"There's a growing consensus (in the administration) that we need to move away from that language," said a former senior administration official who was involved until recently in policy debates on the issue.
Instead, in two documents circulated last month by the National Counter-Terrorism Center, the multiagency center charged with strategic coordination of the U.S. war on terrorism, officials are urged to use terms like violent extremists, totalitarian and death cult to characterize al-Qaida and other terror groups.
"Avoid labeling everything 'Muslim.' It reinforces the 'U.S. vs. Islam' framework that al-Qaida promotes," reads "Words that Work and Words that Don't: A Guide for Counter-Terrorism Communication," produced last month by the center.
"You have a large percentage of the world's population that subscribes to this religion," noted the former official. "Unintentionally alienating them is not a judicious move."
Urging officials not to use the word Islam in conjunction with terrorism, the guide notes that, "Although the al-Qaida network exploits religious sentiments and tries to use religion to justify its actions, we should treat it as an illegitimate political organization, both terrorist and criminal."
Instead of calling terror groups Muslim or Islamic, the guide suggests using words like totalitarian, terrorist or violent extremist -- "widely understood terms that define our enemies appropriately and simultaneously deny them any level of legitimacy."
By employing the language the extremists use about themselves, the guide warns, officials can inadvertently help legitimize them in the eyes of Muslims.
"Never use the terms 'jihadist' or 'mujahedin' … to describe the terrorists," instructs the guide. "A mujahed, a holy warrior, is a positive characterization in the context of a just war. In Arabic, jihad means 'striving in the path of God' and is used in many contexts beyond warfare. Calling our enemies Jihadis and their movement a global Jihad unintentionally legitimizes their actions."
The guide also bans the use of the word caliphate -- the pan-national Islamic state -- to describe al-Qaida's goal. The term "has positive connotations for Muslims," says the guide, adding, "The best description of what (al-Qaida) really want to create is a 'global totalitarian state.'"
"There are some terms which al-Qaida wants us to use because they are helpful to them," Daniel Sutherland, who runs the Department of Homeland Security Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, told United Press International in an interview.
"This is in no way an exercise in political correctness … we are not watering down what we say."
A longer document produced by Sutherland's office and also circulated by the NCTC last month compiles advice from Islamic community leaders and religious experts in the United States about terminology officials should use and avoid.
"Terminology to Define the Terrorists: Recommendations from American Muslims," says officials should use "terms such as 'death cult,' 'cult-like,' 'sectarian cult,' and 'violent cultists' to describe the ideology and methodology of al-Qaida and other terrorist groups."
It also recommends eschewing the terms Islamist or Islamism -- the advocacy of a political system based on Islam. Some believe that the terms are an appropriate description of al-Qaida, which draws much of its ideological inspiration from the work of Egyptian Islamist Saeed Qutb.
"The experts we consulted did not criticize this usage based on accuracy," says the paper. "Nevertheless, they caution that it may not be strategic for (U.S. government officials) to use the term because the general public, including overseas audiences, may not appreciate the academic distinction between Islamism and Islam."
"That is a real inside baseball distinction which is completely lost on a large proportion of the American population, Muslims and non-Muslims," said the former official.
He said: "There are still competing schools of thought on the question" within the administration. "One view is that you have to be more absolute" in describing the enemy. Others, the official said, recognized that "this is not a black and white world" and that the administration had to be "careful and judicious … navigating the rocks and shoals of terminology to avoid unnecessarily alienating a large segment of the Muslim community."
"In this broad ideological battle," said Sutherland, "we need to be very strategic in the way we describe the enemy. ... We need to use language that will hurt them, not help them."
To that end, the document urges officials to consider describing al-Qaida's ideology as "Takfirism" -- the practice of declaring Muslims who disagree with extremism apostates who can be killed.
Unlike jihad, Takfirism, which has a long history in Islam, "has historically had an overwhelmingly negative connotation … and perhaps most important some of the most influential Muslim religious leaders have strongly come out against the Takfiri doctrine."
The two documents were posted online by The Investigative Project on Terrorism last week.
They highlight developments in the Bush administration's strategy for its war on terror that have not only been fiercely criticized by some who have been its closest allies on the issue, but are apparently being ignored by the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
In a recent interview with the Washington Times, a McCain aide said the senator would continue to use the term Islamic terrorism.
Some commentators noted after President Bush's State of the Union speech in January that he had stopped using the term Islamic terrorism, instead referring -- as the NCTC guide recommends -- to "terrorists and extremists -- evil men who despise freedom, despise America, and aim to subject millions to their violent rule."
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