By Brigitte L. Nacos
Language matters. And linguistic disagreements can make for political battles. What to call and not to call terrorism is one such battle ground since the attacks of 9/11.
From the time he took office more than six years ago, President Obama’s perennial critics complained about his benign language to characterize the most serious terrorist threat in the post-9/11 era. After avoiding the term “terrorism” for a while, members of the administration eventually did use the “t” word--sometimes. But as the President himself, others in the administration continued to speak of “violent extremism,” when discussing the lethal acts perpetrated by ISIS, Al Qaeda, Al Shabab, Boko Haram, and similar groups.
Recently, speaking at the National Press Club, Attorney General Eric Holder said, “We spend more time, more time talking about what you do call it as opposed to what do you do about it. Radical Islam, Islamic extremism, you know, I’m not sure an awful lot is gained by saying that. It doesn’t have any impact on our military posture; it doesn’t have any impact on what we call it on the policies that we put in place.”
Not surprisingly, then, the title of the current White House sponsored gathering is “Countering Radical Extremism” although the focus is not on generic radical extremism but exclusively on the Jihadist variety.
Among Obama’s harshest critics on this count is US Senator Lindsey Graham (South Carolina) who said a while ago, “We are in a religious war with radical Islamists. When I hear the president of the United States and his chief spokesperson failing to admit that we’re in a religious war, it really bothers me.”
I think both sides should reconsider their linguistic choices.
To begin with, I disagree with Senator Graham’s terminology on two counts. First, although ISIS calls itself “Islamic State,” controls a chunk of Syrian and Iraqi real estate, and aims at establishing a Grand Caliphate beyond the outlines of the Ottoman Empire, we should not use language that plays into the hands of these barbaric terrorists. By characterizing the fight against these terrorists as “war,” Graham and others elevate ISIS to the level of a nation state and ISIS boss Al-Baghdadi and his henchmen to that of leaders of legitimate states.
That’s precisely what these inhumane men want.
Terrorism, by definition, has political objectives. And ISIS surely has political designs. To be sure, ISIS, Al Qaeda, and like-minded groups propagate their objectives and justifications in religious terms. For many of their followers and sympathizers, they are the only practitioners of pure Islam.
And, here, President Obama’s insistence of the generic “violent extremism” comes in. If he were to address terrorism across the board, including secular forms at the far left and right, the term would be appropriate.
But when he and others in the administration speak clearly about the threat of ISIS and its appeal to young Muslims in the U.S. and elsewhere in the West, why don’t they use a more pointed term? I just returned from Turkey, a Muslim country, where terrorists of the ISIS variety are called “Jihadists” in the media and elsewhere.
So, speaking of Jihadist terrorists or Jihadist terrorism would signal that the threat comes from violent extremists that claim to act in the name of their religion--and, yes, the term “Jihadist” signals that this religion is Islam. As everyone knows anyway--most of all those Arab and Muslim countries threatened by Jihadists at their gates.