Why Words Matter in The War on Terror

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Terms like "radical Islamist" and "jihadist" have dominated headlines and speeches since 9/11, with the Bush administration using them frequently to describe America's enemies.

But that language may be about to change.

Click the play button for more analysis from Erik Saar of the National Security Network.

Although Al-Qaeda and other terrorists identify themselves as jihadists -- holy warriors--some  feel we make a mistake by calling them what they call themselves.

"It makes sense why they would want to be called it. It makes no sense why we would want to call them that," said Peter Singer, a national security expert with the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Singer co-wrote a recent New York Times op-ed that argues against the use of words like "jihadist" to describe Islamic terrorists.

"This feeds into their idea that this is a religious war, and it's not.," he said. "They want it to be a war of religions, but we have said very clearly that this is not a war on Islam, it's not Christianity vs. Islam in some way. It's about radicals, it's about extremists who are using violence."

U.S. government agencies agree with Singer's view.

Internal Memos

The State Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the National Counterterrorism Center have all released controversial internal memos recommending that workers avoid mentioning Islam or Muslims when discussing the War on Terror.

According to the memos, terms like "jihadist" and "mujahideen," both of which mean holy warrior, should be dropped. So, they say, should "Islamofascism," "Islamic terrorist" and "radical Islamist" -- all previously favorite terms of the Bush administration. The documents recommend that terms like "violent extremist" or simply, "terrorist," should be used in their place.

The government's reasoning here is twofold. Officials say holy warriors are viewed as men of honor in the Muslim world. Therefore, the thinking goes, referring to Al Qaeda as jihadists or mujahideen only legitimizes their cause.

Second, they say, linking Islam to terrorism alienates average Muslims by suggesting that the War on Terror is really a war against Islam.

But one native Arabic speaker we talked with says the government has it all wrong.

Getting It All Wrong

Islam expert Raymond Ibrahim is author of The Al-Qaeda Reader. It translates previously undeciphered statements by the group's leadership into English.

"The fact is, the Muslim world isn't waiting around holding its breath to hear the U.S. Government -- an infidel entity -- define Islamic terms for them," Ibrahim said. "This seems to me unprecedented. When we fought the Japanese and we fought the Nazis, we called them what they called themselves."

"If Osama bin Laden calls himself a mujahid, we should understand what a mujahid is. And we should understand that that is, in English, a holy warrior who's fighting on behalf of Islam," he said.

"You want to know your enemy: how they think, what they call themselves, what those terms mean," he added.

Singer says Western governments and media should avoid using these theological terms because they could offend Muslims.

He suggests using "muharib" or "hirabist" to describe Al Qaeda. These terms mean "barbarians" or "pirates" in Arabic.

"A term like "hirabi" or "muharib" is a term that's inherently negative within the teachings of the Muslim world," Singer said.

But according to Ibrahim, these terms are not widely used or understood in the Muslim world, while the concept of jihad is well-known and historically prevalent.

"According to Islamic law, offensive jihad--offensive, not just to defend yourself, but offensive, to go out and invade--is as codified and is obilgatory," he said.

Ideology = Theology

To understand this enemy, Ibrahim says, you can't separate its ideology from its theology.

"You trace it to Islamic doctrine and law, jihad is simply warfare to subjugate the infidel world to Islamic rule."

The debate over language has also reached Capitol Hill. Last month, the House passed an amendment to an intelligence bill that would deny funding for any government measure to ban words like jihadist.

Republican Congressman Peter Hoekstra, who introduced the amendment, says governnment agencies shouldn't be hampered by political correctness when fighting the War on Terror.

*Originally aired on August 15, 2008.

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CBN News
Erick Stakelbeck

Erick Stakelbeck

CBN News Terrorism Analyst

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