Language and Message

In the American Strategy to Combat Terrorism

Sadek J. Sulaiman
Muscat, August 29, 2004


 ... American strategy to combat terrorism can stand review and improvement: in language, message, policies, and actions. However, I shall address here only language and message.


Extra care needs to be taken to ensure non-offensive, proper, and effective use of language in U.S. pronouncements on matters Islamic. Particular attention should be paid to how the Arabic translation of any English composition would turn out.  Where sensitive connotations are present, descriptive phrases, rather than single word adjectives, should be used to preclude misinterpretation. For example “terrorists acting falsely in the name of Islam” is more forthright and less open to misinterpretation, or misrepresentation, than “Islamist terrorists.” “Islamist” and “Islamic” usually come out the same in the Arabic translation.  Thus, “Islamist terrorists” (the term the 9/11 Commission has used) would come out as  ĹŃĺÇČíćä ĹÓáÇăíćä. This risks unjustified generalization, because a good many ordinary Muslims who do not condone terrorism nonetheless consider themselves Islamist.  An Islamist, in this sense, is one who is committed to the Islamic view and way of life without admitting terrorism as an instrument of that view and way.


Another example.  “Muslims who are true to their religion” is to be preferred to “moderate Muslims” in terms of both precision and accuracy.  In the current pervasive culture and literature of extremism a “moderate Muslim,” or for that matter, a “moderate Arab” is suspect. He/she is portrayed as weak, less authentic, less committed, and less solidly established in communal faith or convention.

How do you in the West describe the nature of the terrorist adversary, you ask  I say, as a rule, contemporary language addressing contemporary problems invariably ought to be brisk, precise, direct and above all truthful. Truth should never be camouflaged or compromised.  To call a spade a spade is still the best way to bare facts and expose things for what they are.  But one must then call all spades by that name. Where terrorism comes from perpetrators other than Muslims it too should be so branded. Like the state terrorism being perpetrated by Israel against the Palestinians by  way of coercive occupation, and lately by the Sudanese government through the Janjaleed against the population of Darfor.

To answer your other question: no, it is not presumptuous of you to describe some Muslims as terrorists.  It is not presumptuous of anyone of us to describe persons of whatever religion they happen to be as terrorists when they actually commit acts of terrorism.  Perverted versions exist in all the major religions, and in all of them, not just Islam, they  continue to be used for justification of terrorist crimes. They should be so exposed, and disowned.  But we should not tarry there long before we shift responsibility to where it really belongs: to the perpetrators of terrorism themselves. Besides, often enough,  terrorism is inwardly directed, within the same religion, moved by sectarian divisiveness and zeal. Muslims, more than people of any other religion, continue to be victims of such terrorism. 


Generally speaking, in all American comment on matters Islamic reference should be made to Muslims rather than to Islam.  The people should be the subject of comment, and the object of attention, not the religion. I suggest, that should be the standard, whether the  judgment that is passed is positive or negative.  Criticizing a people for their failings is less problematic, and ultimately perhaps more remedial, than criticizing a religion for its shortcomings. This is universally true, whoever the people, whatever the religion. On the other hand, outsider praise for a religion in a public relations context is rarely received
as genuine;  more often than not such praise is seen not far removed from a banal form of condescension.

Again, the legitimate and universally shared aspirations of the mass of humanity who happens to be Muslim to a safe, democratic, and prosperous national environment is what needs to be highlighted. When more is said about Muslims as a people aspiring to peace, political reform and economic progress, and less about Islam as their particular brand of religion, the focus shifts from a religion oriented identification to a rational and humane identification of shared real life concerns. Differentiating radicals and terrorists (reference King Abdulla, President Bush in your note) does not help half as much as
differentiating sound and unsound ideas and  fair and unfair policies and practices.  We need to do more of the latter  in addressing our common problems and finding our path to solutions.

Finally, the asymmetrical juxtaposition of Islam and the West should once and for all be dropped from our discourse. That the one is a religion, unbounded by geography, and the other a hemisphere, constituted of certain peoples and states, makes any comparison meaningless.  Though predominantly non-Muslim, people in the West are cognizant of Islam, and the hemisphere is home to a great many Muslims. A more coherent approach would be to discuss the Islamic Civilization and the Western Civilization as two of humanity’s greatest enterprises. Huntington did not get it exactly right.  Civilizations do not clash:
they form complementary and cooperative relationships. They reach out, borrow from one another, and compete for excellence.  It is states and religions though that clash when they become less civil, less civilized.  That I think is the lesson we must heed and the truth we must tell.
(Sadek J. Sulaiman is a former ambassador in Washington DC)