Debunking the Myth of Offensive Words,” a report that questions policies aimed at downplaying connections between Islam and terrorism. “While there is concern that we not label all Muslims as Islamist terrorists,” it argues, “it is proper to address certain aspects of violence as uniquely Islamic. … The fact is our enemies cite the sources of Islam as the foundation of their global jihad. We are left with the responsibility of portraying our enemies in an honest and accurate fashion.”
President-elect Obama would be wise to build on this momentum. First, he should order a top-down review of the language that government agencies employ to describe Islamists and the war they wage on the West. Second, in a nod to critics of the Homeland Security document, he should pledge greater transparency with regard to the individuals and organizations invited to help shape the lexicon.
Confucius warned that “if language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone.” There is much that remains undone in the struggle against Islamism, both violent and nonviolent. The West cannot afford to compound these challenges by labeling them imprecisely.