Muslims See Wordplay as Swordplay in Terrorism war.(PAGE ONE)

Article excerpt

Byline: Larry Witham, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Muslim scholars who want to get rid of the oft-used word "jihad" are meeting with U.S. officials today in Washington.

The academics, who have origins across the Muslim world, want to engage in an ideological battle within Islam to replace "jihad" with a term that labels terrorists as cowardly pirates who kill women and children, which in Islam is the crime of "hirabah."

"There has been an increase in the number of people working on terrorism, and some of them have portfolios that include the Muslim world," a U.S. official said, confirming the closed conference. "Yes, more analysts are working on that."

In an attempt to penetrate the mysteries of Islam, analysts and the public often have begun with the Arabic word "jihad," made famous by the 1979 Iranian revolution and now used widely by terrorist groups such as Islamic Jihad and al Qaeda.

But because the term roughly means "religious effort," the West can come off as attacking the daily life of ordinary Muslims worldwide, while the terrorists get away with wrapping their crimes in religious phraseology.

"When people carelessly dump on jihad, it has an immediate polarizing effect," said Khaled Abou el Fadl, a professor of Islamic law at the University of California at Los Angeles who will attend the meeting.

Mr. Abou el Fadl is among those who want the despised label of "hirabah," reserved for terrorizing bandits, to become the popular label for the radical groups.

"It may not change much, but it allows Muslims and non-Muslims to say something about terrorists without appearing to malign Islamic theology," said Mr. Abou el Fadl, who has advised U.S. officials since the September 11 terrorist attacks.

"'Hirabah' is seen as a bad thing, while 'jihad' is a good thing," said Mr. Abou el Fadl, whose book compares the two concepts.

Riffat Hassan, a professor of religion at the University of Louisville, agrees that a proper war of words can help attract rank-and-file Muslims to democracy.

"Language is how we describe reality, and this is not a difficult word," she said of "hirabah." "It might take some getting used to."

To critics of this gradual approach, Islam is too deeply flawed to be changed by words and needs an internal upheaval.

"I think we must drive Islam to have a Reformation, which is what Salman Rushdie is saying, that Islam unreformed will be brutal and barbaric," the Rev. …