Words Matter in the War on Terror

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 "jihad" trap. 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.