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Words Matter in the War on Terror

If we refuse to call terrorists by their proper name — "jihadists" — we will never defeat them. (Also read Phyllis Chesler: Extraordinary Activists Who Stood Against Radical Islam in Times Square.)

by
Raymond Ibrahim

Bio

May 4, 2009 - 12:35 am

Knowledge is inextricably linked to language. The less accurate words are, the less accurate the knowledge they impart; conversely, the more precise the language, the more precise the knowledge. In the war on terror, to acquire accurate knowledge — which is pivotal to victory — we need to begin with accurate language.

Would the free world have understood the Nazi threat if, instead of calling them what they called themselves, “Nazis,” it had opted to simply call them “extremists” — a word wholly overlooking the racist, expansionary, and supremacist elements that are part and parcel of the word “Nazi”?

Unfortunately, the U.S. government, apparently oblivious to this interconnection between language and knowledge, appears to be doing just that. Even President Obama alluded to this soon after taking office when he said, “Words matter in this situation because one of the ways we’re going to win this struggle [war on terror] is through the battle of [Muslims'] hearts and minds.”

According to an official memo, when talking about Islamists and their goals, analysts are to refrain from using Arabic words of Islamic significance (“mujahidin,” “salafi,” “ummah”); nor should they employ helpful English or anglicized words (“jihadi,” “Islamo-fascism,” “caliphate”). Instead, vague generics (“terrorists,” “extremists,” “totalitarians”) should suffice.

A renewed defense of this disturbing trend was recently published by one Colonel Jeffrey Vordermark and deserves examination. After suggesting that Americans “love to throw around foreign words,” Vordermark writes:

We have fallen into the “jihadtrap. The term is used in casual banter yet most remain clueless regarding its origin or meanings. We think, therefore we know. Pundits, academics, and laymen profess to know its meaning, and the term is daily news in the mouths of reporters and in the banners of headlines. Unfortunately, its very use assumes that Islam is simple and monolithic. … As a nation and society, we could not be more incorrect.

While lofty sounding, this view is riddled with problems. First, by seeking to excise the word “jihad” from public discourse, due to the erroneous notion that that term is apparently unknowable, this position is self-defeatist.

“Jihad” has a very precise, juristic definition; more to the point, Sunni Islam — which accounts for nearly 90% of the Islamic world — is, in fact, “simple and monolithic,” thanks to the totalitarian nature of Islamic law (Sharia), which categorizes all possible human actions as being either forbidden, discouraged, legitimate, recommended, or obligatory. Indeed, of the major religions of the world, none is perhaps so black and white, so clear cut as Islam, which meticulously delineates to Muslims the correct “way” of living (“way,” incidentally, being the literal definition of the word “Sharia”).

Thus to try to portray Islam and its institutions as somehow “otherworldly” and unfathomable — so let’s just not bother trying to understand in the first place — is not only folly, but precisely what the Islamists themselves most desire: to guard Islam’s more troubling doctrines, such as jihad, from infidel scrutiny.

Vordermark continues:

Historically the term [jihad] applied to the concept of either a “greater jihad,” or a “lesser jihad.” The former denoting the daily struggle of the believer to overcome “self” in the pursuit of Allah’s will, and the latter traditionally meaning defense of religion, family, or homeland [emphasis added].

Let’s for the time being overlook the hackneyed stress on the so-called greater-lesser jihad dichotomy — which, semantics and sophistry aside, does not invalidate the lesser jihad (i.e., armed warfare). The real problem here is that Vordermark’s assertion that the military “jihad” has been “traditionally” limited to “defensive warfare” is totally false.

Even so, Vordermark is to be excused; he warns us about accepting definitions of “jihad” from “pundits, academics, and laymen,” and surely his falls into this category. Thus let us dispense once and for all with infidel-based definitions — including my own — and see what Islam’s own most revered authorities have to say about what “jihad” really means:

First, it needs to be borne in mind that Sunni Islam is wholly dependent on the various rulings (ahkam) of the so-called four schools of jurisprudence (al-madhahib al-arba’). I am currently reading an Arabic manual called Al-Tarbiya al-Jihadiya fi Daw’ al-Kitab wa al-Sunna (“The Jihadi Upbringing in Light of the Koran and Sunna”), written by one Sheikh Abd al-Aziz bin Nasir al-Jalil. After closely examining the word “jihad,” he concludes that “jihad is when Muslims wage war on infidels, after having called on them to embrace Islam or at least pay tribute [jizya] and live in submission, and then they refuse.”

The book also contains terse summaries of the word “jihad” from each of the four schools of jurisprudence, which have the final say as to how Islam — or in this case, jihad — is articulated: According to the Hanafis, jihad is “extreme and strenuous warfare in the path of Allah, with one’s life, wealth, and tongue — a call to the true religion [Islam] and war to whoever refuses to accept it”; according to the Malikis, jihad is “when a Muslim fights an infidel in order that Allah’s word [Sharia] reigns supreme”; according to the Shafi’is, jihad is “fiercely fighting infidels”; and, according to the austere Hanbalis, it is “fighting infidels.” (Note: “infidels,” or kuffar, simply means non-Muslims.)

In short, the “traditional” meaning of jihad is offensive warfare to spread Islamic hegemony — period. This is doctrinally, textually, historically, and consensually demonstrable. At any rate, who probably better understands what jihad means, the non-Muslim Jeffrey Vordermark or the Muslim Abd al-Aziz bin Nasir al-Jalil? More to the point, whose definition will Muslims actually take seriously?

While the U.S. government is busy censoring itself, only the above “legal” definition of jihad provided in al-Jalil’s book carries any weight with Muslims — “radical-moderate” dichotomies not withstanding. And since that is the case, so too should it be the only definition that non-Muslims rely on in their formal analyses — that is, if they are ever permitted to incorporate words like “jihad” again.

But what is the point of all this equivocation? The government memo explains:

Never use the terms “jihadist” or “mujahideen” in conversation to describe the terrorists. A mujahed, a holy warrior, is a positive characterization in the context of a just war. In Arabic, jihad means “striving in the path of God” and is used in many contexts beyond warfare. Calling our enemies jihadis and their movement a global jihad unintentionally legitimizes their actions [emphasis added].

Aside from the fact that, once again, we are offered a false definition of jihad — the equivalent of the Christian notion of “just war,” which it is not — the apparently widespread assumption that the words we use can ever have an impact on what is and isn’t legitimate for Muslims and within an Islamic context is beyond ludicrous.

Muslims are not waiting around for Americans or their government — that is, the misguided, the deluded, in a word, the infidel — to define Islam for them; much less will subtle word games and euphemisms emanating from the West manage to confer or take away Islamic legitimacy on the Islamists of the world. For Muslims, only Islamic law, the antithesis of international law, decides what is or is not legitimate, or in legal terminology, what is mubah or mahrum.

Furthermore, the U.S. government would do well to worry less about which words appease Muslims — the memo also warns against “offending,” “insulting,” or being “confrontational” to Muslims — and worry more about providing its own citizenry with accurate and meaningful terminology.

Words matter. Whom 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 U.S. government is about to confer on any given Islamist group, since it is not for non-Muslims — the despised infidels — to decide what is and is not Islamic in the first place. Americans, on the other hand, who still wonder “why they hate us,” are in desperate need of understanding. Using accurate terminology is the first step.

Finally, as this article is dedicated to “words,” know that there is a reason that the words “knowledge” and “acknowledge” are etymologically related: without doing the latter — in this case, without acknowledging the true nature of the Islamist enemy and his goals — one can never possess the former: requisite knowledge for victory.

Raymond Ibrahim, a Middle East and Islam specialist, is author of Crucified Again: Exposing Islam’s New War on Christians (2013) and The Al Qaeda Reader (2007). His writings have appeared in a variety of media, including the Los Angeles Times, Washington Times, Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst, Middle East Quarterly, World Almanac of Islamism, and Chronicle of Higher Education; he has appeared on MSNBC, Fox News, C-SPAN, PBS, Reuters, Al-Jazeera, NPR, Blaze TV, and CBN. Ibrahim regularly speaks publicly, briefs governmental agencies, provides expert testimony for Islam-related lawsuits, and testifies before Congress. He is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center, an Associate Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a Media Fellow at the Hoover Institution, 2013. Ibrahim’s dual-background -- born and raised in the U.S. by Coptic Egyptian parents born and raised in the Middle East -- has provided him with unique advantages, from equal fluency in English and Arabic, to an equal understanding of the Western and Middle Eastern mindsets, positioning him to explain the latter to the former.
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