The Delicacy of Correct Terminology

Posted: Jun 11, 2008 9:08 AM
The Delicacy of Correct Terminology

I have obtained a document prepared for the Department of Homeland Security, which is not posted on the DHS website. It is an internal handbook telling employees what they should and should not say when speaking about our enemies. The document does say that these guidelines are not mandatory but it is clear throughout the paper that failure to make use of these guidelines would be frowned upon. Some of the views in this document are right on target. I regard others as an effort to evade the truth.

For example, the guidebook says when Osama bin Laden or others try to draw the US Government into a debate we should offer only minimal, if any, response to their messages. When we respond loudly we raise their prestige in the Muslim world. And what al-Qaeda and its affiliates do is damning enough without ascribing to al-Qaeda and its affiliates motives or goals they have not articulated. Our audiences have more familiarity with the terrorist messages than we do and will immediately spot US Government embellishments.

Under the title "Don't Invoke Islam," the guidebook says, "although the al-Qaeda network exploits religious sentiments and tries to use religion to justify its actions, we should treat it as an illegitimate political organization, both terrorist and criminal."

Those are laudable goals. But when the guidebook says we must change the discussion from the West v. Islam or a clash of civilizations, we need to emphasize that terrorists misuse religion as a political tool to harm innocent civilians across the globe. True enough but the truth is we do have a clash of civilizations. Unless citizens understand the big picture they never will take the war against terrorists seriously.

Then the guidelines tell government employee to avoid negation such as "We are not at war with Islam." Sadly, studies show that people tend to forget the negative part of a statement, so that when you say, "I do not hate them," the words that are remembered are "hate" and "them."

Government employees are told to speak English and to limit their number of non-English terms. This statement I completely agree with. "Mispronunciation could make your statement incomprehensible and/or sound misinformed." I have been embarrassed by diplomats abroad when they have butchered terms or statements in Russian or Magyar or Armenian or the languages of many countries where I have attended official events.

The authors of these guidelines don't want you to refer to al-Qaeda as a movement as that confers legitimacy on that terrorist organization as it is then compared to the labor movement, the women's movement or the civil rights movement. The conservative movement was not mentioned.

Homeland Security did focus groups with American Muslims to obtain their recommendations on what terminology should be used to define terrorists. The first so-called expert recommendation is to respond to ideologies which exploit Islam without labeling all terrorist groups as a single enemy. American Muslims say that the US Government should not feed the notion that America is engaged in a broad struggle against the so-called "Muslim world." According to these experts al-Qaeda wants all Muslims to line up under its banner. Collapsing all terrorist organizations into a single enemy feeds the narrative that al-Qaeda represents Muslims worldwide. They pointed out that Hamas and Hezbollah are very distinct organizations with very different methods. Yes, Americans frequently lump them together with al-Qaeda.

These experts clearly do not like the usage of the term "Islamist" upon the grounds that foreigners particularly may confuse Islam with Islamist. While I understand their concern I think the US Government should educate the public about who is an Islamist and what Islamists do. The experts want the US Government to use the term "moderate and ordinary and traditional" when referring to the non-terrorist Muslim population. That would be easier to do if these so-called moderates themselves would speak out more forcefully against the terrorists.

In many respects these documents are useful so long as they are not turned into a political correctness exercise which prevents facing reality. If we are not careful that indeed is what will happen.