Not long ago, the State Department issued a directive to its personnel ending the use of the words “jihad” and “jihadi” in relation to terrorism. At the time, it appeared to be a way of making nice with moderate Muslims and separating radical Islamic terrorism from, well, radical Islam. Today, though, P. W. Singer and Elina Noor argue in the New York Times that calling a terrorist a “jihadi” pays him a high compliment and might even be seen as an acknowledgment by infidels of the rightness of the terrorist’s cause:
The word “jihad” means to “strive” or “struggle,” and in the Muslim world it has traditionally been used in tandem with “fi sabilillah” (“in the path of God”). The term has long been taken to mean either a quest to find one’s faith or an external fight for justice. It makes sense, then, for terrorists to associate themselves with a term that has positive connotations. For the United States to support them in that effort, however, is a fundamental strategic mistake.
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. 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”?
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.
Or, as Singer and Noor conclude, we could just use the Western term for terrorists: terrorists. Some news agencies may balk at this effort, but it has the simplicity of truth. That term correctly identifies their activities and their strategies without any confusion or ambiguity, as hirabi might cause with people unfamiliar with the term.
Most of us who use the term jihad do so with an ironic intent, a manner of belittling these grandiose fantasies of Islamist terrorists that they kill women and children for their concept of the Almighty. Irony doesn’t translate well, though, and the impression could be left that we honor thesenutcases rather than ridicule them.
Singer and Noor note that FDR would never have called Hitler an “Aryan patriot”. He wouldn’t have called Tojo a “samurai”, either, despite the bushido code he and the militants instilled in the Japanese in the years leading up to their invasion of China and conquest of Manchuria. Those terms would have given a very mixed message to our enemies, in essence strengthening the credibility of their lunatic racial arguments. Why, then, should we bolster the credibility of Islamic lunatics by even suggesting that their activities have the sanction of God?