Language wars

In any conflict or dispute, setting the terms, choosing the terrain, defining the terms can be decisive.

In the ongoing political battle over taxation in the UK for instance, fixing in voters minds the concept of a “death tax”, rather than a redistributive inheritance tax, skews the argument one way right from the beginning.

Here’s another example that caught my eye. It’s from David Kilcullen’s book  about counter insurgency, The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One. (See previous post.) He’s trying to label his enemy in such a way as to delegitimise them in the eyes of Muslims – to make the Islamic sea an inhospitable place for so-called terroristic fish. Here’s a passage from the preface:

“I use the term takfiri to describe the enemy’s ideology, and the phrase “takfiri terrorist” to describe those who use terrorism to further that ideology. The doctrine of takfir disobeys the Qur’anic injunction against compulsion in religion (Surah al-Baqarah: 256) and instead holds that Muslims whose beliefs differ from the takfiri’s are infidels who must be killed.

“Takfirism is a heresy within Islam: it was outlawed in the 2005 Amman Message, an initiative of King Abdullah II of Jordan, which brought together more than 500 ulema (Islamic scholars) and Muslim political leaders from the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Arab League in an unprecedented consensus agreement, a ‘unanimous agreement by all Muslims everywhere as represented by their acknowledged most senior religious authorities and political leaders.’ Al Qa’ida is takfiri, and its members are universally so described by other Muslims, whom they routinely terrorize.

“In my view [David Kilcullen’s view, that is], and compellingly for me in the daily vocabulary of most ordinary local people, religious leaders and tribal leaders with whom I have worked in the field, ‘takfirism’ best describes the ideology currently threatening the Islamic world.

“I prefer it to the terms jihad, jihadist, jihadi, or mujahidin (literally  ‘holy war’ or ‘holy warrior’), which cede to the enemy the sacred status they crave, and to irhabi (terrorist) or hiraba (terrorism), which address AQ’s violence but not its ideology.

Takfiri is also preferable to the terms salafi or salafist, which refer to the belief the true Muslims should live like the first four generations of Muslims, the ‘pious ancestors’ (as-salaf as-salih). Most extremists are salafi, but few salafi believers are takfiri, and even fewer are terrorists: most, although fundamentalist conservatives, have no direct association with terrorism.”

So – is this a credible attempt to come up with a better term than “jihadist”? Is it more accurate than “terrorist”? Or is it nothing more than a self-interested transparent attempt by one side to undermine the other by resetting the definitions?

Can it catch on? It is sometimes difficult to budge accepted terms from the popular and journalistic lexicons – hence the persistence of the term “joyriders”, despite efforts to rebrand them as “death drivers” or something similar.

Any thoughts from Muslims out there on the appropriateness or otherwise of takfiri in this context? Is it right? Does it work for you?

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5 Comments

Filed under language, politics, What I'm Reading

5 responses to “Language wars

  1. Pingback: What I Am Reading 26th September 2009 « Blackwatertown

  2. The President needs to realize the importance of body armor for our armed soliders in Afghanistan. They are dying while Congress wastes time arguing.

  3. f.ville

    Skillfully nuanced.

  4. Susy Heinbach

    What I find difficult is to find a blog that can capture me for a minute, but you definitely add value. Keep it like this.

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