The latest front in the Bush Administration’s “war on terror” lies far from the wilds of Waziristan–it’s on the tongues of American bureaucrats and diplomats. It is a battle being waged in the current season of presidential politicking, with real consequences for civil liberties and national security.
The issue is how to talk about terror without aiding terrorists. In particular, it’s about how government officials communicate to a world that is often skeptical of American motives without seeming insensitive, ignorant or bigoted. An internal effort to frame this question has already sparked a Beltway brushfire.
In 2005, the Bush Administration briefly cast aside the standard terminology for its global war on terror–GWOT–for the Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism (GSVE). Not as catchy as Kanye, but the acronym at least had the virtue of accuracy: terror cannot be eradicated by government fiat. And counterterrorism is a process, not a war, which depends on ideas and political suasion as much as brute force.
The GSVE idea didn’t last. But in early May two government documents surfaced, providing insight into continued efforts within the government to address the ideological and psychological demands of counterterrorism without partisan blinkers.
The Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State each circulated intra-agency documents urging care in the way that officials use language.
The DHS report advised that terminology should be “strategic–it should avoid helping the terrorists by inflating the religious bases and glamorous appeal of their ideology.” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff met with a group of American Muslims and asked for their input on how to communicate effectively.
The “expert recommendations” that resulted are at once no-brainers and critically important. Don’t feed the notion that America is engaged in a broad struggle against the so-called Muslim World, American Muslims advised DHS. Don’t use terms that concede the religious legitimacy of terrorists, a legitimacy that terrorists use to garner new recruits. Find ways to emphasize that Muslims have been, and will continue to be, part of the fabric of our country.
The State Department’s memo similarly aimed “to raise awareness among communicators of the language issues that may enhance or detract from successful engagement”–surely an uncontroversial goal for diplomats.
Its guidance was similarly to the point: Avoid ill-defined and offensive terminology. Don’t use religious terms like “jihadist” or “mujahideen” because in some circumstances this “unintentionally legitimates their actions.” Don’t use too many non-English terms, especially theological terms, the memo advised, “unless you are prepared to discuss their varying meanings over the centuries.”