Saturday, August 05, 2006

Nomenclature and the war on Islamic extremism 

Last night I read James Fallows excellent article (sub. req.) -- "Declaring Victory" -- in the September 2006 issue of The Atlantic, of which much more later. In something of a digression, Fallows discusses the impact of nomenclature on this war, and suggests that we should change our terms:

Jim Guirard, a writer and former Senate staffer, says that America’s response has helped confirm bin Laden’s worldview in an unintended way. The Arabic terms often brought into English to describe Islamic extremists — jihadists or mujahideen for “warriors,” plus the less-frequently used shahiddin for “martyrs” — are, according to Guirard, exactly the terms al-Qaeda would like to see used. Mujahideen essentially means “holy warriors”; the other terms imply righteous struggle in the cause of Islam. The Iraqi clergyman-warlord Muqtada al-Sadr named his paramilitary force the Mahdi Army. To Sunnis and Shiites alike, the Mahdi is the ultimate savior of mankind, equivalent to the Messiah. Branches of Islam disagree about the Mahdi’s exact identity and the timing of his arrival on earth, but each time U.S. officials refer to insurgents of the Mahdi Army, they confer legitimacy on their opponent in all Muslims’ eyes.

With the advice of Islamic scholars and think-tank officials, Guirard has assembled an alternative lexicon he thinks U.S. officials should use in both English and Arabic. These include hirabah (“unholy war”) instead of jihad; irhabists (“terrorists”) instead of jihadists; mufsidoon (“evildoers”) instead of mujahideen; and so on. The long-term effect, he says, would be like labeling certain kinds of battle genocide or war crime rather than plain combat—not decisive, but useful. Conceivably President Bush’s frequent use of evildoers to describe terrorists and insurgents represented a deliberate step in this direction, intended to steer the Arabic translation of his comments toward the derogatory terms.

Regarding Fallows speculation that President Bush uses the word "evildoers" to spin the translation in the Arab press, I suggest that somebody ask Bernard Lewis what he would do. That will be your answer.

The substantive idea -- that we should alter our Arabic nomenclature to delegitimize the enemy -- strikes me as an excellent idea. I'm all for expressing contempt for these dirtbags, and if translating that contempt into the right Arabic words means that the "Arab street" will think less of them, all the better. Unfortunately, it is another great idea that isn't going to happen. Even if the United States government changed its nomenclature, the media will not follow. The Western chattering classes, including particularly journalists, never refer to ethnic groups, religious groups, or even political movements by terms other than those preferred by the group in question. The media will switch from "homosexual" to "gay," "black" to "African-American," and (to be fair about it) "anti-abortion" to "pro-life", however literally inaccurate the terms may be, just because the group in question so requests. There is no reason to believe that mufsidoon will get different treatment, even if they should.


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