Analysis: Terror lexicon reveals GOP split

By SHAUN WATERMAN, UPI Homeland and National Security Editor  |  May 12, 2008 at 9:53 AM
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WASHINGTON, May 12 (UPI) -- The leak of Bush administration guidelines urging U.S. officials to avoid using terms such as "jihadi" or "Islamic terrorists" to refer to al-Qaida and similar groups has exposed a fault line in Republican thinking about the U.S. war on terror.

Last Friday every GOP member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence voted for an amendment to an intelligence bill that would have banned the use of federal cash to produce documents like the terminology guidelines from the U.S. National Counter-Terrorism Center that recently leaked and were posted online. The amendment, authored by Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., the GOP ranking member, was defeated on a party-line vote.

Presumptive GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain of Arizona will continue to use the term "Islamic terrorists" in talking about al-Qaida, an aide told The Washington Times recently. The National Counter-Terrorism Center guidelines say such shorthand "reinforces the 'U.S. vs. Islam' framework that al-Qaida promotes."

And a senior administration official involved in counter-terrorism policy, who was authorized to speak anonymously to the media, told United Press International that President Bush had been "absolutely at the forefront" in promoting and using the kind of language the guidelines recommend.

"The use of the word 'Islamic' before the word 'terrorist' is heard by Muslims in the U.S. and elsewhere as a lack of nuance, which may incorrectly suggest that all Muslims are terrorists or that we are at war with Islam. … To the extent it is heard that way it is not in our interests to use it," said the official.

A search of the president's speeches and other public comments on the White House Web site conducted by David Schanzer, director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security at Duke University in North Carolina, found that Bush -- who has repeatedly spoken about America's enemies -- has used the term "Islamic terrorists" only once since the beginning of 2007.

"We have to be sensitive to the way our messages are heard by Muslim audiences," said the senior official.

But Hoekstra said it is "sad … that as we approach the seventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, we are still debating how to define our enemy."

His amendment aimed to put an end to what he called "McCarthyism in reverse" and "speech codes that encumber accurately describing the radical jihadist terrorists that attacked America and continue to threaten the homeland."

The NCTC guide says: "Never use the terms 'jihadist.' ... 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 says its precepts are intended only to apply to officials' public statements and not to internal documents like analysis or advice.

The senior official said the idea was not to stifle discussion or to deny "the reality that al-Qaida uses Islam to justify its actions and its program."

But he added it was dangerous when "language is not used well or precisely."

"Shorthand terms (like Islamic terrorist) can be misinterpreted. … Simple terminology may not be the best way to describe our enemy."

In the president's speeches he has often addressed the relationship between al-Qaida and Islam -- accusing terrorists and violent extremists of hijacking a great religion.

The official said the debate over language was part of a broader discussion about how to define the enemy in the U.S.-led war on terror. "The fault line on this issue is … part of the debate about the ideologies that buttress or may buttress al-Qaida," he said.

Some administration officials and supporters continue to subscribe to the school of thought labeled the Clash of Civilizations, after the book of that title by historian Samuel Huntington. In this view of the war on terror, Islam is in many of its historically existing forms an inherently violent religion, and the claim of al-Qaida that their program and tactics are justified by Muslim doctrine is an authentic -- if debatable -- one.

Bush, according to the official, does not subscribe to that view. "I don't think there is a single doubt in the president's mind," he said, that "Islam is not the enemy."

"To be over-broad (in terminology) is to over-define the enemy and draw into it other elements" the United States should not be at war with.

"The debate over the lexicon is a function of that debate" on the nature of the enemy, said the official.

One example is the division over the nature of the Muslim Brotherhood, a global organization that seeks to establish states based on Islamic law. While the State Department regularly protests the extrajudicial detention of Brotherhood activists in U.S.-allied Egypt -- where most observers believe they would win any truly free and fair elections -- others in the administration and on Capitol Hill regard the organization, both in Egypt and in the United States, as a fifth column for Islamic extremism.

The debate is likely to continue. "Representative Hoekstra believes in free speech and accurately defining our enemy," spokesman Jamal Ware told UPI Sunday. "He will continue to fight against speech codes."

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