The Importance of Language in Winning the Battle of Wills & Ideas

The Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) community lost a battle when President Obama chose to believe the words of terrorists over the words of his own citizens who have repeatedly said “jihad can never be used to justify terrorism.”

The usage of language is of critical importance in trying to win this “battle of wills and ideas” as President Obama referenced in his Counterterrorism Strategy address at NDU on May 23, 2013. For the first time since President Obama took office, he publicly used the words “violent jihad” and “violent jihadists” as a synonym for terrorism & terrorists; not once but twice in reference to home grown violent extremism (HVE). Let us leave aside for the moment the glaring issue that despite the spectrum of homegrown terrorism examples he gave, the solutions he mentioned only referenced the Muslim community.

Some people wonder why the labels we use are important. Others stress the importance of calling a spade a spade if we want to truly address the threat. There are three main issues why the usage of “violent jihad” as a synonym for terrorism is inappropriate, and none are about American Muslim sensitivities.

1) Accuracy. Our terrorism statutes are covered under 18 USC Chapter 113b Sections 2331-2339 and describe in detail what constitutes terrorism and the penalties within our legal system. Not surprisingly, there is no mention of “jihad” – violent or otherwise.

Just as it is imperative for the US Attorneys’ Offices and the FBI to use accurate terminology in indictments, criminal complaints and press releases, based on our legal codes and not on mainstream-media driven language, it is critical for the President of “the world’s most powerful nation” to be accurate in his public addresses that are heard around the globe.

Unless there are amendments to 18 USC Chapter 113b, there is NO occasion when any member of the US government should be using “violent jihad” as a synonym for terrorism.

2) Undermining Domestic CVE Efforts. In the world of CVE, the largest battle we wage daily, for the sake of our national security, is delegitimizing terrorism narratives that are used to incite and recruit members. One such front is over the meaning and scope of the word jihad.

Al-Qaeda and its associates falsely claim that the US is at war with Islam and therefore attacking civilians in a bid for revenge and bombing/murdering/beheading people for their cause is sanctioned under the label “jihad.” This is terrorism, not jihad, and American Muslims unequivocally condemn all forms of terrorism. When the US President starts interchangeably using the term “violent jihad” for terrorism the efforts of CVE practitioners, as well the voices of American Muslims, are being undermined.

As this struggle between co-religionists continues, legitimate religious leaders are actively seeking to correct the misuse and abuse of the word by extremists. CVE researchers are creating counter-narratives for social media and practitioners are annually training hundreds of youth, parents and imams on countering online radicalization.

It is unfortunate that the Administration would jump into this milieu and choose sides on the definition of the religious concept of jihad. It behooves our government to believe its citizens and billions of Muslims around the globe on their faith rather than terrorists like Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki.

3) Legitimizing Terrorist Narratives. As the President alludes to principles of jus ad bellum in our own counterterrorism strategy, he is inadvertently conceding that so too are the terrorists. Violent extremists inspired or associated with Al-Qaeda ideologues consider the epithet “jihadist” to be a badge of honor that validates their misguided notion that they are fighting a good war for a just cause. We need to use our own value framework and legal system to create labels for perpetrators of violence, not accept the language coming from our enemies who are intent on creating a veneer of legitimacy to recruit our youth. Anglicizing the Arabic term “mujahid” to “violent jihadist” does not serve our ends. Let us remember that terrorists are barbaric murderers and do not deserve to be glorified or honored within their corrupted framework. As we continue to work towards preventing violent extremism, we cannot give an inch on this front. Let us remember that the victims and survivors of terrorist attacks are the true heroes and honor them instead.

From the perspective of national security research and practitioners of CVE, our job of countering extremist ideology and narratives has just become harder as we now also have to convince our own President that terrorism can never be justified as “violent jihad” and the two are not synonyms.


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