TOPICS: War of words on terror

Khody Akhavi

From the people who brought you the “war on terror” and the “axis of evil” comes a new verbal tonic for combating that amorphous emotion. Out with pejoratives like “Islamo-fascists”, “jihadis” and “mujahadeen”, and in with “words that work”, that is according to a George W. Bush administration memo that was leaked last month to the Associated Press. The non-binding 14-point guide on counterterrorism communication, prepared by the US National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), urges US officials to drop language and terminology that may offend Arab and Muslim communities, to use terms such as “violent extremist” or “terrorist” instead of “jihadi”, and to shift the discussion away from the dualistic “Clash of Civilisations” or battle between “Islam and the West”, a paradigm that casts Islam as inherently violent.

“A mujahed, a holy warrior, is a positive characterisation 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 legitimises their actions,” according to the report. “We need to emphasise that terrorists misuse religion as a political tool to harm innocent civilians across the globe.”

Others points suggest using the word “totalitarian to describe our enemy” because, according to the report, the term is widely understood in the Muslim world. Keep the focus on the terrorist, not us, it says, and don’t ascribe “Al Qaeda and its affiliates motives or goals they have not articulated. Our audiences have more familiarity with the terrorist messages than we do and will immediately spot US government embellishment.”Lastly, “Try to limit the number of non-English terms you use if you are speaking in English,” because “it’s not what you say, but what they hear.” In other words, mispronunciation could make a statement incomprehensible, such as in the example of “Qutbism”, which refers to author Sayyid Qutb, a Muslim Brotherhood member during the mid-1950s who penned the controversial book,

“Milestones”, and whose ideas would inspire Al Qaeda. The word Qutb is mispronounced to mean “books”.

Talking tough on terror has been the main currency of the Republican Party, and the main project of neo-conservative pundits in Washington. But in the aftermath of the Bush administration’s failed Middle East policy, many officials, including the bullhorn-in-chief himself, have pushed to reform the public diplomacy machinery, and to correct the rhetorical missteps that unintentionally serve to legitimise groups sharing Al Qaeda’s ideology.

For US-based Muslim advocacy groups, de-linking religious identity from the slippery slope of terror talk is a welcome change. “It is a good step that they at least take these terms into consideration,” Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on Islamic American Relations, said. “What terms are used and what not are a matter of debate. At least, we should all be thinking about this.”