From The Economist, July 5:
Don’t mention the GWOT
A new vocabulary is needed to confront terrorism
The “global war on terror” is what America calls its response to the September 11th attacks. Never mind the cliché, or the fact that “terrorism” is a tactic and “terror” a state of mind; George Bush’s crisp slogan helped to rally a traumatised American public. His principal ally over the years, Tony Blair, shared the sentiment, if not always the same words. Now, dealing with his first terrorist plot as prime minister, Gordon Brown is changing the choice of language.
And rightly so. To speak of a “global war on terror” is over-simple. Shortened to the acronym GWOT, it conflated the military campaign against al-Qaeda and its Taliban sponsors in Afghanistan in 2001 with the war two years later to overthrow Saddam Hussein, an old foe who almost certainly had nothing to do with September 11th. That Iraq is a magnet for al-Qaeda is the result of the invasion of Iraq, not its cause. GWOT also implies, wrongly, that there exists a military solution to a problem that for a few countries (eg, Afghanistan) requires a co-ordinated nation-building effort but for most demands patient police and intelligence work. “War” should be the exception, not the focus of the effort against terrorists.
The language of war (and the conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) has alienated much of the world, among them Muslims who believe incorrectly that the West has been waging a “war on Islam” for decades, if not centuries. Such vocabulary reinforces the propaganda of al-Qaeda, which claims to be fighting a global jihad to defend Islam against “Crusaders and Jews”. Language matters, as Mr Bush discovered in 2001 when his one mention of a “crusade” against terrorism seemed to confirm the fears of millions of Muslims.
Some of Mr Bush’s officials have tried and failed to stamp out the GWOT, preferring to talk of “global counter-insurgency”. Mr Brown has tried harder. His government chose its words carefully in response to this week’s attempted car bombings in London and Glasgow. It talked about terrorists as criminals, avoided mention of “Islam” and “Islamic”, and spoke about “communities” rather than “Muslims”. Whereas Mr Blair portrayed Britain’s military presence in Iraq as a battle against a global evil, Mr Brown has so far portrayed it as an obligation to the Iraqi government and the United Nations.
This is a canny change. Treating terrorists as criminals rather than enemies strips them of their glamour. And decoupling the word “Islam” from terrorism may make it easier to enlist the help of British Muslims who might otherwise feel queasy about “betraying” co-religionists.
Governments are entitled to avoid words that cause them trouble. But if emphasising “war” is wrong, so would be an effort to purge the word “Islam” from the general public discourse on terrorism. For the plain fact is that the terrorists themselves claim to be acting in Islam’s name. Though the West knows Osama bin Laden’s network as “al-Qaeda”, he first called it the “World Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders”. His followers dream of reviving an Islamic caliphate, and invoke Islamic teaching to justify atrocities against non-Muslims and Muslims alike. Such claims may be misguided, but cannot be understood, much less challenged, by pretending that Islam has nothing at all to do with them.
Jihadists claim to be fighting a war against the West. In truth, they are fighting a war within Islam. The world needs to choose its words with care—but must also have the courage to talk honestly about what is going on.
There is truth to the notion that the jihad has more to do with a struggle for Islam than a struggle by Islam against the West. As we’ve said before:
There is really a three-way civil war underway throughout the Islamic world. The three inter-related conflicts are: 1.) Sunni v. Shia, 2.) fundamentalism v. secularism, and 3.) national liberation v. imperialism. The sad irony is that it is the social iniquities that underly this last contradiction that provide the raw material of endemic rage—which is increasingly exploited, siphoned off as it were, into the prior two. Fundamentalists conflate secularism and imperialism (given a propaganda boost by their neocon enemies, who do likewise), and pose the only alternative as a purified, hegemonic Islam which must, of course, crush internal heresy.
But The Economist, with the jihadists and neocons, also conflates secularism and imperialism (in its “globalist” or “neoliberal” garb), and is therefore part of the problem.