Language and the War on Terror

Another interesting point made in James Fallows‘ excellent article on why the U.S. is winning the war against the terrorists is that we are actually helping our enemy by adopting their chosen self-description.

Jim Guirard, a writer and former Senate staffer, says that America’s response has helped confirm bin Laden’s worldview in an unintended way. The Arabic terms often brought into English to describe Islamic extremists—jihadists or mujahideen for “warriors,” plus the less-frequently used shahiddin for “martyrs”—are, according to Guirard, exactly the terms al-Qaeda would like to see used. Mujahideen essentially means “holy warriors”; the other terms imply righteous struggle in the cause of Islam. The Iraqi clergyman-warlord Muqtada al-Sadr named his paramilitary force the Mahdi Army. To Sunnis and Shiites alike, the Mahdi is the ultimate savior of mankind, equivalent to the Messiah. Branches of Islam disagree about the Mahdi’s exact identity and the timing of his arrival on earth, but each time U.S. officials refer to insurgents of the Mahdi Army, they confer legitimacy on their opponent in all Muslims’ eyes.

With the advice of Islamic scholars and think-tank officials, Guirard has assembled an alternative lexicon he thinks U.S. officials should use in both English and Arabic. These include hirabah (“unholy war”) instead of jihad; irhabists (“terrorists”) instead of jihadists; mufsidoon (“evildoers”) instead of mujahideen; and so on. The long-term effect, he says, would be like labeling certain kinds of battle genocide or war crime rather than plain combat—not decisive, but useful. Conceivably President Bush’s frequent use of evildoers to describe terrorists and insurgents represented a deliberate step in this direction, intended to steer the Arabic translation of his comments toward the derogatory terms. (I could not confirm whether there was any such plan behind Bush’s choice of words, or whether it had made much difference in translations. While granting Guirard’s point, for convenience I’ll stick with the familiar terms here.)

It’s somewhat ironic that the American Right (myself included in this case), especially, has gone out of its way to use the term “jihadists” in contrast to the media’s preferred “militants” or “insurgents.” The more pejorative “Islamofascists” has never really taken off, aside from a few websites.

I thought of President Bush instantly when coming across “mufsidoon (“evildoers”)” but am skeptical that this was deliberate agitprop; more likely, it was aimed at the American audience’s Christian mores rather than the enemy.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Bithead says:

    It’s interesting, though that in it’s own way, this exemplifies the importance of winning the propaganda war as McQ mentioned the other day.

  2. Gollum says:

    James – Curious as to what your original motive was for using the Arabic terms and also whether you are considering Guirard’s suggestion for future reference. Could you tease that out a little more?

    My own thought is that Guirard’s idea is smart but unlikely to catch on. My recollection seems to be that for the first full year or so and even longer after 9/11 every occurrence of “jihad” in the news media was followed by its translation, same with mujahideen, shira, and my personal favorite from Afghanistan, the loya jirga. I think editors tolerated this use of columninches almost out of necessity, to help its English-speaking readers understand what the jihadists were calling themselves.

    A similar effort involving application of our own labels has, however, a different purpose, which is helping us understand what we ourselves are now calling them. Editors would not view this as elucidation but rather as assisting in a US propaganda program. Quite perversely, I can see the editors refusing – – on principle, no less – – to call the irhabists what they really are.

  3. LJD says:

    Editors would not view this as elucidation but rather as assisting in a US propaganda program. Quite perversely, I can see the editors refusing – – on principle, no less – – to call the irhabists what they really are.

    So what is the arabic term for these editor SOBs fighting the Jihad with their irhabist brethren?

  4. Michael says:

    So what is the arabic term for these editor SOBs fighting the Jihad with their irhabist brethren?

    You mean fighting the hirabah, not so easy to change is it?