Words Make Worlds: Terrorism and Language

By Smith, Angus | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, December 2007 | Go to article overview

Words Make Worlds: Terrorism and Language


Smith, Angus, The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin


Since September 11, 2001, many Western intelligence and law enforcement agencies have received criticism for the terminology they use to describe terrorism that has an ideological basis in Islam. Inherent difficulties exist in finding appropriate language that does not imply a clash between Islam and Western religion and culture. (1) Such terms as Islamic or Islamist terrorism, jihadism, and Islamo-fascism fuse terrorism with mainstream Islam, thereby casting all Muslims either as terrorists or potential ones. Although intelligence officers and analysts may understand this terminology, meanings become blurred when filtered through the media and public perceptions. Even innocuous terms and completely legitimate expressions of belief become loaded with innuendo. Yet, attempts to downplay Islamic components of terrorist conspiracies and acts by focusing on the mechanics of the plots, rather than the religious backgrounds of the terrorists, ignore a critical element of this global threat. (2) To address this conundrum, the law enforcement and intelligence communities must understand extremist discourse to counteract extremist rhetoric.

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Describing Jihad

Like the other Abrahamic faiths--Judaism and Christianity--the fundamental tenets of Islam are rooted in compassion, kindness, forgiveness, and, perhaps most important, social justice. For example, one of the Pillars of Islam is zakat (the giving of alms to the poor), and, during the Ramadan fast, Muslims are enjoined to remember the less fortunate who fast involuntarily. (3) Incorrect statements about the nature of Islam offend Muslims who try to live within those tenets. More important, distorted and inflammatory linkages between Islam and terrorism can convince Muslims that the West is their enemy.

The word jihad, which has become almost a catchall term for extremism of any kind, illustrates this problem. Despite widespread belief to the contrary, jihad is not one of the Pillars of Sunni Islam (in addition to fasting at Ramadan and the giving of alms, these consist of the profession of faith, daily prayer, and pilgrimage to Mecca). (4) Translated literally, jihad means striving and often is expressed jihad fi sabil illah, or striving in the path of God. (5) In this context, jihad describes the efforts to live in the way that God intends and find the inner will and discipline to live according to the basic tenets of Islam. (6) Jihad is a duty for all Muslims, an act of piety aimed at social or personal improvement. For example, Muslims might talk about their jihad to stop smoking, raise money for a community project, or simply become a better person. Also, in 2005, Raheel Raza was the first Muslim woman to lead mixed gender Friday prayers in Canada. She characterized the courage and determination that allowed her to persevere over the objections of conservative and traditionalist elements as a form of gender jihad aimed, ultimately, at helping all women take their rightful and scripturally mandated place as full participants in the temporal and spiritual life of the community of Muslims. (7)

But, jihad also can have a more combative interpretation. Like the basic texts of Judaism and Christianity, the Koran has numerous references to physical struggle and confrontation with unbelievers and others who represent a threat to the safety and integrity of the community of the faithful. (8) Combat represents one of the central metaphors of the history of early Islam, as the Prophet Muhammad and his followers battled and ultimately triumphed over those they considered idolaters and unbelievers. (9) The canon of Islamic teachings stresses that all Muslims must defend dar al-islam (the land of Islam) from moral or spiritual corruption originating in dar al-harb (the land of war) where Islamic law does not prevail. (10) Despite this, Islamic law and tradition always have favored defensive over offensive war; the importance of mercy to enemies; and the inviolability of women, children, and noncombatants. …

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