Commentary Magazine


Don’t Let Extremists Define the Terms

Last week, I wrote that by fighting in Afghanistan, we were “honoring the memory of America’s 9/11 shaheeds (martyrs) — the victims of al-Qaeda and their Taliban facilitators.” Some people took offense at my (ironic) use of the Islamic term shaheed to describe the victims of Islamist terrorism. Andy McCarthy, for example, wrote: “Shaheeds are militants, and today they are guilty of the most barbaric acts imaginable. Applying the term shaheeds to those killed and wounded by shaheeds does not raise the cachet of the term, but it is certain to offend those who have been maimed or terrorized, as well as the families of those who have been murdered.”

I used to work across the street from the World Trade Center, and I was downtown on September 11, 2001. I saw the Twin Towers fall. The last thing in the world I would ever want to do would be to dishonor the memory of the victims or offend their friends and relatives. I apologize if I have inadvertently caused offense. But anyone who is offended is misreading the term shaheed.

Yes, al-Qaeda and its ilk describe dead terrorists as shaheeds. But as three different, well-respected scholars of the Middle East have confirmed to me, militants hardly have a monopoly on a word that literally means “witness” but generally denotes anyone who dies while fulfilling a religious commandment. Anwar Sadat, Rafik Hariri, and Ahmed Shah Massoud — all moderate Muslims slain by extremists — are referred to by their admirers as shaheeds, while to their enemies, their murderers are the shaheeds. The word’s elasticity should not be a surprise; it is also true of a term such as “sharia law,” which can connote everything from Indonesian democracy to Iranian theocracy. Extremists have their definitions of Islamic terms; moderate Muslims (who constitute the great majority) have differing interpretations. We should not make the mistake of assuming that the most extreme view is the “correct” one.