Words Do Matter!
Posted May 11, 2008

Words Do Matter

by Dr. Hesham A. Hassaballa

In the Name of God, the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate

Finally, the Bush Administration is realizing the truth of what Muslims have been saying all along: that words do matter in the war on terrorism, and that some of the terms it had used in the past proved counterproductive.

In a memo obtained by the Associated Press, federal agencies are telling U.S. officials to avoid using terms such as “jihadists,” “mujahideen,” “Islamo-facists,” or “jihadis.” Rather, officials should use “terrorist” or “violent extremist.” The reason being that using terms such as “jihadist” may be “unintentionally portraying terrorists, who lack moral and religious legitimacy, as brave fighters, legitimate soldiers or spokesmen for ordinary Muslims.” The memo is entitled, “Terminology to Define the Terrorists: Recommendations from American Muslims.” Another document says that when Al Qaeda speaks, “We should offer only minimal, if any, response to their messages. When we respond loudly, we raise their prestige in the Muslim world.”

The Right, of course, dismisses this as political correctness gone wild. In an editorial, the Investors Business Daily notes:

“Our war on radical Islam has been hamstrung by political correctness from the start. First, we couldn’t call the campaign to strike back at al-Qaida a “crusade” because Muslims found it historically offensive.

Then we couldn’t define the enemy as “Islamic terrorists” because it insulted Islam — even though it accurately described the Muslims committing murder and mayhem in the name of Islam.

To appease critics, we narrowed the terminology, confining it to the jihadist element within Islam. And so officials in recent years have frequently referred to “jihad” or “jihadists” in public.

Only now they can’t describe terrorists as “jihadists,” either, because Muslim leaders complain that it, too, gives Islam a bad name. But jihad, or holy war, is a central tenet of the faith. In fact, jihad is often referred to as the “sixth pillar of Islam.”

Even “mujahedeen,” or Islamic freedom fighter, is a no-no in the new watered-down Washington lexicon. And “Islamofascism” is definitely out.

All this is in a memo circulating among federal agencies…”

They deride such reasoning in the memo and conclude by saying, “Words matter in war, especially how we define our foe. We can’t defeat Islamofascists if we don’t understand their motivations.”

Other critics of Islam similarly attack the new memo’s recommendations.

Yet, the memo is absolutely right on the mark, and it is a shame it took the Bush Administration so long to figure this out. Words matter, and they have a context. “Jihad” in the West has one meaning; in the East, it means something completely different. The same is true with other terms such as “jihadi” or “mujahideen.” The memo says, “We are communicating with, not confronting, our audiences. Don’t insult or confuse them with pejorative terms such as ‘Islamo-fascism,’ which is considered offensive by many Muslims.” In another document, it says, “It’s not what you say but what they hear.” How true, and it is about time we take this reality to heart.

Now, the critics bemoan this as “caving to Muslim pressure groups.” This is not the case. The Bush Administration’s new approach reflects the beginnings of a sophistication to its waging of the war on terror, especially on the “hearts and minds” front. Such an approach should not be condemned, but commended. The Bush Administration realized that using terms as “Islamo-fascists” did more harm than good, even though it made the Right happy.

By continuing to use offensive and (truly inaccurate) terms such as “Islamo-fascists” or “Islamic terrorism,” it sends the message that America is really at war with Islam, that America has no respect or regard for Islam as a respected faith tradition. This is precisely the wrong message to send, and it is the exact claim the fanatics are trying to make. Moreover, these murderers are trying to convince the larger Muslim world that they are indeed “holy warriors,” true “defenders of the faith.” They believe this falsehood to be true. When we call them “mujahideen,” we are re-enforcing their fallacious claim. We should not “take the bait,” as the memo exhorts U.S. officials to do.

Calling our terrorist enemies “Islamo-fascists” or “Islamic terrorists” may make the Right smile, but it has proven to be enormously harmful to our efforts. I am glad the Bush Administration has realized this, and I am gratified to know that, in this case, the Bush Administration finally sees that the Right was clearly wrong.

Visit Dr. Hassaballa’s site at http://godfaithpen.blogspot.com/