Analysis: Constructing the Enemy

by Steven R. Corman

Recently, a rash of blog posts has come down the pipe about whether we should call the Bad Guys jihadis and/or what they do jihad. The literal translation of jihad is to strive or struggle. The word and its forms appear frequently in the Qu’ran, and it is considered a religious duty of Muslims. Agreement about the term ends at that point.

In the latest controversy one side argues that we should abandon jihad terms and use more unfavorable Arabic labels like irhabis and irhab, words that translate to “terrorism” and “terrorists.” On the other side there are those who think these proposals play into an information operation by the Wahabis and the Muslim Brotherhood, designed to further confuse the West about the identity of the the Bad Guys and their intent.

The main protagonist of the first group is national security consultant Jim Guirard, President of the TrueSpeak Institute. Giurard believes that because jihad describes a religious duty, its use by Western authorities certifies the religious legitimacy of the people who use it. To him, we are repeating mistakes of the Cold War when people in the West repeated leftist terms like “wars of national liberation” and “American imperialism,” allowing “semantic infiltration” of these ideas into public discourse. His prescribed antidote is to develop a different vocabulary for describing the Bad Guys and what they are doing, such as irhab, that does not carry religious baggage.

In this argument Giurard cites David Kilcullen, an adviser to the Multi-National Force in Iraq and the U.S. State Department. In a recent essay he called for a “new lexicon” as one step toward better performance in the War of Ideas. Marine General Jim Mattis has also complained about the “false religious garb” worn by his opponents. A National Defense University paper agrees:

Calling our enemies jihadis and their movement a global jihad thus indicates that we recognize their doctrines and actions as being in the path of God and, for Muslims, legitimate. In short, we explicitly designate ourselves as the enemies of Islam.

A second group is opposed to this idea of replacing jihad with a term like irhab. In a widely circulated essay Walid Phares argues that these alternative terms are advocated by other groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, who are struggling with al Qaeda. Using their language helps strengthen these groups, who have their own long-term plans to destroy the West:

By convincing Westerners that al Qaeda and its allies are not the real jihadists but some renegades, the advocates of this school would be causing the vision of Western defense to become blurred again so that more time could be gained by a larger, more powerful wave of Jihadism that is biding its time to strike when it chooses, under a coherent international leadership.

Phares’s position has been echoed by a number of commentators, such as Robert Spencer and Hugh Fitzgerald. Spencer has gone so far as to label Guirard as “part of the Muslim Brotherhood threat network.”


There is an old saying that “those who define the terms win the debate.” This is a common-sense version of a philosophical perspective called social constructionism, popularized by Berger and Luckmann in their classic book, The Social Construction of Reality. In it they argue that meaning is not a static given, but something that is built-up by communicators in the course of everyday interaction.

Social constructionism is part of a general trend in late 20th century social thought. According to this perspective the meanings of words are not to be found in dictionaries but in how they are currently in play in society. Because knowledge is constructed using words in social discourse, these dynamic meanings shape what we know and have important implications for how we conceptualize what we are doing.

Another offshoot of this trend is labeling theory in criminal justice. It holds that by labeling people as criminals we cause them to think of themselves as such, and this in turn leads them to act like criminals.


According to the perspectives of labeling and social constructionism the Giurard/anti-jihad side is right to worry about the use of jihad in the current war of ideas. Whatever arcane religious arguments lie behind its “true” meaning, it is clear that jihad is an article of religious faith in Islam. It is also unquestionable that the Bad Guys use this term to legitimize their actions. Their speeches, essays, and communiques use it over and over again. The fact that they are so keen to use the term should be reason enough for us to avoid it.

On the other hand, it is naive to think that simply picking another word from an Arabic dictionary is the solution to this problem. Other words, too, are the products of social construction. Words like irhab are labels that are promoted by groups for their own ideological purposes, and have meanings beyond their dictionary definitions for the people who use them.

Phares and other critics of the Giurard camp are right to point this out. Unless we have a clear understanding of how these alternate words are in play and who is advocating them, we risk blundering into another language trap, trading one bad outcome for another.

At the same time, simply dismissing proposals for chage leaves the status quo in place. Western authorities and commentators like Phares, Spencer, and Fitzgerald routinely reproduce the jihad label. In doing so they help the Bad Guys construct themselves as religious warriors and accomplish one of their key strategic communication objectives. This makes it ironic (and unhelpful) for these critics to charge Giurard with treason.

A simple solution to this controversy is to replace jihad but not with another contested Arabic word. A good choice might be islamism, which can be combined with suitable modifiers like violent, radical or totalitarian. This is an English language construction that moves from a religious frame to an ideological one and does not reproduce contested terms from another culture. While it connects radical islamists to their religious beliefs, it also implies that their ideas are based on an extremist interpretation, so it avoids both granting them religious legitimacy and painting all Muslims with the same broad brush.

Maybe there is a better alternative to the language I have proposed here. But it is clear that we need some alternative to describing the Bad Guys in terms of jihad. It is equally clear that alternatives have to be selected with great care and that we’re better off staying within a system of social construction that we understand.

Further Reading

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  1. [...] in September I did a post arguing that we should quit calling the Bad Guys jihadis because this helps construct them as [...]

  2. [...] has finally decided that this would be a good idea. I feel sure it was two posts on COMOPS Journal, here and here, that finally did the [...]

  3. [...] to describe the Bad Guys, a position we here at COMOPS have also defended again, and again, and again, and [...]