Friday, December 7, 2007

Getting the Arabic Right

In reading over Mitt Romney's website in August, I was appalled by his very first issue position: 'Defeating the Jihadists.' The former Massachusetts governor went on to explain that,
the defeat of this radical and violent faction of Islam must be achieved through a combination of American resolve, international effort, and the rejection of violence by moderate, modern, mainstream Muslims.

In spite of this, he had embraced – unknowingly, we shall hope – the radical Wahabist understanding of the term 'jihad,' which simply has the literal meaning of 'struggle.' To many, probably most Muslims, this struggle is an interior one, a personal one, a spiritual one: suicide bombers are not holy warriors – 'mujahideen' – striving to know or serve the Almighty, they are evildoers properly termed 'mufsidun,' who are engaging in a psychopathic war against society, 'hirabah.'

I notified the Romney campaign of their mistake and the website has since changed. While there has been no adoption of the terms 'mufsidun' or 'hirabah,' terms such as 'jihad', and 'Islam' are always preceded by 'violent' or 'extreme' to clarify that this is not the mainstream variety in question. The headline now reads "Confronting Radical Jihad".

Mitt Romney was not the only presidential candidate to make this linguistic mistake. Ron Paul's website refers to "our direct enemies, the jihadists."

By accepting the Wahabist misappropriation of the term 'jihad,' these candidates and countless other Americans give our enemies further ammunition in the war of ideas, implicitly accepting that the moderate Muslims are wrong in their understanding of Islam, that jihad does demand the killing of innocent American families.

Conversely, use of the terms 'mufsidun' and 'hirabah' – and efforts to educate the American people about them – would not only demonstrate a presidential candidate's command of the complexities involved in the War on Terror but would also strike a blow in the ideological conflict that is at the heart of this struggle. These terms convey exactly what Romney and others are trying to say, and they say it in a way that a majority of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims understand.

The issues pages for John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, Barack Obama, John Edwards, Hillary Clinton and Dennis Kucinich are happily free of this misappropriation of Arabic terms. Whether this happened because the candidates know the proper use of the words or are simply listening to thoughtful advisors, I tip my hat to them all. (This is not to say that all have excellent plans for the Middle East or the War on Terror; some make profound mistakes, but they are not this one. Perhaps more blog posts are in order.)

Mike Huckabee's website has gone so far as to explain that,
Fighting smart means learning the neighborhood, achieving a level of political, religious, and cultural sophistication about the Arab and Islamic worlds that will pay huge dividends for us.... I will support moderates, not extremists, with no favoring of Sunnis or Shiites. The long-term solution to terror is to empower moderates in the region.

While 'moderate' is probably not the best term - Christians, would you like to be designated as 'moderate Christians'? Kind of makes you sound wishy-washy, doesn't it? - that's a good start.

(Special thanks go out to J. Michael Waller of the Institute of World Politics, for his excellent text on the matter, Fighting the War of Ideas Like a Real War.)
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