Whether we agree with it or not, related to Islamic terrorism, the American strategy is to win the hearts and minds of the ummah.
One policy in that regard is to attempt to use language to alienate Muslims in general from the terrorists. This is a concrete instance of a legitimate counterterrorism policy – backlash, which is the creation of an environment in which non-state actors who commit political violence can no longer find assistance and support from outside of their organization (narrowly defined).
In that context, I wondered how our neologisms are being translated into Arabic, the language of the supposed target audience. In essence, are our intellectuals attempting to sell the equivalent of the Chevy Nova in Mexico?
One of the terms that I have been hearing is Islamism to describe the ideology that seeks to justify terrorist violence based upon Islam.
While I am illiterate when it comes to Arabic, I do have access to Google Translate, which provided an identical translation (الإسلام) into Arabic of Islam and Islamism; no bueno. Thus, someone fluent in Arabic using Google translate from English would read in Arabic that Islam and Islamism is the same thing.
As this can not be the intent of the advocates of this neologism, I referenced Daniel Pipes. On his website, Islamism is translated as ألتحرك ألأسلامي, which according to Google means “Islamic action”. However, according to Wikipedia, Islamism can also be translated as الاسلامية (Islamic) or إسلام سياسي (political Islam).
When we use the term Islamism, what are we communicating to Muslims? It sounds like a confused imprecision in which our message is subject to the shading of the translator. Further, in all cases, this term appears not to actually distinguish itself from Islam.
Is there an alternative?
One could follow the anti-conceptual approach of the U.S. State Department, which treats each instance of an Islam-inspired terrorist organization as an unrelated case. According to them, al Qaeda is definitely bad…Hamas could become good…Hezbollah is not necessarily bad if you squint when you look at them…and the Muslim Brotherhood may be the Society of Cincinnati for all Foggy Bottom knows.
On the other hand, Muslims already have names for such terrorists. Egypt’s Sadat was assassinated by them as was Saudi’s King Faisal. When the terrorists attacked the Red Mosque in Pakistan and the Grand Mosque in Mecca, what did they call them? If we wish to communicate with the ummah, should we not take heed of their own terms as English adapts more easily than their own language?
While it would be preferable to integrate our knowledge of Islam-inspired terrorist organizations into a single coherent concept, such may actually be beyond the mentality of our concrete-bound primacy-of-consciousness target audience, the ummah. For ourselves, the United States and its allies should perform the required integration, which we will need to teach to the State Department and other Washington policy makers.