More Conflict About Language

by Steven R. Corman

The latest entry in the war of language comes from Jim Guirard of the TrueSpeak Institute writing today at Small Wars Journal Blog. Guirard is one of the earliest and most persistent arguers against using the word “jihadi” to describe the Bad Guys, a position we here at COMOPS have also defended again, and again, and again, and again.

In today’s post, Guirard gives a nice catalog of proofs of al Qaeda apostasy, and re-iterates the importance of words in conflicts like this. But then, as if to ignore his own advice, Guirard pens a concluding section in which he defends (and chides the government for abandoning) two labels that are downright dysfunctional and one that I’ve come to seriously question in the last month.

First, he defends the “war on terrorism” as “fundamentally correct and unnecessarily controversial,” referring to several essays he has written on the subject. In one of these he contradicts himself by saying we should call it a war because

all of this country’s “Death to America” enemies are delighted to call it “war” — beginning with al Qaeda’s preposterous claim that it is a Holy War “Jihad” and continuing apace with all the “Illegal War” and “Bush’s War” and “Immoral War” condemnations which have long been voiced by the President’s cut-and-run detractors in this country, in Europe and elsewhere.

But just a few paragraphs later he quotes Senator Moynihan warning us of the dangers of semantic infiltration, “the process whereby we come to adopt the language of our adversaries in describing political reality.” If they are so eager to call it war, aren’t we obliged to resist infiltration by calling it something else?

As we have argued, there are very good reasons for calling it something besides war that have nothing to do with the Bad Guys’ propaganda. I won’t rehash all the arguments here, but the most important is that calling it war it creates certain expectations–like an engagement of limited duration, a definitive end involving surrender of the enemy–that can’t be met, causing erosion of political support for the effort. The alternative is to call it crime. While some people seem to think this isn’t a macho enough label, it is certainly a lot better aligned with the nature of the conflict.

Second, Guirard defends the labels “islamist” and “islamism” as alternatives to jihad-based labels. I have a great deal of sympathy with this argument, and have taken to using these terms in my own writing recently. Guirard correctly says that these words denote a political/ideological (rather than religious) movement, and he asserts that they are

already widely used and well understood by much of the Muslim Community itself to correctly differentiate the “Irhabi Murderdom” (Terroristic Genocide) types and their mandate-for-murder ideology from those many civilized and peaceful Muslims to whom the honorable terms “Islam” and “Islamic” correctly apply.

I don’t know about the evidence for this claim, but I recently attended a conference on countering ideological support for terrorism that was attended by a number of Muslim military officers that has caused me to question my own thinking in favor of this language. They seemed unimpressed with subtle linguistic distinctions introduced by adding the postfix “ism” to Islam, and viewed any such language as an effort to tar the whole of Islam with the Bad Guys’ brush. This still leaves the question of what we should call them, and I join Guirard in questioning whether words like “radical extremists” and “violent extremists” do the job.

Guirard’s third argument is the most wrong-headed, in my view. Here he defends the application of labels like “fascist” and “islamo-fascist” to the Bad Guys:

Since the word “fascist” has come to be the codeword for brutal and unpardonable EVIL, al Qaeda and its murderous ilk are clearly “fascist” and jackboot Left-illiberal to the marrow of their pseudo-religious bones — and should not be exempted from being labeled as such, as long as this invective does not apply routinely and automatically to their professed, and avowedly “peaceful, compassionate and just” versions of Islam.

He regards “islamo-fascist” as striking just the right balance while reclaiming the implications of the “fascist” label as extra incentive for getting rid of the “evildoers.”

I’m not buying it. First, if the word fascist “has come to be the codeword for brutal and unpardonable EVIL” then this merely describes its connotation. As a matter of definition, it is most commonly taken to be a form of government that puts the interests of the state above the interests of its component individuals and groups. To apply the label to the Bad Guys helps legitimize them (in the same way as calling them “jihadis”) by implying that they are some kind of government. They are wanna-be fascists, if anything.

Second, Guirard quotes Wittgenstein on the importance of language. It that spirit we should recognize that “islamo-fascist” is a language marker of a particular group of conservative thinkers who openly argue that Islam is an inherently violent and/or evil religion. Guirard apparently does not agree with this group about Islam, yet by using their language he invokes their ideology, one that (understandably) antagonizes peaceful Muslims.

Finally, do we really need any extra incentive for riddance of these bastards? I don’t think so. In any case it’s not a good rationale for adopting unrealistic, inaccurate, and antagonistic language.

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