by Sheila Musaji
The U.S. Government recently issued a statement asking that government officials be cautious in their use of language as it may actually be against the interests of the U.S. to use terms that connect the religion of Islam with the acts of criminals. The governments suggests the use of more accurate and non-inflammatory language. A recent Homeland Security Report even sharply rebuked John McCain’s ‘Islamic Extremism’ rhetoric. Of course, Islamophobes like Robert Spencer and Hugh Fitzgerald don’t approve, but they also thought Islamo Fascism Awareness Week was a good idea.
The governments new awareness that words have meaning has been attacked as caving in to Muslim pressure by a number of groups and individuals who currently make a nice living defining Islam and Muslims. As an American Muslim who loves both Islam and America, I say “Thank God Someone Is Finally Listening to Us – Terrorism Is Not Jihad”. Perhaps now we can work together to combat the very real problem of extremism and terrorism.
When the media or individuals use Arabic terms such as jihad for acts of terrorism, or when they attach the word Islam in front of a word as in Islamo-fascism, Islamic terrorism, those words have an effect. They have an effect right here in America by linking the religion of Islam and terrorist acts in the mind of ordinary citizens. They have an effect on Muslims who are struggling to make clear to those Muslims who attempt to justify their crimes by some false interpretation of Islamic teachings that we do not accept their claims. They have an effect on Muslims worldwide who because of the use of language like Islamo-Fascist, have come to view the “war on terror” not as a war on al Qaeda, but as a war on Islam itself.
Criminal political movements like al-Qaeda who attempt to convince other Muslims that their actions are somehow “Islamic” attempt to call their terrorist acts Jihad, and when their false claims are echoed in the media in the West, that adds some legitimacy to their claims, at least for uneducated Muslims.
There have been lots of folks who have said that they have no problem with Islam, their problem is with Islamism or Islamists. This however is problematic even in the definition of the terms. The online dictionary and thesaurus gives the following definitions:
Dictionary: Islamism: 1. An Islamic revivalist movement, often characterized by moral conservatism, literalism, and the attempt to implement Islamic values in all spheres of life. 2. The religious faith, principles, or cause of Islam.
Thesaurus: 1. Islamist – a scholar who knowledgeable in Islamic studies bookman, scholar, scholarly person, student – a learned person (especially in the humanities); someone who by long study has gained mastery in one or more disciplines. 2. Islamist – an orthodox Muslim Islam, Muslimism – the civilization of Muslims collectively which is governed by the Muslim religion; “Islam is predominant in northern Africa, the Middle East, Pakistan, and Indonesia”
The truth is that when you add the word Islam in front of words like fascist, extremist, terrorist, etc. Or, when you allow criminals like Osama bin Laden or al Qaeda to redefine the words Jihad and Shahed, then you are giving the impression to all the millions of Muslims in the world that you think that OBL and al Qaeda are correct in their attempts to give an Islamic justification for their criminal actions. They are not correct. Terrorism is not Jihad, it is Hirabah. A martyr is a person who dies in the cause of God, most certainly not someone who dies committing an act of terrorism.
Terrorism is not a legitimate part of jihad according to traditional Islamic scholars, and mainstream Islamic scholars, and ordinary Muslims regularly attempt to point this out because they are aware that the only appeal to reason that might influence extremists who claim an Islamic justification in any way is the appeal to Islamic teachings.
If you must use an Arabic word, use the correct word HIRABAH which is the word that would correspond to these acts of terrorism. But, why use an Arabic word at all in English?
When Muslims have attempted to clarify the position of Islam, they have often been misunderstood. The following statement by Paul Barrett is typical of this deep misunderstanding of Islam and Muslims:
“But Hathout’s characterization of the attack also includes one of those troubling asterisks. When he says he reviles the 9/11 hijackers, he also tries to deny that they are Muslims. “If those people claim to be Muslims,” he says, “this is against every fiber in Islam.” In his circular reasoning, real Muslims can have no connection to terrorism because Islam forbids such violence. Ergo, Muslims didn’t carry out 9/11 since anyone who could do such a thing is not a real Muslim. This verbal feint could suggest evasiveness to some listeners.”
As a Muslim, I absolutely understand and agree with what Maher Hathout was attempting to express. Any person who could carry out the 9/11 terrorist act could not understand Islam, and no matter what distorted reasoning they followed to convince themselves that there was any possibility of justifying such an act, they were wrong. And, if there are any others out there who are following the same line of reasoning or attempting to convince others of that reasoning, they are wrong. Any extremist political ideology masquerading as Islamic is wrong and must be resisted by all Muslims.
The American Muslim has been publishing articles on this distinction between hirabah and jihad for many years, and will hopefully publish many more. After 9/11 American Muslims were forced to come to terms with the fact that there were some people who also considered themselves Muslims whose view of what it means to be a Muslim and to follow Islam was completely unrecognizable and abhorrent to us. It was a shock to hear those people use words that hold deep spiritual meaning and beauty for us in a way that turned the meanings of those words on their heads. We must counter this false message and find ways to reach those who have been brainwashed into believing that there is any validity in this false understanding preached by groups such as al Qaeda.
UPDATE April 30, 2008
In 2008, the U.S. State Department approved new counterterrorism lexicon for diplomats. The report, “Words that Work and Words that Don’t: A Guide for Counterterrorism Communication,” offers specific directives, such as: don’t use terms such as “jihadist” or “holy warrior” because it legitimizes bin Laden’s followers, but also don’t use terms such as “Islamo-fascism,” which offends everyone else by associating Islam with fascism. You can view the full report here. UPI reports “Urging officials not to use the word Islam in conjunction with terrorism, the guide notes that, “Although the al-Qaida network exploits religious sentiments and tries to use religion to justify its actions, we should treat it as an illegitimate political organization, both terrorist and criminal.” Instead of calling terror groups Muslim or Islamic, the guide suggests using words like totalitarian, terrorist or violent extremist—“widely understood terms that define our enemies appropriately and simultaneously deny them any level of legitimacy.”
A report entitled TERMINOLOGY TO DEFINE THE TERRORISTS: RECOMMENDATIONS FROM AMERICAN MUSLIMS was considered by the State Department in preparing their report. The PDF of this document can be read here. From the conclusion of this report: “Words matter. The terminology the USG uses should convey the magnitude of the threat we face, but also avoid inflating the religious bases and glamorous appeal of the extremists’ ideology. Instead, USG terminology should depict the terrorists as the dangerous cult leaders they are. They have no honor, they have no dignity, and they offer no answers. While acknowledging that they have the capacity to destroy, we should constantly emphasize that they cannot build societies, and do not provide solutions to the problems people across the globe face.”
UPDATE April 2010
According to news reports Obama has ordered a revision of America’s National Security Strategy with the aim to remove terms that link Islam to terrorism. ABC News reports that the final report on the new strategy won’t be issued for at least another month. It seems as if this new initiative depends heavily on the original 2008 recommendations. It remains to be seen whether or not it will be implemented. TAM’s collection of alarming statements shows that a lot of people have not taken this seriously since the original 2008 recommendations. And, since this new report came out, Senator Lieberman (chairman of the Homeland Security Committee) has called dropping ‘Islamic extremism’ term ‘Orwellian and counterproductive’
The Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) today sent a letter to Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT) challenging the congressman’s argument in his Wall Street Journal op-ed “Who’s the Enemy in the War on Terror?” that religious labels are a important component of identifying and defeating our enemies.
In his op-ed published this week, Senator Lieberman argues that the recent National Security Strategy put forth by the Obama administration “refuses to identify our enemy in this war as what it is: violent Islamist extremism.” He goes on to give a number of arguments for why it is important to identify the violent perpetrators as Muslims and Islamists.
In the letter to Sen. Lieberman, MPAC President Salam Al-Marayati underscores how dropping the religious labels and associations for Al-Qaeda and its affiliates is a crucial step in delegitimizing their self-proclaimed religious authority to Muslims worldwide. The letter, reads in part:
[Dropping religious labels] denies Al-Qaeda and its affiliates the religious legitimacy they severely lack and so desperately seek. For years, Muslim public opinion has decisively turned against Bin Ladin, Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups because of the immoral, unethical and gruesome tactics they employ and because the vast majority of their victims have been other Muslims.
As you mention in your op-ed, one of our strategic goals should be to empower the authentic and mainstream Muslim voices that are working on a daily basis to counter the cult of death, which groups such as Al-Qaeda call to. By removing religious labels from describing the terrorists, we empower and embolden those mainstream voices and deny the terrorists from making a religious claim. This is precisely why in 2008 a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) internal memo circulated amongst government agencies directed government officials and diplomatic staff to consider the implications of using “Islamic” language when discussing terrorism-related issues.
“It is important to note that both the Bush and Obama administrations have made similar recommendations when dealing with violent extremism,” said MPAC’s Director of the Washington DC office Haris Tarin. “Muslim communities worldwide understand the nature of this threat and do not need government agencies using terminology that will further alienate the voices of the mainstream.”
The success of our nation and our community’s effort to marginalize the voices of extremism will require allies within Muslim communities. Using religious labels will give more authenticity to the cult of death that groups like Al-Qaeda call to and will cast a shadow of doubt on entire community in our own backyard.
(www.theamericanmuslim.org / 28.08.2011)