Language and extremism: You say jihadi, I say extremist

Let’s call the whole thing off

Since September 11, 2001, the war against terrorism has been waged on two fronts – a military one in Iraq and Afghanistan (look, more terrorists!), and a semantic one between governments, extremists, mainstream Muslims, and the media. The use of language on all sides simultaneously confuses, enlightens, and motivates foot soldiers in the battle. Control of the use of language – particularly the definitions that stick – can either be the key to influencing scores of people or an inconsequential exercise in vanity. In this “war on terror,” it seems that people are as fixated with the terminology as they are with the tactics.

Bush administration officials, while taking care to emphasize that mainstream Muslims do not subscribe to terror, have tended to use terminology that emphasizes religious (as opposed to political) motivations for terrorists. However, mainstream Muslims and other administration critics have countered that this policy empowers those who feel that Islam sanctions violence while dismissing the vast majority of Muslims whose practice of their faith is entirely peaceful. This tug-of-war has gone on ever since.

But last year, the Department of Homeland Security and its secretary, Michael Chertoff, worked on a memorandum that advised US government officials to play down explicit links between Islam and terrorism. The memo, entitled Terminology to Define the Terrorists: Recommendations from American Muslims and leaked late last month, emphasised that “words matter” when it comes to winning the “hearts and minds” of mainstream Muslims needed to combat Muslim extremists from within their ranks.

Among its sensible recommendations were to avoid labelling all Islamic exploitation as “al-Qaeda,” denying terrorists religious legitimacy by stripping them of religious descriptors, and re-casting the “war on terror” as a movement for global security that includes all peace-loving peoples, Muslim or not. The DHS memoradum follows a similar British policy change that called on avoiding “aggressive rhetoric” in order to “avoid implying that specific communities are to blame.”

Central to both these initiatives is an recognition that mainstream (née moderate) Muslims are key to the solution when Islam is used to justify terrorism. For them, there is nothing wrong with describing terrorists in brutally honest terms – murderers and (the preferred term) extremists. But proponents of emphasizing Islamic terminology like to argue that the religious connection is necessary to define the enemy. For these people and their challenge to Islamically-motivated terrorism (rightly or wrongly, there is such a thing), the Islamic aspect is all that matters. In reality, the social and geopolitical causes behind terror supercede any pan-Islamic motivation. Islam, in these cases, is used as a convenient vehicle to drive home a larger point.

Take the word jihad, for example. On the one hand, such terminology is used explicitly by those Muslims who engage in terrorism, from 9/11, 7/7, and beyond. At the same time, mainstream Muslims in domestic anti-extremist movements in Morocco, Turkey, and Pakistan use terms like jihadist because in those Muslim-majority countries, there is a common peaceful understanding of the concept of jihad. Terrorists can derisively be called jihadists without the foreign policy baggage that Western governments would add. Context, here, is everything.

In the West, the common definition used by mainstream Muslims – a “struggle for good” – is mocked by those who only hear directives from shadowy groups targeting Western interests or Muslims with sectarian differences. Muslims should understand that when Islamic terminology is used by those engaging in terrorism, there are good reasons for non-Muslims to be skeptical. Directing a recontextualisation of the words to these critics is one thing. Directing it to the Muslims butchering innocents is another.

What should concern people the most, however, is that this struggle for language between non-Muslims and Muslims, the mainstream and the extremists, has an end game. For critics, control of Islamic terminology is meant to inextricably link “true” Islam to a tendency towards violence and subjugation of non-Muslims. Taken to its logical conclusion, this reasoning can only lead to two courses of action – that over a billion Muslims are forced to recognise this inherent nature in Islam (through hostile persuasion) and reject it or, failing that, purge Islam from non-Muslim societies and perpetually subjugate Muslim societies abroad diplomatically or militarily.

For Muslim extremists who cloak themselves in Islamic terminology, the end game is no better. Mainstream Muslims are told that their understanding of jihad is flawed and that true Muslims should join in the slaughter. Failure to do so renders them suitable for targeting alongside their non-Muslim brethren.

Fortunately, the pragmatic wings of Muslim societies and Western governments are showing no desire to go down these paths. Given these choices, it is not surprising that the proponents of these views have been effectively shut out from both government policy making and from mainstream Muslim circles.

The DHS memo, like the British one before it, shows that both governments are realising that their Muslim populations must be free to prove the bin Ladens, along with their curiously agreeable amen corner of Islam critics, wrong. For them, it is a matter of efficiency. Western governments make awkward and unwilling theologians. It is better for them to define terrorism in universal terms of right and wrong and allow mainstream Muslims to prove that Islam falls on the right side of the equation. In the global struggle over language, religion, and justice, no one else can do it for them.

(Left photo: Danny Hammontree via flickr under a Creative Commons license)

Zahed Amanullah is associate editor of He is based in London, England.

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