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Willful Misreading By: Thomas Joscelyn
The Weekly Standard | Friday, June 06, 2008


DAFYDD AT BIG LIZARDS has all sorts of bad things to say about my review of Andrew McCarthy's excellent new book, Willful Blindness: A Memoir of the Jihad. I will avoid addressing the snarky insults in Dafydd's post and stick to his attempts at substantive criticism.

First, he claims that I misrepresent this January 2008 memo from the Department of Homeland Security. He says that I "never actually read the memo itself" and that the term "'jihadist' was not banned"; instead "the memo suggests caution." Here is what I actually wrote: "Just as Willful Blindness was released, the State Department and other agencies published an edict banning the use of the word 'jihadist' (as well as similar terms) from the government's lexicon"

And here's the problem: I never referred to this DHS memo Dafydd cites either directly or indirectly in this sentence or anywhere else in my review. (And, by the way, I actually had read this DHS memo, which is logically and factually flawed in many ways.) I was referring to an even more recent memo accepted by the State Department, which endorsed the ban--that's right, ban--of the use of terms like jihadist. As reported by the Associated Press on April 24, 2008:

The memo, originally prepared in March by the Extremist Messaging Branch at the National Counter Terrorism Center [NCTC], was approved for diplomatic use this week by the State Department, which plans to distribute a version to all U.S. embassies, officials said.

The AP went on to quote directly from the memo:

"Never use the terms 'jihadist' or 'mujahedeen' in conversation to describe the terrorists. ... Calling our enemies 'jihadis' and their movement a global 'jihad' unintentionally legitimizes their actions."

Sounds like a ban to me. Indeed, the AP reported on this memo under the headlines "'Jihadist' booted from U.S. government lexicon" and "Terms to use and avoid when talking about terrorism." For more on the ban, and the trouble the State Department and others are having in implementing it, you can read Jeffrey Imm's excellent blog posts over at the Counterterrorism Blog. In addition, you can download the NCTC memo and read it for yourself here. Dafydd does not refer to it as far as I can tell--only citing the January 8, 2008 DHS memo, which I did not mention.

Second, Dafydd apparently believes that we should call this conflict the "war against global caliphism," or some such. He uses the phrase repeatedly. (Ironically, the web link to his posts on the "war against global caliphism" contains the phrase "war on global jihadism)." In that case, he should not be too fond of the NCTC memo, which was approved by State and other agencies, either. For example, the NCTC memo notes:

Avoid the term "caliphate," which has positive connotations for Muslims, to describe the goal of al-Qaida and associated groups. The best description of what they really want to create is a "global totalitarian state."

Will Dafydd submit to the NCTC's will, and avoid using the phrase "war against global caliphism"?

Third, and most importantly, "jihadist" and similar terms are appropriate. The government's argument to the contrary is simply wrong. For example, the authors of the NCTC memo argue that using "jihadis" to describe our enemies "unintentionally legitimizes their action." Dafydd picks up on this argument (via the DHS memo I didn't cite) when he writes that calling our enemies jihadis is not a smart move "because it confers upon the militant Islamists exactly the legitimacy they crave."

This is wrong for too many reasons to list here. U.S. policymakers are not granting unintentional legitimacy to the terrorists by calling them jihadis. The jihadis already have legitimacy in the eyes of many because their actions are explicitly endorsed by leading Islamic clerics. This point is made by McCarthy eloquently in his book when he discusses his investigation into the teachings of the Blind Sheikh, Omar Abdel Rahman. In addition, the terrorists do not rely on American policymakers to grant them legitimacy.

Consider the Saudi Wahhabi establishment, which governs the two most holy cities of all of Islam and whose creed is exported to the tune of tens of millions of petrodollars every year. "Jihad" is a regular part of their rhetoric. The muscle hijackers responsible for securing the planes during the 9/11 operation thought they were fulfilling their duty for jihad, as called for by leading Saudi clerics. So too did dozens of inmates at Gitmo and hundreds more in the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, who responded to fatwas calling for jihad issued by the Wahhabi establishment. The mullahs of Iran repeatedly call for jihad against their enemies. So do Palestinian organizations on a daily basis. Even the clerics of the leading Sunni clerical establishment, the Al Azhar University in Egypt, repeatedly implore their followers to wage jihad against America and the "infidels."

The problem is not that American policymakers or analysts call our enemies "jihadists." The problem is that leading Islamic clerics have already established the legitimacy of their actions. Self-censorship on Washington's part won't turn back this tide.

Thomas Joscelyn is a terrorism researcher, writer, and economist living in New York. He is the author, most recently, of Iran's Proxy War Against America (Claremont Institute).


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