24 Jun 2006

Using Language in War

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Some National Defense University scholars believe we ought to be using Islamic terms more carefully in order to avoid inadvertently assisting the enemy by endorsing his own viewpoint and assumptions.

In dealing with Islamic extremists, the West may be giving them the advantage due to cultural ignorance, maintain Dr. Douglas E. Streusand and Army Lt. Col. Harry D. Tunnell IV. The men work at the National Defense University at Fort Lesley J. McNair in Washington, D.C.

The two believe the right words can help fight the global war on terror. “American leaders misuse language to such a degree that they unintentionally wind up promoting the ideology of the groups the United States is fighting,” the men wrote in an article titled “Choosing Words Carefully: Language to Help Fight Islamic Terrorism.”

A case in point is the term “jihadist.” Many leaders use the term jihadist or jihadi as a synonym for Islamic extremist. Jihad has been commonly adapted in English as meaning “holy war.” But to Muslims it means much more. In their article, Steusand and Tunnell said in Arabic – the language of the Koran – jihad “literally means striving and generally occurs as part of the expression ‘jihad fi sabil illah,’ striving in the path of God.”

This is a good thing for all Muslims. “Calling our enemies jihadis and their movement a global jihad thus indicates that we recognize their doctrines and actions as being in the path of God and, for Muslims, legitimate,” they wrote. By countering jihadis, the West and moderate Muslims are enemies of true Islam.

The men asked Muslim scholars what the correct term for Islamic extremists would be and they came up with “hirabah.” This word specifically refers to those engaged in sinful warfare, warfare contrary to Islamic law. “We should describe the Islamic totalitarian movement as the global hirabah, not the global jihad,” they wrote.

Another word constantly misused in the West is mujahdeen. Again, in American dictionaries this word refers to a holy warrior – again a good thing. So calling an al Qaeda terrorist a mujahid legitimizes him.

The correct term for these killers is “mufsidun,” Streusand and Tunnell say. This refers to an evil or corrupt person. “There is no moral ambiguity and the specific denotation of corruption carries enormous weight in most of the Islamic world,” they wrote.

People can apply other words instead. “Fitna/fattan: fitna literally means temptation or trial, but has come to refer to discord and strife among Muslims; a fattan is a tempter or subversive,” they wrote. “Applying these terms to our enemies and their works condemns their current activities as divisive and harmful.”

The men also want officials to stop using the term “caliphate” as the goal of al Qaeda and associated groups. The Caliphate came to refer to the successors of the Prophet Mohammed as the political leaders of the Muslim community. “Sunni Muslims traditionally regard the era of the first four caliphs (A.D. 632-661) as an era of just rule,” the men wrote. “Accepting our enemies’ description of their goal as the restoration of a historical caliphate again validates an aspect of their ideology.”

The men point out that an al Qaeda caliphate would not mean the establishment of just rule, but rather a global totalitarian state where women would be treated as chattel, music banned and any kind of difference severely punished. “Anyone who needs a preview of how such a state would act merely has to review the conduct of the Taliban in Afghanistan before Sept. 11, 2001,” they wrote.

The correct term for the al Qaeda goal is global totalitarian state – something no one in the world wants.

Finally, the men urge Westerners to translate Allah into God. Using Allah to refer to God would be like using Jehovah to refer to a Hebrew God. In fact, Muslims, Christians and Jews all worship the God of Abraham. Using different names exaggerates the divisions among the religions, the authors say.

Complete article

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I notice that this came up in 2002. Here it is four years later.

By Shahed Amanullah, July 24, 2002

As part of the ideological “war on terrorism”, Muslim scholars are seeking to engage in an ideological battle within Islam to replace the word jihad with a term that labels terrorists as cowardly pirates who kill women and children, which in Islam is the crime of hirabah. Because the word jihad roughly means “religious effort,” the West can come off as attacking the daily life of ordinary Muslims, while terrorists get away with wrapping their crimes in religious phraseology. Muslim scholars are meeting in Washington with US officials to change this. “When people carelessly dump on jihad, it has an immediate polarizing effect,” said Khaled Abou el Fadl, a professor of Islamic law at UCLA who will attend the meeting. “It may not change much, but it allows Muslims and non-Muslims to say something about terrorists without appearing to malign Islamic theology.” “We should use language to move moderates toward the West and quarantine the extremists,” added Muqtedar A. Khan, director of international studies at Adrian College.

Original Here


Penalties for Hirabah under Nigerian Sharia law (definitions and penalties as defined in the official Nigerian law):

152. Hirabah defined

Whoever acting alone or in conjunction with others in order to seize property or to commit an offence, or for any other reasons voluntarily causes or attempts to cause to any person death or hurt or wrongful restraint or fear of instant death or of instant hurt, or of instant wrongful restraint in circumstances that renders such person helpless or incapable of defending himself, is said to commit the offence of hirabah.

153. Punishment for Hirabah

Whoever commits hirabah shall be punished:-

(a) With imprisonment for life where the offence was committed without seizure of property or causing death.

(b) With amputation of the right hand from the wrist and the left foot from the ankle where property was seized, but death was not caused.

(c) With death sentence where death was caused, but property was not seized.

(d) With crucifixion, where murder was committed and property was seized.

154. Making preparation to commit Hirabah

Whoever makes any preparation for committing the offence of hirabah, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year and shall also be liable to caning which may extend to fifty lashes.

155. Belonging to gang of persons associated for the purpose of committing Hirabah

Whoever belongs to a gang of persons associated for the purpose of committing hirabah, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year and shall also be liable to caning which may extend to fifty lashes.


I have been doing more thinking on this post and believe that document is correct. Changing our terminology could, in fact, make a great difference in how both the terrorists and our efforts are seen in that culture.

For example: Say some American thugs decided to start a terrorist network and attacked people in a different region of the globe. Let’s say they describe themselves as “heros”. Not being familiar with our language or culture, they adopt the word “hero” in describing these criminals. Now say our kids are exposed to news reports from that country talking about American Heros killing people and how they were doing their best to wipe out these American Heros. Might a young man possibly feel some calling to join his fellow Americans and also be a “hero”?

In other words, we are probably doing them more of a favor by using the terms “jihad”, “jihadi”, and “mujahdeen”. We might actually be inspiring people of that culture to join the terrorists by using words that mean someone who is fighting a just battle. It makes us look like we are fighting a war on their religion rather than a war on terrorists.

I agree with the paper. Thanks for publishing that blog entry.


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