Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Importance of Language

Posted by Chris at 5/15/2008 7:32 PM ...

Last week Jeffrey Imm at Counterterrorism Blog provided another attack on the new language guidelines from discussing the activities of terrorists such as al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. As Imm's post shows, this is a political issue, but it shows it in a way that most people aren't getting - for many people this is about domestic politics, not international diplomacy or even being smart about fighting terrorism.

In this particular case, Imm was upset because the Congressmembers serving on the House Permanent Select Committee refused to include Rep Hoekstra's amendment that attempted to exclude any potential labeling guidelines, like those proposed by the State Department, for the Intelligence community. Imm and Hoekstra see these guidelines as somehow damaging the ability for Intelligence services to do their jobs. Imm argues that the label "jihadis" is necessary for Intelligence services to define the threat, and says that the failure to define this enemy is why the Authorization for the Use of Military Force passed in September 2001 has not resulted in a grand strategy to combat Islamic extremists. His issue, and that of Rep Hoekstra, is "Al-Qaeda knows point blank that they want to kill Americans. How sad is it that as we approach the seventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, we are still debating how to define our enemy?"

Imm continues his campaign against the strategic use of language today in a tirade against the Daily Kos' adoption of the same concept of not calling terrorists "jihadists" because the main proponent, Amad, participated in the Texas Dawah convention and websites that also include supporters of include supporters of violent extremist groups. The idea is to discredit the whole effort to develop American strategic use of language by linking it to terrorists and their supporters. After all, only they would want to hide the truth linking jihad and terrorism from the American public right?

Imm does get one critical thing right, though. DHS refuses to disclose those individuals and organizations outside the government that provided advice on the new policy governing language in discussing terrorism. This is important information to have, just as the information surrounding Vice President Dick Cheney's infamous Energy Task Force was. My guess is that we won't get details about either for a long time. Still we do need to understand where the new guidelines come from in order to understand how they came about. However, what folks like Imm, Hoekstra, and Senator McCain need to keep in mind is that just because some of the supporters of the new guidelines also support terror tactics or violent struggle against Israel, does not automatically negate the utility or validity of the new guidelines. These are the same concepts that anthropologists and ethnologists have been advocating for quite awhile. Finding and adopting these things is the whole point of Project Minerva and the Human Terrain System - using the humanities to further our policy and security goals.

The problem with Imm's analysis, indeed his question, is that it cedes the biggest, most significant, battleground to the enemy - the hearts and minds of the people.

The problem is that using the label "jihadis", "islamists", or "mujahedeen" when describing terrorists validates them in the mind of Muslims worldwide. It also serves to increase anti-Muslim sentiment here in the United States to no purpose other than keeping people afraid of young, religious men from the Middle East. A careful reading of the Department of Homeland Security and National Counter Terrorism Center memorandums regarding appropriate use of language addresses the first of these issues very clearly. They do not mince words about who the enemy is, but rather propose that the United States Government be conscious of the strategic importance of language in fighting against terrorists for the first time since September 11th, 2001. (Hat tip to Matt Armstrong, who posted links to the originals)

All of the concepts and guidelines in these documents are common sense:

  1. Don't use Arabic terms, especially religious terms. that most American politicians and diplomats don't have the cultural knowledge to use correctly. Examples include using "Qutbist" to discuss the ideology that provides the theological framework allowing Muslims to engage in acts of terrorism that might injure innocents, since mispronouncing it it might sound like the Arabic word for "books; or, calling terrorists "Salafis" because many non-violent Muslims might also consider themselves "Salafis".
  2. Avoid negative framing because people tend to miss the negative portion of the statement. Thus, stating that "we are not at war with Islam" might be heard as the opposite.
  3. Not using Arabic religious jargon such as "jihadist" or "mujahedin" to describe terrorists, as both words have positive connotations to Muslims. if you doubt this, think back on the days when the United States supported the Afghan mujahedin against the Soviets. It means "holy warrior", and is akin to the Medieval European designation of "Crusader". You definitely don't want to make your enemy seem like they are on the side of God.
  4. Use terms like "terrorist", "extremist", or "totalitarian" to describe the enemy. Everyone knows these designators as being the bad guys. By using these terms, you paint terrorists as what they are, delegitimize their goals and tactics, and avoid religiously charged terminology.
  5. Be positive - emphasize that terrorism is a global challenge, and that the goal of American efforts is to secure security for everyone. This addresses the concerns of both Americans and non-American Muslims. Similarly, promote the idea of striving for "progress", as opposed to "liberty", which too many people outside the United States may see as a code for American ideological domination.
  6. Pay attention and utilize the discourse on "takfirism" The word may not work coming from the mouths of Americans, but the concept is useful in describing terrorists, particularly those who assert that those who disagree with them, or who follow different religious doctrines are apostates who are legitimate targets. Takfiri ideology is widely condemned by mainstream Muslims. Along with irhabi, it makes a useful counter to those who label themselves as jihadis to gain support in Muslim communities.
Sources: NCTC and DHS.

There's significantly more in the DHS document, so please be sure to read it. I think this is the first step to really embarking on a legitimate Information Operation to counter those of groups like al-Qaeda. The problem is that we need to get politicians who want to use loaded terms like Islamist, Islamofascist, and Jihadis for domestic political reasons to stop providing ammunition and legitimacy to terrorist groups. At the same time we need to find a way to get media organizations and political commentators to adopt these guidelines. Otherwise, efforts by the Federal government to change this discourse will meet significantly less success.

No comments:

Post a Comment