A war of words

There’s an interesting op-ed piece in the New York Times on the use of the term “jihadist” to refer to terrorists:

“[T]o call a terrorist a “jihadist” or “jihadi” effectively puts any campaign against terrorism into the framework of an existential battle between the West and Islam. This feeds into the worldview propagated by Al Qaeda. It also serves to isolate the tens of millions of Muslims who condemn the violence that has been perpetrated in the name of Islam.

“Second, these words locate the ideological battle exactly where the extremists want it to be. The terms of discussion are no longer about the murder of innocents in terrorist acts; they are about theology.

“Third, when American leaders use this language it sends a confusing message to the Muslim world, showing ignorance on basic issues and possibly even raising doubts about American motives. Why, after all, would we call our enemy a “holy warrior”?”

Oddly it put me in mind of Eqbal Ahmad’s classic essay, “Terrorism: Theirs and Ours.”  Ahmad says,

Jihad, which has been translated a thousand times as “holy war,” is not quite that.  “Jihad in Arabic means “to struggle.”  It could be struggle by violence or struggle by non-violent means.  There are two forms, the small jihad and the big jihad.  The small jihad involves external violence.  The big jihad involves a struggle within oneself.  Those are the concepts.  The reason I mention it is that in Islamic history, jihad as an international violent phenomenon had for all practical purposes disappeared in the last four hundred years.  It was revived suddenly with American help in the 1980s…”

Ahmad goes on to discuss the C.I.A. funding of Osama bin Laden’s jihad against communism in Afghanistan in the 1980s.  It is fascinating to consider, not how U.S. support for terrorism (aka freedom fighters) waged in the name of Islam during the Cold War has turned around and bit the U.S. on its behind — that’s actually a point that’s been made so often by now that it’s tiresome — but how it has played out in the terminology used by the U.S. for talking about its contemporary enemies.

It makes my head spin: the U.S. wages a proxy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, but does so by allying itself with a group that defines the struggle in terms of religion, not political economy.  The ally later turns on the U.S. because it is facilitating the occupation of Palestine and has its imperial troops in the Arabian peninsula.  But now, the U.S. leaders gladly seize on the language of a crazy religious war because framing it in terms of religion makes it easier to disavow the actual political factors that fuel opposition to U.S. foreign policies.

There’s a reason why the Bush government is resisting the U.S. State Department’s attempt to avoid the language of “jihad” in describing their opponents: because it’s convenient for them to keep the world thinking that it’s a battle between us and irrational religious extremists.  Framing it as a political conflict makes the propaganda battle that much more difficult.

–L.L. Wynn


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