Monday, June 2, 2008

Labeling the Enemy

P.W. Singer and Elina Noor have an excellent short op-ed in this morning's NY Times, criticizing the USG's appropriation of the term "jihadist" to describe Islamic extremists, including those engaged in terror attacks:

"IMAGINE if Franklin D. Roosevelt had taken to calling Adolf Hitler the 'leader of the National Socialist Aryan patriots' or dubbed Japanese soldiers fighting in World War II as the 'defenders of Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.'

To describe the Nazis and the Imperial Japanese Army in terms that incorporated their own propaganda would have been self-defeating. Unfortunately, that is what many American policymakers have been doing by calling terrorists 'jihadists' or 'jihadis.'"
Singer and Noor make their case on three grounds:
"First, to 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...

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... Why, after all, would we call our enemy a 'holy warrior'?"
What do they propose instead? Singer and Noor present a novel proposal:
"If we want to say what we mean, what terms better describe Qaeda members and other violent extremists? “Muharib” or the more colloquial “hirabi” or “hirabist” would be good places to start. “Hirabah,” the base word, is a term for barbarism or piracy. Unlike “jihad,” which grants honor, “hirabah” brings condemnation; it involves unlawful violence and disorder."
This is an excellent idea, and I shall henceforth use this terminology on this blog unless anyone who understands Arabic etymology better than I do convinces me Singer and Noor are wrong. It should be added, however that the term jihadi probably has an appropriate use in US diplomatic rhetoric, and this would be to refer to individuals who, in the name of Islam, make efforts and even sacrifices to uphold basic standards of humane conduct and social justice in their societies. As Singer and Noor allude, this comprises not only many Muslim moderates but a great swath of Muslims who have spoken out against terrorism, risked their lives to promote human rights in their societies, or assisted the US in reconstructing Iraq, for example.

Unfortunately Singer and Noor then back away from this excellent idea, claiming in their last paragraph:
"Of course, it’s probably best not to engage in these nuances at all. Which is why American leaders would do best to call terrorists by their rightful name: “terrorists.” The label may seem passé, but terrorism is an internationally recognized word for an internationally recognized crime."
Not to my understanding. Terrorism is certainly internationally used, but it has never been defined through any consensus process in international law, and both scholars and diplomats use it inconsistently. This is why the crime is ironically absent from the statute of the International Criminal Court, for example.


Cleitus the Black said...
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Cleitus the Black said...

O, Diodotus... I am saddened to think that a scholar of your preeminence has been taken in by the lunatic views of the mob, but I thank you for bringing this specious notion of Singer & Noor to my attention, so that I can rebuke their rhetorical ravings in a manner properly befitting.

You will find my scathing reply sketched out in a letter to the forum shortly.

I remain yours truly, etc, etc,

Cleitus the Black

Diodotus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Diodotus said...

Ha! You fail to convince, having not based your scathing reply on Arabic etymology, as required.

But I shall tackle some of your other points in the comments to your post in due course.


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