BRUSSELS (Reuters) - It was just days after the September 11 attacks in 2001 that President George W. Bush spoke of a “crusade” against terrorism — a phrase which, for Muslims, evoked barbarous campaigns by medieval Christians against Islam.
Bush has long since dropped the expression but the choice of language in his “war on terror” — itself a highly controversial label — remains as heated and divisive an issue as ever.
At a major conference on terrorism in Brussels this week, for example, debate on how to tackle al Qaeda was punctuated by repeated arguments over the terms “jihad” and “jihadist”.
Frequently used by al Qaeda itself and by counter-terrorism specialists and in the media to denote “holy war” against the West, the word jihad signifies for most Muslims a spiritual struggle.
“You can struggle for elimination of poverty, you can struggle for education ... you can struggle for something very, very positive in life,” said General Ehsan Ul Haq, former chairman of Pakistan’s joint chiefs of staff.
“Now to call jihadists as terrorists is either reflective of ...lack of understanding of Islam, or it is I must say an intended misuse, which again is unfortunate,” he added. “It might have been somewhat excusable in the trauma post-9/11 but I don’t think it is any more.”
Sheikh Mohammed Mohammed Ali, an Iraqi scholar, told delegates at the annual conference of the EastWest Institute think-tank: “Jihad is the struggle against all evil things in your soul...There is no jihadi terrorism in Islam.”
But Nasra Hassan, a Muslim woman from Pakistan who heads the United Nations information service in Vienna, spoke freely of “jihadist” groups, and Russian counter-terrorism official Anatoly Safonov talked about the need to combat two types of jihad, “jihad with the sword and jihad with the word”.
The differences reflect a glaring lack of consensus over how to describe an al Qaeda ideology that invokes the Muslim religion to justify acts of mass murder like the September 11 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people.
Many Muslims are offended by phrases such as “Islamic terrorism” and especially by Bush’s 2006 reference, in the context of an alleged plot to bomb trans-Atlantic planes, to a “war with Islamic fascists”.
On the other hand, some argue such terms are justified to describe religiously motivated militants. They say that resorting to euphemisms is a form of political correctness that skirts the real issue and absolves Muslims of the responsibility to root out dangerous radicals exploiting their faith.
Officials have become increasingly sensitive to the language issue. In Britain, government ministers prefer to speak about “violent extremism” and security officials use the neutral term “international terrorism” to describe al Qaeda activity.
Raphael Perl, head of the Action against Terrorism Unit at the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said the failure to agree on a shared terminology in the wake of the September 11 attacks was “a major mistake on our part”.
“One of the first things that we should have done is decide on the terminology and been consistent with it,” he told Reuters. “Use of the wrong terms can be a major factor contributing to the radicalisation process.”
Arguably the hardest linguistic challenge of all is to agree on a definition of terrorism — a hurdle which has prevented the United Nations from agreeing a global convention against it.
“It is time for the world to get its act together,” said Gijs de Vries, former European Union counter-terrorism coordinator.
“It is time once and for all to do away with the hypocrisy that killing men, women and children can be acceptable if done in the framework of a liberation struggle. Killing men, women and children is wrong. One shall not target non-combatants, that’s a basic rule of humanity that ties us together across religious and national divides.”