Struggling with semantics


The international crisis triggered by the 11 September attacks on Washington and New York has spawned an interesting breed of synonyms. In a game of political semantics, words have been forced to mate, binary oppositions resuscitated, and conclusions twisted to serve various vested interests.

The most obvious example is that of jihad and terror. Many Western politicians, academics and media professionals now use the two words interchangeably. The word game, however, knows no limits. We have terror/ national resistance, Arab and Muslims/fanatical terrorists, Islam and Arabs/barbarism, enduring freedom and infinite justice/war, the West/human civilisation, the international anti-terror coalition/the United States and its allies, and cluster bombs/food packages.

All these pairs suggest that the two sides of the dichotomy are in fact similar. A word is chosen, turned around, coupled with a target word, and then used interchangeably with it. With persistent repetition, the two parts become one in an act of linguistic wizardry that can cause serious damage.

The need for synonyms is as old as language, but as the media gain an ever greater grip on modern life, the creation of synonyms is becoming a veritable cottage industry. The media-led invention of a special new language is due either to sheer ignorance or to malicious intent. The combination of jihad and terror, which gained relevance in the aftermath of 11 September, is no benign coincidence. It is part of an ongoing war.

In this war, the United States and its closest allies have the advantage of an awesome media machine, capable of rearranging concepts and restructuring language, which has assumed a key role in managing the crisis and manipulating world opinion. Since the Gulf War — even since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Romanian “revolution” against Ceaucescu — the Western media have been powerful tools for the United States and its allies in the campaign to reshape the world, in reality and ideology.

In the ongoing war against “international terror,” Muslims and Arabs are the villains du jour; so jihad, a perfectly legitimate concept, is being equated with the horrifying goals of terrorists. The trick is standard fare for spin doctors: choose a word with sinister connotations and associate it with a concept you wish to discredit. Then use the two interchangeably, until the difference between them is forgotten.

Jihad and terror were good candidates. The two concepts share one trait. Jihad, under certain conditions, may involve the use of violence. The two concepts are different in almost every other sense. But once the differences are swept under the rug, through the constant abuse of language, jihad and its proponents evoke only images of violence and suffering. The same game can be played with national resistance, to impugn legitimate struggle against occupation and discredit opponents of global capitalism.

The war of words aims to obscure the meaning of jihad, reduce and twist the term, banish it to the territory of terror. Jihad al-nafs, a struggle for self-improvement and purification, is excised from the concept. All that remains is the image of terror, loathsome, menacing, and ugly.

The only way we can deal with this is to refuse to play. The word games are a crime against language. They should be deconstructed and shown to be empty of meaning. The two words must be dissociated, then returned to their true meanings.

Theoretically, the “terror” side of the equation should be easy to deal with. Most people would agree that terrorism is the use of force to frighten or kill civilians in order to attain illegitimate ends. The practical implications, however, are more difficult. The West sees the 11 September attacks as “terror.” But the actions of US forces against civilians in Afghanistan are seen as a legitimate “war” on terror. Likewise, the West refrains from labelling Israel’s occupation, massacres and mass detentions as anything more than the “excessive use of force.” Acts of resistance by the Palestinians, meanwhile, are invariably described as “terror.”

What we need, then, is a practical definition of terror. Since it is almost impossible to formulate a definition that satisfies everyone, perhaps it would be a good idea to formulate an Arab and Islamic definition of terror, in line with international law. At the same time, it would be appropriate to emphasise that Islam explicitly prohibits terror. This effort could take place through one of the two key international organisations of the Arab and Islamic world: the Arab League and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. Public figures, religious scholars, and intellectuals from Arab and Muslim countries should participate in that effort.

As for jihad, historical and religious information abounds. Jihad, most Muslim scholars would agree, is of two types. Jihad al-nafs, as mentioned above, refers to the individual’s striving to attain a higher moral ground. The other form of jihad is directed against those who live outside the umma (the Muslim community); that is, against non-Muslim countries and peoples. In both types of jihad, a Muslim may choose among four weapons: the heart, speech, the hand, and the sword.

Jihad against those outside the umma is of two types: defensive and offensive. The first is the duty of all Muslims: to defend their faith, life, land, and honour against attacks by non-Muslims. Offensive jihad is the duty of the “Muslim state”: to try and integrate non-Muslim peoples and zones into the land of Islam — that is, to convert people to the monotheistic faith of Islam and bring them into the umma. In both cases, jihad is conducted under rigorous restrictions. First, it must involve no threat to the lives, security, honour, and property of civilians and non- combatants.

Since there is no central Islamic state that encompasses all Muslim societies, it can be argued that the concept of offensive jihad, in the sense of conquest, is no longer valid. The essence of the term, however, remains applicable. It is still possible to enlarge the umma — the community of Muslims — through persuasion and dissemination of the faith, peaceful activities in which the media and various Muslim communities can take part.

As for defensive jihad, it is essentially a form of “national resistance” that is legitimate, under international law, as a means of confronting foreign occupation and aggression. Defensive jihad, in the sense of national resistance, does not need to emanate from a central authority. From the Islamic point of view, it is the duty of all capable Muslims to defend their land against foreign assault and occupation.

The writer is an expert at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies and managing editor of the annual State of Religion in Egypt Report.