The Associated Press is reporting that the U.S. government is moving to kill off jihadists, Islamo-fascists, and mujahedeen. Not the people: the words. Reports from the Department of Homeland Security and the National Counter Terrorism Center recommend discontinuing the use of such terms, because, as the AP report says, “Such words may actually boost support for radicals among Arab and Muslim audiences by giving them a veneer of religious credibility or by causing offense to moderates.”
When we are locked in a struggle for hearts and minds in the Islamic world, there is legitimate cause to be concerned about terminology that may backfire. Some of the verboten terms (e.g., mujahedeen) are surely too laudatory; others (such as “Islamo-fascists”) too offensive to ordinary Muslims who are otherwise unsympathetic to Al Qaeda. But the question is: If we eschew these words, what how are we supposed to refer to our enemies?
The British government, which led the move in this direction, has adopted the phrase “anti-Islamic activity” to refer to what Al Qaeda and its ilk are up to. That doesn’t seem much of an improvement to me: Isn’t it a little presumptuous of non-Muslim governments to decide what activities are “anti-Islamic”?
The U.S. government reports, which are being adopted by the State Department and other agencies, counsel using more anodyne phrases such as “violent extremist” or “terrorist.” But while less likely to give offense, those terms are also so vague as not to be helpful in many contexts. As many critics of the phrase “global war on terror” have pointed out, we are not fighting all terrorists–i.e., we are not mobilizing the resources of the U.S. government to destroy the ETA or the Tamil Tigers. Another possible suggestion is to use “religious extremists” or something similar. But that doesn’t help much either, because it suggests that bin Laden et al. are genuinely religious, and it also doesn’t distinguish them from, say, abortion-clinic bombers.
The term takfiri is both more accurate and less likely to give offense to normal Muslims, insofar as it refers to the practice of bin Laden & Co. of declaring Muslims who disagree with their extreme teachings as apostates. Unfortunately, almost no one in the Western world knows what takfiri means, so it’s not a word likely to come tripping off the tongues of our leaders.
A related quandary is what to call the offensive against these whatchamacallits. The use of “war” may well go the way of “jihadist” on the grounds that it inflames Muslims into thinking we are waging a war against all of them and that it actually elevates people who are simply criminals into semi-legitimate combatants. In 2005, the Rumsfeld Pentagon tried to move away from “war” by coming up with GSAVE–the Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism–as its preferred term. That was roundly hooted down and mercifully disappeared when President Bush got wind of it.
I am quite ready to concede that existing terminology–the Long War, the Global Struggle Against Terrorism, Islamic (or Islamist) terrorists, jihadists, and the like–is inadequate. But it’s hard to beat something with nothing. And so far I have not heard any terribly compelling alternatives to replace the terms that, for better or worse, have gained widespread currency since 2001.