Friday, May 09, 2008

Open democracy: A language sea-change?

'According to documents recently published by the National Counter-Terrorism Center, a US agency responsible for coordinating the government response to terrorism, officials are now being asked to stop using terminology that could "unintentionally legitimate terrorism," and reorient their vocabulary away from language that might frame radicals in a sympathetic light. This entails ceasing to describe radical cells as either Islamic or Muslim, and also rejecting the term "Islamist," which experts argue is confusing to the general public. Instead of using words such as jihad or mujahedin, which "have positive connotations for Muslims," the report recommends replacing these terms with "'death cult,' ‘cult-like,' ‘sectarian cult,' and ‘violent cultists'" as more accurate indicators of "the ideology and methodology of al-Qaida and other terrorist groups."

Grounding the report in an awareness of the wider connotations of these terms for Muslims, experts advised that officials must be more "careful and judicious" in "navigating the rocks and shoals of terminology to avoid unnecessarily alienating a large segment of the Muslim community." To this end, the main focus of this initiative is to divorce al-Qaida and other radical cells from control of their own language, or in other words, to distance them from language steeped heavily in historical and religious import, which US officials claim has the effect of legitimating their goals.

toD analysis: While the effort to jettison sweeping terms like "Islamic" or "jihad" in official discourse is definitely one of the more enlightened suggestions made by a government agency recently, what is most striking about this project is its attitude towards its stated target audience, the international Muslim community. In choosing to eliminate words that bear religious and cultural significance to Muslims, the report is clearly attempting to distinguish between extremist groups and the Islamic community at large, an effort that has largely been ignored until now. However, by recasting radical groups in the Manichean framework that is at work now, the report ultimately remains faithful to the same Cold War logic of "us-versus-them" that permits alienation to ferment in the first place. In order to truly attend to the question of the alienation of Muslim communities, the US government must address this issue, and disrupt the cyclical thinking that has structured foreign policy.'
article by
Jessica Loudis



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