Separating Friend from Foe

It’s my understanding that there’s a certain ambiguity to the Arabic word, jihad. It can mean either violent, physical struggle or it can mean internalized struggle, as in the struggle between one’s own good and evil impulses. There’s a similar ambiguity to the English word, crusade. It can mean raising an army to invade Palestine or it can mean something a lot more spiritual as in the evangelist Billy Graham’s famous Crusades. However it sounds to Muslim ears I doubt that many Americans believe that the Rev. Graham is attempting to raise an army to forcibly eject Muslims from Palestine with his crusades. I’m sure my fellow asociate blogger here at OTB, John Burgess, who’s fluent in Arabic, can speak more authoritatively on the subject than I.

And, again, it’s my understanding that to many Muslims jihad, in the sense of spiritual struggle, is a religious obligation. It has a largely positive, benign connotation.

That’s why I agree with David Kilcullen, as James noted not too long ago, that we would be much better off using the words irhabis (terrorists) or mufsiduun (evildoers) in referring to violent radical Islamists. At the very least it is a way of separating potential friends and allies in the Muslim world from our foes in that world. I definitely do not believe that the official change of diction constitutes a “strategic collapse”.

Not everybody agrees with that idea.

In the post cited above Joseph Myers argues the contrary, declaiming:

I submit the people advocating this line of argument are either unstudied as to what they are saying, or if the sourcing for these lines of argument can be traced to their original roots, then I would wager those roots are in the strategic disinformation of the “global Islamic movement.”

One must also question if those recommending and making these decisions have a doctrinal understanding of any of the original lexicon, much less intellectual preparation to change it to something else. Has anyone considered that maybe our perceptions are being shaped by the jihadists as much as we think we are shaping foreign perceptions?

Caution reminds us that to the extent we outsource our knowledge base we outsource our decisions. To the extent we do this with our knowledge of Islam and Islamic jihad we do so at risk.

This lexicon change represents systemic organizational failure: a professional failure and the failure to know is a failure of leadership.

I agree that we’re on the brink of a strategic failure but I don’t think that failure resides in the words we use to describe our enemies. In the presidential primaries precious little has been said about our grand strategy in the War on Terror (or whatever we’re calling it now). Is the problem strictly an incidental one as was demonstrably believed during the Clinton Administration? Or is it something more systemic? If the former, how will they improve on the approach of that administration which manifestly failed? If the latter will they continue the Bush Administration’s off again, on again emphasis on liberalization and democratization, a strategy which I doubt can succeed in a time frame short enough to avoid catastrophe? Is the grand strategy to be something entirely different? I’d like to hear some of this stuff spelled out but serious, life and death policy issues are being drowned out in the scandals du jour and gotchas of the campaign.

Before I leave the subject, the site linked above, American Thinker, could use some help. It’s generally a thoughtful site, my blog-friend Rick Moran of Right Wing Nut House, one of the most reasonable guys in the Right Blogosphere, is a contributor there, and I favor supporting the reasonable even if I don’t alway agree with their point of view. If you’re so inclined, drop by and give them a hand.

FILED UNDER: General
Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.

Comments

  1. John425 says:

    Jihad et. al. are the very words the terrorists use to describe themselves and their actions.

    A rose by any other name…

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    Yes, they use the words of religious conviction to attract devout Muslims to their cause. Our use of the words disparagingly drives them from ours at least at the margins.

  3. Anderson says:

    we would be much better off using the words irhabis (terrorists) or mufsiduun (evildoers) in referring to violent radical Islamists

    Why not just call them “terrorists”?

  4. John Burgess says:

    The Arabic word jihad comes from the verb jahada, the base meaning of which is, according to my handy Hans Wehr Dictionary:

    To endeavor, strive, labor, take pains, put oneself out, to overwork, overtax, fatigue, exhaust

    All the following forms of the word (Arabic ‘works’ by using prefixes and infixes to modify the basic meaning of a verb as well as to make nouns of verbs) are rooted in that concept. Over the history of the word jihad, it has taken on meanings as disparate as ‘to fight a nationalistic war of freedom’ to ‘to struggle within oneself for correct behavior’ to ‘holy war’. Not quite as expansive as ‘crusade’, but pretty much the same, as English permits a ‘crusade’ to save, for example, spotted owls as well as the Holy Land.

    Whether jihad is a useful term in English, I think, depends on both the context and the intent of the person using the word. It is ambiguous until those variables are sorted out.

    I definitely think that using a more precise word–e.g. irhab–that doesn’t go into the realm of religion, even if the act under discussion is sometimes religiously motivated, is the better tack. The issue isn’t pissing off some Islamic terrorist, it’s avoiding pissing off Muslims who don’t support terrorism, but do support their religion.

    When it’s necessary to distinguish the motivation of the terrorist–e.g. ‘eco-terrorist’, ‘animal rights-terrorist’, etc.–then why not use the English Islamic terrorist? But be sure the motivation is, in fact, religious, not political disguised as or confused with religious motivation.

  5. John Burgess says:

    The Arabic word jihad comes from the verb jahada, the base meaning of which is, according to my handy Hans Wehr Dictionary:

    To endeavor, strive, labor, take pains, put oneself out, to overwork, overtax, fatigue, exhaust

    All the evolving forms of the word (Arabic ‘works’ by using prefixes and infixes–in as many as 13 different ways–to modify the basic meaning of a verb as well as to make nouns of verbs) are rooted in that concept. Over the history of the word jihad, it has taken on meanings as disparate as ‘to fight a nationalistic war of independence’ to ‘to struggle within oneself for correct behavior’ to ‘holy war’ to municipal clean-up campaign. Not quite as expansive as ‘crusade’, but pretty much the same, as English permits a ‘crusade’ to save, for example, spotted owls as well as the Holy Land. If the word ‘campaign’ were substituted for either, not much meaning would be lost, just historical referents.

    Whether jihad is a useful term in English, I think, depends on both the context and the intent of the person using the word. It is ambiguous until those variables are sorted out.

    I definitely think that using a more precise word–e.g. irhab–that doesn’t go into the realm of religion, even if the act under discussion is sometimes religiously motivated, is the better tack. The issue isn’t pissing off some Islamic terrorist, it’s avoiding pissing off Muslims who don’t support terrorism, but do support their religion.

    When it’s necessary to distinguish the motivation of the terrorist–e.g. ‘eco-terrorist’, ‘animal rights-terrorist’, etc.–then why not use the English Islamic terrorist? But be sure the motivation is, in fact, religious, not political disguised as or confused with religious motivation.

  6. legion says:

    Anderson,
    Because then, people would start asking why the gov’t doesn’t go after any ‘terrorists’ who aren’t Islamic.

    And Dave, you’re semantically correct, but as John points out, jihad is the term the terrorists themselves have adopted. And while there’s merit to the idea of not letting a few asshats subvert an otherwise legitimate term & smear an entire religion with their extremism, the US doesn’t really have a lot of investment in maintaining the purity & correctness of Arabic. It’s something a lot of other countries besides just us are going to have to care about…

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    As I knew he would John has articulated my position more succinctly than I did myself:

    I definitely think that using a more precise word–e.g. irhab–that doesn’t go into the realm of religion, even if the act under discussion is sometimes religiously motivated, is the better tack. The issue isn’t pissing off some Islamic terrorist, it’s avoiding pissing off Muslims who don’t support terrorism, but do support their religion.

  8. glasnost says:

    Your argument is correct: but the counterargument you’ve cited is not ‘reasonable’: it’s both ignorant and childish.

    Its proponents are obsessed with an idea – an image, if you will – of ‘The West’ ‘backing down’ in the face of some alledged fundamentalist intimidation, and they mindlessly superimpose that image onto everything they see.

    Jihadists want to be called jihadists because it’s an historically complimentary term in their tradition. There are much more insulting and condemnatory terms to be used available in the Arabic language. The strategic disinformation these people cite is there: and they themselves are swallowing in it. To call violent Muslim extremists “jihadists” is the act of ‘capitulation’ they’re so obsessed with. But because they *enjoy* using that word, because it sounds so nice and evil to them, they can’t possibly imagine that that’s a complimentary term.

    In case I haven’t made this absolutely clear: Al-Quieda chose the term ‘jihadists’ themselves, and the “American thinkers” suggestion that Al-Quieda is slipping in the idea for these alternate terms is one hundred percent backwards.

    These people are fundamentally not interested in the Arabic audience. They’re not interested in winning the battle of perceptions with moderates. They’re interested in self-congradulation and domestic propaganda.

    And you only look foolish by humoring them, Dave. Call a spade a spade. They have no leg to stand on, no history, no media. They just make it up as they go along.

  9. Michael says:

    Jihad et. al. are the very words the terrorists use to describe themselves and their actions.

    A rose by any other name…

    So, if they instead called themselves “The most righteous people in the world who never do anything wrong and are always on the side of good and against evil”, we should refer to them as such?

    Letting your enemy define how they are described in your own propaganda is a terrible idea, for reasons I hope I don’t have to expand upon.