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Loosely Interpreted Arabic Terms Can Promote Enemy Ideology

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, June 22, 2006 – The pen is mightier than the sword, and sometimes in the war of words we unwittingly give the advantage to the enemy.

In dealing with Islamic extremists, the West may be giving them the advantage due to cultural ignorance, maintain Dr. Douglas E. Streusand and Army Lt. Col. Harry D. Tunnell IV. The men work at the National Defense University at Fort Lesley J. McNair in Washington, D.C.

The two believe the right words can help fight the global war on terror. "American leaders misuse language to such a degree that they unintentionally wind up promoting the ideology of the groups the United States is fighting," the men wrote in an article titled "Choosing Words Carefully: Language to Help Fight Islamic Terrorism."

A case in point is the term "jihadist." Many leaders use the term jihadist or jihadi as a synonym for Islamic extremist. Jihad has been commonly adapted in English as meaning "holy war." But to Muslims it means much more. In their article, Steusand and Tunnell said in Arabic - the language of the Koran - jihad "literally means striving and generally occurs as part of the expression 'jihad fi sabil illah,' striving in the path of God."

This is a good thing for all Muslims. "Calling our enemies jihadis and their movement a global jihad thus indicates that we recognize their doctrines and actions as being in the path of God and, for Muslims, legitimate," they wrote. By countering jihadis, the West and moderate Muslims are enemies of true Islam.

The men asked Muslim scholars what the correct term for Islamic extremists would be and they came up with "hirabah." This word specifically refers to those engaged in sinful warfare, warfare contrary to Islamic law. "We should describe the Islamic totalitarian movement as the global hirabah, not the global jihad," they wrote.

Another word constantly misused in the West is mujahdeen. Again, in American dictionaries this word refers to a holy warrior - again a good thing. So calling an al Qaeda terrorist a mujahid legitimizes him.

The correct term for these killers is "mufsidun," Streusand and Tunnell say. This refers to an evil or corrupt person. "There is no moral ambiguity and the specific denotation of corruption carries enormous weight in most of the Islamic world," they wrote.

People can apply other words instead. "Fitna/fattan: fitna literally means temptation or trial, but has come to refer to discord and strife among Muslims; a fattan is a tempter or subversive," they wrote. "Applying these terms to our enemies and their works condemns their current activities as divisive and harmful."

The men also want officials to stop using the term "caliphate" as the goal of al Qaeda and associated groups. The Caliphate came to refer to the successors of the Prophet Mohammed as the political leaders of the Muslim community. "Sunni Muslims traditionally regard the era of the first four caliphs (A.D. 632-661) as an era of just rule," the men wrote. "Accepting our enemies' description of their goal as the restoration of a historical caliphate again validates an aspect of their ideology."

The men point out that an al Qaeda caliphate would not mean the establishment of just rule, but rather a global totalitarian state where women would be treated as chattel, music banned and any kind of difference severely punished. "Anyone who needs a preview of how such a state would act merely has to review the conduct of the Taliban in Afghanistan before Sept. 11, 2001," they wrote.

The correct term for the al Qaeda goal is global totalitarian state - something no one in the world wants.

Finally, the men urge Westerners to translate Allah into God. Using Allah to refer to God would be like using Jehovah to refer to a Hebrew God. In fact, Muslims, Christians and Jews all worship the God of Abraham. Using different names exaggerates the divisions among the religions, the authors say.

The men have launched an education effort. "Our work is an attempt to educate the interagency community about the challenges of communication with Islamic audiences," they wrote in answer to written questions. "Our particular effort is in its infancy, but is showing some level of success."

Scholars at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College use the essay in class, and the Marines are using an earlier version of the essay as part of their lessons-learned Web site. The final version of the essay is on the National Defense University's Center for Strategic Communications Web site.

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Related Sites:
Choosing Words Carefully: Language to Help Fight Islamic Terrorism
National Defense University


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