Why the words we use about terrorism matter

The phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” has been the subject of renewed debate in recent weeks. During his first address to Congress last month, President Trump said that his administration “is taking steps to protect our nation from radical Islamic terrorism.” The president’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, warned that the expression could alienate allies within the Muslim community, while the deputy assistant to the president, Sebastian Gorka, tweeted that the words “radical Islamic terrorism” are “key to Victory against Global Jihadism.”

Where all three agree and are correct is that words have meaning and consequences for both policy decisions and audiences. This issue is typically approached in U.S. policy debates in terms of the language and concepts which Americans use to describe jihadists. What is less commonly considered are the internal debates on the same topic among both jihadists and Muslim scholars involved in discrediting them. Identifying how jihadists exploit Islamic traditions brings us to a clearer understanding of these groups’ appeal and vulnerabilities, to smarter policies of defeating them and to closer relationships with our Muslim allies on the front lines of these efforts.

It is not enough to simply accept that jihadists belong to a political ideology known as Islamism. Rather, it is more productive to appreciate how jihadists such as the Islamic State cultivate a unique and deep “Islamic” appeal to their recruits through their claims to authenticity, their theological language and the sources they use. In other words, unlike the political project of Muslim Brotherhood-style Islamists (who care only that Islam is in a place of prominence), jihadists such as the Islamic State care deeply about the kind of Islam, as well.

Looking at the Arabic publications produced by the Islamic State since 2014, a good number of medieval treatises are not only not violent or jihadist, but belong to the mainstream Islamic curriculum on topics such as grammar, eloquence and poetry. Sometimes, the books are published with no changes, such as the Islamic State’s edition of the 13th century grammar treatise, the Ajrumiyya.”

On other occasions, however, the group would insert overt jihadist themes into otherwise unrelated material — for example, a letter from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, founder of al-Qaeda in Iraq (the Islamic State’s predecessor), to his followers placed into a children’s textbook amid selections from poets known to anyone familiar with classical Arabic poetry.

By manipulating the Islamic literary canon in this way — something the Islamic State continues to pursue, publishing medieval texts as it defends its territorial strongholds in Iraq and Syria — the group aims to define its version of an ideal Muslim, and not just a fighter. It is through this sustained effort of creating a curriculum that the group hopes to continue to gain recruits when it finally loses all of its territory, since it is there that it proves its religious credentials.

The question of who is and is not Muslim is something Muslim scholars and community leaders do not take lightly, and in fact shy away from passing judgment on both today and historically. It is because determining one’s Muslim status is so sensitive that then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s depiction of Islamic State fighters as “apostates” received criticism.

Excommunication is the core of jihadist doctrine, which cites a minority school of Islamic theology that states that one’s faith is reflected in one’s actions. Jihadists take this view one step further and view any actions that do not align with their narrow understanding of Islam as one’s explicit dissociation with Islam, and then justify violence on that basis.

Most of the world’s mainstream Muslims follow what has become the dominant Islamic theological position that one’s faith is ultimately in one’s heart (which is known only to God) and that verbally affirming one’s faith is sufficient to consider one a Muslim.

This context affects intra-Islamic conversations about Islamic State fighters and jihadists. In 2014, an “open letter” to the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was signed by 126 Muslim scholars from a range of Sunni orientations. The letter refrains from calling members of the Islamic State non-Muslims. Rather, it surveys concepts that the Islamic State promotes and demonstrates why the group’s understanding of these is flawed.

The letter’s style and tone reflect those of other Sunni voices seeking to discredit the Islamic State by focusing on how they misunderstand Islam, but rarely — if ever — describing the group’s members as not being Muslim, preferring instead to call them “deviant” or “wayward.” Muslim communities fear that by excommunicating Islamic State fighters and jihadists they appear no different from them and thereby feed their narrative and appeal.

What about the American debate? Jihadists have become uniquely sensitized to both the doctrinal and political stakes in their own names. They keep up with Western commentary and have been quick to adapt their strategies in response to both U.S. policy labels such as “terrorism” and “extremism,” as well as locally sensitive labels such as “Islamists,” “Salafists” and “jihadists.” The most savvy, and therefore successful, jihadist groups rarely refer to themselves as “Islamists” or “jihadists” or, for that matter, as “Salafists,” choosing instead terms such as “Sunni,” “Muslim” and “monotheist” which have more historical resonance with local populations.

This use of the term “Sunni” — as well as terms such as “Muslim” and “monotheist” — rather than “Salafist” and “jihadist” carries historical and religious overtones that are meaningful, and therefore uniquely problematic, for other Muslims, which is why they should matter to U.S. policymakers as well. Rather than inconsistently using words such as “militants” and “fighters” or avoiding the connection to Islam altogether with phrases such as “violent extremism,” the United States and its partners could adopt language that accurately reflects the ideological tendencies of jihadist groups.

Jacob Olidort serves as special adviser on Middle East policy and Syria country director at the Defense Department. All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official positions or views of the Defense Department of or any other part of the federal government.

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