The Language of Terror
by Jeffrey M. Bale
May 14, 2013
Editor's Note: In preparation for an article about the federal government's policy banning the use of phrases such as "Islamic extremism" and "jihad," the Investigative Project on Terrorism asked Monterey Terrorism Research and Education Program Director Jeffrey M. Bale for comment. The policy's advocates say that calling them criminals, murderers or violent extremists denies them religious legitimacy. This, in turn, is meant to drain the pool of prospective terrorists. But does it? How can we tell?
Here is Bale's full reply:
I don't think there are any good data on the impact of refusing to call Islamists and jihadists "Islamists" and "jihadists." But I can't imagine that the impact could possibly be beneficial or positive, either in the West (where it invariably has the effect of keeping citizens ignorant about the essentially religious motivations of our Islamist enemies) or in the Muslim world (since Muslims are not likely to be swayed by the terminology used by "infidels"). Why, after all, would Muslims look to non-Muslims to interpret their religion for them, or for guidance about how to identify and label Islamists? Indeed, if we call jihadists "criminals," it may actually have the counterproductive effect of garnering more sympathy for them given the levels of anti-U.S. and anti-Western hostility throughout the Muslim world.
The bottom line is that labeling people euphemistically or falsely does not alter what they are. Calling dogs "cats" does not transform the dogs into cats. Similarly, whether one falsely calls Islamists who do not rely mainly on violence "moderates" - as Western elites are nowadays inclined to do with respect to, say, the Muslim Brotherhood or the al-Nahda party in Tunisia - or whether one labels violent Islamists (i.e., jihadists) as "criminals" does not change their de facto nature and behavior. (The jihadists may be "criminals" in the literal sense given that they are breaking various Western laws, but that fact alone would hardly make them pariahs in the Muslim world.) In both cases, we are dealing with ideological extremists who espouse an Islamic supremacist and Islamic imperialist agenda - the only difference is that the "non-violent" Islamists (who are only non-violent for tactical reasons, not due to moral repugnance) and violent Islamists advocate different means to accomplish their similarly utopian, delusional, and extremist goals. The ultimate goals of both the "non-violent" and the violent Islamists are more or less the same: to establish theocratic, totalitarian Islamic regimes, to unite the umma into one political entity, to restore the Caliphate (or, in the case of Shi'i Islamists, to create an Imamate), and to resume the expansion of the dar al-Islam at the expense of the dar al-harb until the entire world is brought under the suzerainty of Islam. That is what the jihadists keep proclaiming, day in and day out (except in their public PR broadcasts which are designed to confuse "infidels" and mobilize Muslim support by portraying their actions as legitimate and "defensive"). We in the West just don't seem to want to believe what they constantly say. In contrast, the "non-violent" Islamists seek to spread their strict, puritanical, totalistic version of Islam mainly via da'wa (i.e., missionary activities or proselytization), as well as through tried and true revolutionary techniques like the infiltration of mainstream Muslim organizations, the creation of a host of front groups, agitation and propaganda, the gradual attainment of religio-cultural hegemony over Muslim communities until they are able to function as their de facto interlocutors (with the witless assistance of Western governments), and subversion. At some point, of course, the "non-violent" Islamists too may revert to employing armed jihad (as the MB periodically did throughout its history in Egypt, Syria, and Palestine).
Nor, for the reasons I noted above, is labeling jihadists as something other than "jihadists" likely to influence Muslim public opinion. During World War II the Nazis called themselves National Socialists (Nazis for short), and so did their enemies amongst the Allies. The latter did not use euphemistic terms to label the Nazis, apart from various histrionic adjectives in the "atrocity propaganda" typical of all wars - they simply portrayed Nazism as an "evil" or negative ideology rather than, like the Nazis themselves, as a "righteous" and positive ideology. Does anyone honestly believe that the German public would have cared if the Allies who were fighting them referred to the Nazis as "criminals" rather than Nazis?
The fact is that Muslims understand Islamism much better than non-Muslims, and they either support, oppose, or are indifferent to it. They also generally accept the jihadists' self-designation as jihadists, even if they view them as misguided. So how could it possibly help if Western "infidels," who many if not most Muslims view as hostile to Islam, called the jihadists by a different, more pejorative name? Moreover, Muslim regimes opposed to the Islamists have been using various terms to delegitimize the Islamist jihadists for decades, most notably "khawarij" ("Kharijites" in English), which has a negative connotation amongst most Muslims inasmuch as it refers to a group of sectarian, puritanical fanatics in the early period of Islamic history, one of whom ended up assassinating the fourth "rightly guided" Caliph, 'Ali ibn Abi Talib. If their Muslim opponents have not yet been able to delegitimize Islamist jihadists by referring to them using negative terms that resonate among most Muslims, how could "infidels" possibly succeed in delegitimizing the jihadists, no matter what labels we used to describe them?
Certainly, there is very little evidence that the so-called PREVENT strategy adopted in the UK has had any appreciable effect on Muslim attitudes in Britain. At least none that I have seen.