War of Words
by Stephen Schwartz
U.S. FEDERAL AGENCIES charged with high responsibilities in defending the nation have achieved new levels of semantic obsession, thinking that the goal of defeating Muslim terrorists is undermined by improper terminology. We have already suffered debates about "Islamofascism" and the nomenclature of "Wahhabism" versus "Salafism." But the most absurd such example so far appears in a guidance memorandum issued by the Department of Homeland Security, titled "Terminology to Define Terrorists: Recommendations from American Muslims." This compendium of politically correct vocabulary was developed in consultation "with a broad range of Muslim American community leaders and scholars," who, perhaps predictably, are left unnamed. In addition, also predictably, the memorandum is careful to note that "this memorandum does not state official Department of Homeland Security (DHS) policy."
DHS, in beginning the memo, states that "words matter." Well, who could deny that? But the importance of words is double-edged. Vague, accommodating, flattering, and ameliorative words tell our enemies that we are ignorant and weak. Clear, unflinching, accurate, and blunt words put our foes on notice that we know what is happening in the Muslim world, and are strong enough to act on our knowledge.
Further, knowledge counts more than words when dealing with Islam. Muslims know very well when their interlocutors are ignorant or unaware of realities in Muslim societies. And our most dedicated and shrewd opponents, whether in al Qaeda or in the hallucinating clique of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his satellites, understand that they can use our own ignorance against us.
DHS and its advisers will encourage our adversaries by making us look ignorant. We must, they say, "avoid helping the terrorists by inflating the religious bases and glamorous appeal of their ideology." By this logic, it seems that terrorists are recruited not by Muslim rhetorical claims that twist religious concepts to political ends, but by American advertising of the terrorist threat. Muslims know otherwise.
The department's memo, doubtless reflecting susceptibility to the ideological predispositions of its Muslim advisers, includes many absurd proposals. DHS informs its staff that "senior government officials and commentators in the mass media regularly indict all Muslims for the acts of a few." Since when do "senior government officials" share responsibility with media commentators for statements by the latter? The U.S. Constitution remains in force. Media statements, regardless of how distasteful or otherwise inappropriate they may be, are protected from censorship by DHS and other federal agencies. As for the allegation that "senior government officials" have "regularly indict(ed) all Muslims for the acts of a few," the only proper response is: nonsense. Not one member of the cabinet of President George W. Bush has ever suggested that the war on terror was anything other than a struggle against a small minority of Muslims. Bush himself repeatedly praises Islam as a great religion and condemns those who pervert it in the interest of political manipulation. Nobody in government has seriously suggested that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are being fought to eradicate the faith of Islam, and occasional obstreperous acts or remarks expressing such biases have typically been censured and otherwise punished.
The same DHS memorandum cheerfully recommends such positive actions as "President Bush's remarks while visiting a mosque in the days after 9/11." Here again, we detect the influence of the DHS's Muslim advisers. DHS officials seem unconcerned that on September 17, 2001, when President Bush stood up in a Washington mosque, Nihad Awad, national director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the premier organization in America's "Wahhabi lobby," stood beside him. In the same group was the president of the radical American Muslim Congress (AMC), Yahya Mossa Basha, a petitioner for aid from the Wahhabi clerics of Saudi Arabia. Also on hand were representatives of the Muslim Political Action Council (MPAC), whose co-founder, Salam al-Marayati, had gone on Los Angeles talk radio the afternoon of the Twin Towers and Pentagon attacks and immediately thrown suspicion for the atrocities on Israel.
Then come the first three DHS recommendations:
* "[The U.S. Government] should not feed the notion that America is engaged in a broad struggle against the so-called 'Muslim World.'"
* "Al-Qaeda may be spreading its influence, but the USG should not abet its franchising by making links when none exist."
* "The USG should avoid unintentionally portraying terrorists, who lack moral and religious legitimacy, as brave fighters, legitimate soldiers, or spokesmen for ordinary Muslims. Therefore, the experts counseled caution in using terms such as, 'jihadist,' 'Islamic terrorist,' 'Islamist,' and 'holy warrior' as grandiose descriptions."
The remainder of the memorandum consists of more complicated, and in some cases, more outrageous recommendations. But before examining them, let us analyze the above cited examples:
* Nobody in the U.S. government has suggested that any conflict is underway between America and the "Muslim World." As for the supposed dubiousness of the latter term, it is regularly employed by Muslims everywhere.
* Terrorists in Iraq adopted the name "Al-Qaeda in Iraq." The name was not bestowed on them by U.S. authorities or media, who were slow to identify a link between the Wahhabi radicals in Iraq and al Qaeda proper.
* Muslim media around the world, from Bosnia-Herzegovina to Borneo, refer to violent extremists as jihadists, Islamic terrorists, and Islamists, as well as "holy warriors" or mujahideen. Muslims are not morons. The use of these labels does not imply approval of their acts; indeed, for Muslims who reject jihad, they infer condemnation.
Put simply, the Muslim advisers of DHS seek to obfuscate the internal struggle among Muslims and to impose on U.S. representatives an ambivalent vocabulary that would indicate confusion and a surrender to lobbying pressure.
Oddly, the document itself stipulates, about "Islamism," that "experts we consulted did not criticize this usage based on accuracy; indeed, they acknowledged that academics and commentators, including some in the Arab and Muslim Worlds, regularly use 'Islamist' to describe people and movements. Nevertheless, they caution that it may not be strategic for USG officials to use the term because the general public, including overseas audiences, may not appreciate the academic distinction between Islamism and Islam."
Thus, the document presumes that not only most Muslims but most Americans are stupid. Yet if one may cite a useful precedent, nobody in the fabled 1960s thought that joining a "commune" made one a Soviet-style "Communist." Politics is the art of making distinctions, not confusing them, and most people possess an admirable capacity to do so.
In addition, the memorandum offers the smiley-face recommendation that the war on terror be renamed "A Global Struggle for Security and Progress." Once again, nobody denies the attractiveness of such a concept. But what does it mean? The same description may be offered for world trade agreements, diversified energy policies, campaigns against malaria, human rights protests, and just about anything else considered benevolent by someone, somewhere.
The memorandum also suggests eschewing the term "moderate" Muslim for "mainstream, ordinary, and traditional," on the grounds that "the term 'moderate' has become offensive to many Muslims, who believe that it refers to individuals who the USG prefers to deal with, and who are only marginally religious." This is another absurdity that contradicts widespread Muslim usage. The Prophet Muhammad himself said he wanted his followers to form a "community of moderation." In traditional Islam, "marginal" religious observance was considered no less legitimate than the exhibitionistic piety exhibited by Muslim radicals.
Finally and most offensively, the memorandum calls on U.S. officials to avoid identifying our struggle as an effort to defend "liberty" and, instead, to advocate "progress." Indeed, the memorandum phrases this argument in a manner that seems almost calculated to offend Americans as well as others who believe in freedom: "This struggle is for 'progress,' over which no nation has a monopoly. The experts we consulted debated the word 'liberty,' but rejected it because many around the world would discount the term as a buzzword for American hegemony." Well, too bad for them.
And now for some commonsense counter-recommendations. Let us struggle boldly for liberty, and not surrender to the buzzword "progress" which has an unpleasant legacy, since Communists in the mid-20th century appropriated the term. Let us believe, on the basis of overwhelming evidence, that many Muslims are happy to be described as moderate, and, like most Americans, believe in liberty. Let us continue to prosecute the war on terror, against jihadists and other Islamists, with particular energy against al Qaeda. And let us not forget that words do, indeed, matter, but only if they are used honestly and directly. And meanwhile, let the DHS find better Muslim advisers.
Related Topics: Terrorism, Wahhabism receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free center for islamic pluralism mailing list
© 2023 Center for Islamic Pluralism.
home | articles | announcements | spoken | wahhabiwatch | about us | cip in the media | reports
external articles | bookstore | mailing list | contact us | @twitter | iraqi daily al-sabah al-jadid