Center for Strategic Communication

by Bud Goodall

A recent report in The Huffington Post showed once again how much trouble foreign journalists can have in translating colloquial Americanisms:

That problem faced Al Jazeera reporter Abderrahim Foukara when he wrestled with how to describe “maverick.” The world’s most watched Arab network finally decided to define the American colloquialism as “a bird that sings outside the flock.” . . . For Al Jazeera, and foreign-language media throughout the world, the issue of how to translate the language of American politics is more than just a matter of journalistic accuracy. Their decisions reflect their own diverse histories and cultures, as well as their ethical guidelines about bias in translation.

The problem of translated meanings is not limited to Middle Eastern reporters.  In the same article, the Italian journalist Matteo Bosco Bortolasco offered cane sciolto (dog without a leash) as a translation of “maverick.”  If we take Sarah Palin’s comment about being a “soccer mom” (also challenging for foreign journalists, except maybe in Australia) and then compare soccer moms to “pit bulls with lipstick,” the resulting image is one of a pit bull wearing lipstick that is off its leash.  That’s a pretty scary image, and one not likely to lead audiences to think of Palin and the group she represents as interested in working with others to build safe communities.

While that lipstick-wearing-pit-bull-off-the-leash image may strike us as humorous, it underscores the difficulty of not taking into account how words will be interpreted by diverse listeners.  In a previous white paper we investigated this problem and offered some pragmatic solutions.  This is why we were a little exercised by the United States Central Command Red Team’s newest report “Freedom of Speech in Jihad Analysis: Debunking the Myth of Offensive Words.” The Executive Summary states their view succinctly:

There are a growing number of USG documents that suggest we stand in danger of (if we have not already) demonizing Islam and/or associating all Muslims with violence simply by invoking the Islamic identity, or Islamist goals, of a particular extremist group. . . . The fact is our enemies cite the sources of Islam as the foundation of their global jihad.

The report argues that abandoning the word jihadist and replacing it with alternative terms (like takfiris, violent extremists, Salafist extremists, criminals, miscreants, mufsidoon, etc.) hasn’t had any effects, good or bad.  “None of these adjustments in term usage have effected our standing in the AOR, nor our effectiveness in executing the instruments of national power in any measurable way.”

So what should we make of this proposed step backward in communication strategy proposed by the Red Team?

First and foremost, as illustrated in the Palin example, foreign journalists (including those from al Jazeera) have trouble translating relatively harmless American expressions into sensible meanings for languages and cultures different from ours.  How would they politically interpret a resurgence of our use of the term “jihad” to refer to acts of violence perpetrated by Muslims?  Muslims already tend to think that we view them all as potential terrorists, despite our statements to the contrary.  How can it be wise to affirm this suspicion by sending a message that we think violence is inherent in their religious beliefs and duties?

Second it is true, as the report claims, that the credibility of jihad is established as a matter of religious doctrine, and that U.S. government labeling isn’t going to affect this.  The crucial point the Red Team misses is that the “true meaning” of this sacred terminology is contested within the Muslim world.  Witness former Jamaah Islamiyah terrorist Nasir Abbas, who after counciling by Indonesian police said “I (came to) understand that the Bali bombings were a crime, not a jihad.”   By labeling the Bad Guys as jihadists we take a side in this contest, and not the one that’s in our best interests.  Chalk one up for the Bad Guys.

Third, the report sends mixed messages.  On the one hand, the Red Team criticizes its colleagues in Homeland Security for “overestimating the impact of USG word choice on the Muslim community.”  But then it speaks of “rightly placed concern that we not label all Muslims as Islamist terrorists.”  So do we influence the community, or not?  The report says we must “understand [the] mindset of those presently commited and opposed to jihad, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.”  But then it says that jihad is “regarded by all jurists in the four major Sunni schools, with almost no exception, as a collective obligation of the entire community.”  So can Muslims oppose jihad or is it their obligation?  On these and other matters, the Red Team tries to have it both ways.

Finally, we have pointed out before that there is strategic value in ambiguity.  Our messages also operate on a “rugged landscape” in which global media play a leading role in message dissemination and interpretation.  In this environment, experimentation–not standardization–creates fitness.  The strategic communication situation can only deteriorate if we continue to insist that everyone frame the debate in one, narrow way that we attempt to dictate.

As with the “maverick” example, using the term “jihad” might be a line that plays well with some domestic audiences.  But the world we work and live in is no longer solely domestic.  It would be well for our leaders to remember that fact, and to choose their words accordingly.  This is not about free speech, it’s about careful speech.