The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Invective (II)

[Aargh -- first version eaten by Blogger.]

The James Fallows article I linked last week speaks of the importance of words in the struggle against Islamism:

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.

I agree with the thrust of Mr. Guirard's diagnosis, but his prescription offers substantial room for improvement. I speak no Arabic, but "irhabist" seems closely related to "hirabah", so I will hazard a guess that it translates as something like "unholy warrior", rather than as "terrorist". We do not wish to characterize the enemy as warriors; we should describe them as cowardly false teachers, leading from behind an army of contemptible dupes. This twofold description, distinguishing between the planners and the executors of hirabah, would have the additional advantage of encouraging clearer thinking about exactly who is doing the dying.

For the self-styled Imams and inspirers of hirabah, we need a word like the English "charlatan". For the cannon fodder strapping on their bomb belts, we need a word expressing not just their evil but our contempt; something like the English "goon". We need to attack the enemy's belief that jihad is somehow honorable, and we should start by attacking the idea that its practitioners are warriors, holy or otherwise.