Language Matters

Use of the wrong words reinforces terrorist propaganda narratives

The fight against terrorism is fought not only on traditional battlefields with the weapons of the Soldier; it is also fought with ideas, and the weapons in that battle are words. This is well understood by those fighting the scourge of Da’ish. And just as an officer must choose the right weapons to accomplish a given tactical mission, those who fight the battle of ideas must choose the right words to effectively defeat the enemy in that arena.

Choosing the right words to describe terrorists and their deeds is not always as straightforward as it might seem. Employing the wrong words can actually reinforce terrorist narratives. A frequently cited example was the use of “crusade” in 2001 by then-U.S. President George W. Bush to describe the just-beginning War on Terror, which unwittingly echoed the terminology of al-Qaida propaganda.

His Majesty King Abdullah II bin Al Hussein of Jordan pointed out in an April 2015 interview with a television network that he dislikes the word “extremists” to describe terrorists, because the terrorists “take that as a badge of honor.” For example, in 2013, a group of Buddhist “extremists” in Burma killed 250 Muslims and destroyed 442 homes in three days of sectarian violence. The Guardian reported that the leader, a monk named Wirathu, referred to himself as “the Burmese bin Laden” and said that he was proud to be called a Buddhist extremist.

King Abdullah prefers to refer to the terrorists threatening Jordan and its neighbors as “outlaws” or “renegades,” or khawarij in Arabic, noting that Islam has been at war with the scourge of khawarij terrorism for a long time. “They have nothing to do with understanding what our religion is all about,” King Abdullah said.

Iraqis view the aftermath of a Da’ish car bomb attack in Baghdad in September 2015. REUTERS

Iraqis view the aftermath of a Da’ish car bomb attack in Baghdad in September 2015. REUTERS

But this battle of ideas is more complex than simply calling a terrorist a terrorist or a criminal a criminal. Da’ish has become skilled in strategic communications. It has built an extensive propaganda machine with comprehensive messaging. To defeat it, Da’ish’s narrative must be countered effectively. To understand and counter modern terrorist propaganda, the coalition must first understand what makes certain messages attractive to potential recruits, donors and sympathizers. With that understanding, it can better frame countermessaging and use terminology that negates, rather than reinforces, terrorist narratives.

A 2013 report from the Quilliam Foundation — the United Kingdom-based counterextremism think tank founded by former extremists — examines how the inaccurate use of terminology and lack of understanding of Islam can lead to messages that inadvertently support terrorist interpretations.

According to “Islamism and Language: How Using the Wrong Words Reinforces Islamist Narratives,” the first step in undermining narratives is to avoid echoing the language in those narratives. Repeating these words is often done unknowingly by Western politicians and media, Quilliam noted.

The report cites five examples that illustrate of the importance of language. “The issue is not one of political correctness; it is about avoiding inaccuracies which unwittingly endorse and strengthen extremist narratives.”

Quilliam’s five examples are centered on the inaccurate use of the words Islam/Islamic and Muslim as adjectives, such as “the Islamic/Muslim world” or “the Muslim community” to describe places and concepts. The other three examples are “Muslim countries,” “Islamic law” and “Islamophobia.”

In general, this lexicon is problematic because it suggests that Muslims everywhere make up a homogenous block and reinforces the claims of Da’ish and/or al-Qaida that they and their ideology represent the entire “Muslim world.” These terms are generally used as shorthand to compare the West to “the Muslim world,” but can also be used by Islamists to support their narrative of cultural and religious competition requiring Muslims to rally to Islam’s defense. Similarly, the idea that a country is “Muslim” encourages and reinforces extremist narratives and discrimination against non-Muslims. Quilliam suggests using more accurate terminology such as “Muslim communities worldwide” and “predominantly Muslim countries.”

His Majesty King Abdullah II bin Al Hussein of Jordan addresses the United Nations General Assembly in September 2015, where he shared ideas on how to defeat the hateful ideology of terrorism. GETTY IMAGES

His Majesty King Abdullah II bin Al Hussein of Jordan addresses the United Nations General Assembly in September 2015, where he shared ideas on how to defeat the hateful ideology of terrorism. GETTY IMAGES

And according to Quilliam, Sharia is also widely misunderstood and misused in Western media, often being mistranslated as “Islamic law,” which implies “a single code of state law agreed by all Muslims,” another major but false component of terrorist ideology. Rather, most Muslims have traditionally viewed Sharia as a set of diverse scholarly opinions (some contradictory) that provide broad moral and religious guidelines. The article suggests translating Sharia as “Islamic teachings or codes,” rather than as Islamic law.

The use of “Islamophobia” has become widespread among Western media and politicians and, according to Quilliam, its use “to refer to several different phenomena has caused widespread confusion about what it actually means and how it should be used.” It is widely misused to refer to any criticism of Islam or its aspects, conflating any such criticism with the real problem of prejudice or hostility toward Muslims in general.

Extremists exploit this expanded definition to accuse those that oppose their ideology of Islamophobia. Quilliam says that the trend has a chilling effect on legitimate criticism that any religion is subject to and suggests using terms such as “anti-Muslim prejudice” instead.

Defeating terrorism will require an improved collaborative, international approach. A 2013 report for the United Nations by the Center on Global Counterterrorism Cooperation recommended an international strategy on terrorism “that resonates globally but can be applied locally.” A full understanding of the enemy’s strategic communications objectives and its narratives is necessary to develop counterstrategies. This includes understanding the role of language and how the inaccurate or careless use of words can reinforce terrorist narratives, rather than discredit them.

As King Abdullah said: “The problem is that [the terrorists] are international, and I don’t think that the international community realizes that they have to be dealt with internationally. So, today we are focusing on what you call ISIS, we call Da’ish, in Syria and Iraq, but at the same time in 2015 we have to have a holistic approach.”