Grappling with Language: the Ongoing Struggle in Defining the War on Terror

| July 20, 2009 | 1 Comment
(Left to right) Sergeant Mike Abdeen, Lieutenant John Sullivan, and Deputy Afsoon Nafissi Anaheim, CA – In April of 2009, a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department round table on terrorism featured a unique opportunity for Muslims to discuss terrorism.  The discussion drew attention to the perception gap on terrorism and the ways in which even a compact Muslim community differs in their understanding it. The event, presented by the LACSD Muslim Community Affairs Unit (MCAU) and hosted at Access California head office in Anaheim, was headed by Sergeant Mike Abdeen.

The MCAU, a first-of-its-kind outreach effort fostering an open-door policy with local groups, routinely invites the Muslim community into forums as an opportunity to ask questions of law enforcement officials; the MCAU also views the exchange as an occasion to educate law enforcement on the Muslim community.

Their end of April round table on terrorism was lead by guest speaker Lieutenant John Sullivan, a political scientist and political economist with a background in counter terrorism, insurgency, and law enforcement.  Post introduction, Sullivan defined terrorism as “indiscriminate attacks against civilian targets”.  He continued on, discussing the political undertones that accompany acts of terrorism with a segue that allowed attendees to voice their opinion.

Local socially and politically active Muslims of multiple ethnic backgrounds then raised several relating issues, including racial profiling and Western imperialism. One local college student and political science major asserted colonialism had upset the balance of things in the East, implying that prior to such interference Arab nations faced no real upheaval or internal dilemma.

After further adding that Greek and Western political definitions were imposed on Eastern/Arab nations, the student soon found himself cornered by two others who rebuked the claim as unfounded. The underlying premise moving the discussion forward was that terrorism was “instrumental violence to influence political discourse”, and that religion was the vehicle through which it was carried out.  Sullivan condensed the understanding of terrorism as political violence and an extension of politics used by someone not in power, to seek power.

While participants engaged in the dynamics of terrorism, any link between Islam and terrorism proved to be a tabooed association. Attendees cited all types of terrorism from the IRA to Christian right wing extremists, but no one mentioned the obvious connotation under which a group of diverse Muslims would decide to gather on a Tuesday evening to discuss terrorism, and that being “Islamic terrorism”; and if that is deemed offensive, then “religious terrorism”, “Islamic fundamentalism”, “radical extremism”, or any combination there of.LACSD MCAU Round Table on Terrorism The general agreement among the group was that terrorism is a political movement.  Yet, the framework in which the issue was defined was limited in scope if we view the context in which terrorism is discussed today.

While it is true that terrorism exists across the map in diverse groups, the fact remains that America is fighting a very specific war against terror.  It is not spending billions of dollars or waging political campaigns fighting the IRA or the Christian right-wing groups; it’s fighting Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Hamas, Hezbollah and a dozen other factions of Islamic radicals stemming from Wahhabi ideology.

And while these radicals are seeking political shifts, the fact remains many of them do see their cause as divinely inspired. In light of this, it becomes imperative that Islam itself is scrutinized and understood in order to fight terrorists that equate Islam with force, domination, and ultimately, justified violence.

The question of identifying Islam as a motivating factor in terrorism is a battle of words that has been waging across major think tanks and political structures.

The Consortium for Strategic Communications had called for shift from war terminology to language infusing criminal terminology, with the arguments that:

  1. Criminal language is easier to manage
  2. Criminal language decreases the terrorist recruitment legitimacy
  3. The war on terror is a global crime problem rather than a U.S. centered war
  4. Criminal language separates parties from religious connotations, such as “jihad”

However, because terrorists claim a religious imperative, the language used in discussing this problem has to reflect the situation truthfully. Islamic terrorism is a reality, and while it does not encapsulate the totality of terrorism, it is relevant and necessary terminology in a discussion on the issue.

This point, when finally raised during the round table, was not well-received by the audience and the observation was ultimately pointed out as “clumsy” by Sullivan – when in fact it’s “clumsy” to ignore the obvious.

A free use of language must be tolerated if any real discussion is to ensue.  The window of opportunity to do so is growing dangerously smaller in light of the recent CIA counter-terrorism community backlash and a U.N. resolution criminalizing critical analysis on Islam.

Those looking to move the conversation forward must recognize the elements within Islam that create, give power to, and justify terrorism. A failure to recognize this basic premise will lead to a failed discussion on any subsequent issue, and ensures that we fail in this subject altogether.

The issue of defining terrorism, particularly as discussed among Muslims, is not something that can be achieved in one sitting; but the result of one sitting can yield remarkable results and produce fresh ideas if participants use language to advance a conversation rather than manipulate it. The MCAU event was an attempt at finding a uniform definition of terrorism, and if any conclusions can be made, it’s that three distinct views were offered:

  1. Terrorism as a vehicle for political control
  2. Terrorism as a reaction to Western control and influence
  3. Islamic terrorism as a religiously-based reaction to sociopolitical movement.
However, was language entertained freely, the direction of the discussion would have proven highly insightful, if for no other reason than to witness the counter arguments defending Islam from radical association.

While the LACSD Muslim Community Affairs Unit round table on terrorism didn’t offer any clear solutions, it did highlight a critical need for such a group.  Based on the event, one of the added strengths of the unit goes beyond linking the Muslim community to law enforcement, but in linking community members with each other through a discussion that clearly emphasized strong undercurrent attitudes to such a sweeping topic.


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