'Softer speak' in the war on terror

Hiding the language and ideological justification used by terrorists is misguided at best.

Gaza terrorist 298 AP (photo credit: AP)
Gaza terrorist 298 AP
(photo credit: AP)
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is refusing to identify the "influential Muslim Americans" and "leading US-based scholars and commentators on Islam" who met with Secretary Michael Chertoff to help shape a softer approach to government lexicon about terrorists and theirideological motivations. "Our policy is we don't comment on the Secretary's private schedule," spokeswoman Amy Kudwa told the IPT (Investigative Project on Terrorism). Nor would she identify any of the participants' organizational affiliation. DHS and the State Department's Counterterrorism Communications Center each issued reports urging government employees to avoid words like "jihad," "mujahedeen" or any reference to Islam or Muslims, especially in relation to al-Qaida. The IPT is making the documents available for the first time at its Website. As we reported last week, the memos say a change in language from the US government is needed to win the hearts and minds of moderate Muslims and avoid glamorizing terrorists motivated by religious ideology. "Moderate" is also frowned upon in the memos, though, with "mainstream" or "traditional" suggested as replacements. Among the recommendations not reported previously: 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. The fact is that Islam and secular democracy are fully compatible - in fact, they can make each other stronger. Senior officials should emphasize that fact. The USG [US government] should draw the conflict lines not between Islam and the West, but between a dangerous, cult-like network of terrorists and everyone who is in support of global security and progress. So America, after serving for more than two centuries as the sanctuary for huddled masses yearning to breathe free, is being asked to minimize liberty against fanatics bent on a global religious state. The memo doesn't offer examples to show where Islam and secular democracy have reinforced each other, or explain how Shari'a law, the imposition of religion into state affairs, is "fully compatible" with secular democracy. It is no surprise, however, to see the changes praised by the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC): MPAC has long promoted a nuanced approach towards the lexicon of terrorism emanating from the United States government and media. It is essential that various elements of the government recognize the importance of decoupling Islam with terrorism. Furthermore, using Islamic language to describe terrorists falsely bolsters their religious credibility among the very people we most need - the majority of mainstream Muslims around the world. The memorandum described by the Associated Press reportedly also draws heavily on a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) report that examined the way American Muslims reacted to different phrases used by US officials to describe terrorists, and recommended ways to improve the message. Through its regular government engagement with government agencies including DHS, MPAC has repeatedly addressed the importance of refraining from ideologically based language that mischaracterizes the Muslim community domestically and abroad. The fact that the government agencies are implementing such recommendations in their communications is a victory for constructive engagement with the Muslim American community. Implementing the recommendations, as they are described in media reports would serve as a powerful tool in isolating the terrorists. In other writings, MPAC's more nuanced approach involves accepting, not isolating, terrorists. It repeatedly has lobbied to remove Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hizbullah from the US list of designated terrorist groups. Its 2003 counterterrorism policy critique says: Arab states question Washington's list of designated pro-Palestinian groups and humanitarian organizations. It is clear that the current terrorist threat to the US emanates from Al-Qaeda and not Palestinian groups. There is no evidence that Palestinian groups designated as terrorist organizations have any connections to Al-Qaeda. Yet the preoccupation with these groups raises the question as to whether targeting Palestinian groups serves true national security interests or is based on political considerations. Now, look at the bottom of page 2 on the DHS memo: "Hizbullah and Hamas are distinct in methods, motivations and goals from Al Qaeda," it says. "When possible, the experts recommend that USG terminology should make this clear." If only it were true. Suicide attacks are staples of the methods of each group. The imposition of Islamic law, or Shari'a, is a goal stated by each. These organizations are responsible for the wholesale slaughter of innocent civilians - often by the preferred method of suicide bombing not to mention their roles in derailing U.S. foreign policy and efforts to achieve peace. But MPAC, despite these obvious details, as well as the fact that the US has designated terrorist groups in every corner of the earth [Philippines (Abu Sayyaf), Spain (the Basque group, ETA), Japan (Aum Shinrikyo), Sri Lanka (the Tamil Tigers), Ireland (IRA and related groups), Colombia (FARC), Peru (Shining Path) and even Israel (Kahane Chai)], somehow finds itself engaging in conspiracy theorizing about the unfair "political" treatment of misunderstood entities like Hamas and Hizbullah. It is incredibly frightening to see government agencies directly involved in our national security buy into this philosophy, wholesale. One prominent Muslim American who wasn't consulted is physician M. Zuhdi Jasser, president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy. In response to an e-mail from the IPT about the memos, Jasser said the suggested changes could diminish American understanding of the ideological motivations behind those who threaten our security: It is interesting that the only venues in which this nomenclature is even a question is in the West, where Muslims are a minority and Islamists are able to deceive the majority or just live in complete denial. In Muslim majority nations the radicals call themselves Muslims, Islamists, and Jihadists in Arabic and every other language with little time spent admonishing society not to call them what they call themselves. CERTAINLY PIOUS loyal American Muslims will be frustrated with the inappropriate use of the name of Islam and "jihad" in the militant causes by these radicals around the world. But that frustration should be directed toward frontal Muslim anti-Islamist and anti-militant causes and movements. Denying that considerable movements of radical Muslims exist around the world which exploit our religion and truly believe that their barbarism is "jihad" will only empower them more and delay the inevitable conflict within our faith community over "whose Islam, which Islam." For the USG to paternally dismiss the self-described nomenclature of "jihadists" and "Islamists" is to in fact embark into a realm which really is an internal struggle within the consciousness of the Muslim community. We should call the terrorists what they call themselves. Once any Muslim, let alone non-Muslims, begins to determine who is and who is not qualified to define "jihad," "Muslim," or "Islam" they are creating a clergy and a "church" with a communication and excommunication process. That is exactly what the likes of Bin Laden and other radical Islamists want. "Words matter," the DHS report says. They sure do. That's why hiding the very language and ideological justification used by terrorists from the American people is misguided at best. It is why a soft-pedaled lexicon from unnamed experts and Islamist activists is counter productive. Trying to isolate terrorists is a clear goal for the government. But moderate, er, mainstream Muslims shouldn't need us to serve as language police to protect them from those who use their religion to terrorize the world. The writer heads the Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT), a non-profit research group, which he founded in 1995. www.investigativeproject.org