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May 20, 2008

The War on (Euphemism)


by 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 "mujahedin," and in with "words that work," 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 U.S. National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), urges U.S. 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 Civilizations" or battle between "Islam and the West," a paradigm that casts Islam as inherently violent.

"A mujahed, a holy warrior, is a positive characterization 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 legitimizes their actions," according to the report. "We need to emphasize 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 to "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 U.S. 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 in English is often misunderstood to mean "books."

Talking tough on terror has been the main currency of the Republican Party and the main project of neoconservative 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 legitimize groups who share al-Qaeda's ideology.

The inspiration may have come from Bush confidante and hand-holder Karen Hughes, who acted as an advisor to the administration until she was appointed undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs, a position she left in November 2007.

Hughes had never been to the Middle East and had no expertise in the Muslim communities that were the main targets of the White House's public diplomacy goals. But her year-long effort to change the U.S. image abroad did yield the National Strategy for Public Diplomacy and Strategic Communication, a 34-page document that calls for the U.S. to mind its language.

"Avoid characterizing people of any faith as 'moderate' – this is a political word which, when extended to the world of faith, can imply these are less devout and faithful. The terms 'mainstream' or 'majority' are preferable," according to Hughes' report.

In the face of increased calls from analysts and officials within the intelligence community to focus on the very serious public diplomacy problem on its hands, the Bush administration appears to have taken Hughes' advice to heart.

The president has used the phrase "Islamic terrorist" only once since the beginning of 2007 and has buried the "Islamo-fascist" neologism embraced by right-leaning U.S. officials and terrorism analysts. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has also refrained from using the word "jihadi" in her public speeches since last September.

This January, the Pentagon decided to cut the contract of its "foremost" specialist on Islamic law and Islamic extremism, citing budgetary cuts, but Stephen Coughlin's supporters said the jihad maven was unjustly fired because his message was too politically hot.

The recent developments appear to have caused a split among Republicans on how to define terrorism, and the recent disclosure has ruffled the feathers of members on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Earlier this month, every Republican voted for an amendment to an intelligence bill that would ban the use of federal cash to produce documents that used the same terminology as the NCTC report. The amendment, authored by the panel's ranking Republican, Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, was defeated.

In response to the new NCTC recommendations, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich warned last Friday that the U.S. was crippled by "political correctness" as it tried to meet "the threats around the world."

"If we cannot have an honest discussion about the nature of the threats against us, we cannot develop strategies to meet those threats," he said. "It is simply suicidal to treat the al-Qaeda network as simply 'an illegitimate political organization,' both terrorist and 'criminal' while ignoring the radical religious foundation underpinning this and other groups that constitute an Irreconcilable Wing of Islam."

With the presidential election just beyond the horizon, it appears that Republican nominee John McCain will strive to create stark differences between himself and presumptive Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama. McCain pledges to continue waging war against "radical Islamic terrorism" and campaign aides say he won't back down from using the language, even though a recent Homeland Security report, which shares many of the same views as the NCTC, calls for just the opposite.

For U.S.-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, told IPS. "What terms are used and what not are a matter of debate. At least, we should all be thinking about this."

(Inter Press Service)

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  • Khody Akhavi writes for Inter Press Service.

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