Monday, April 02, 2007

islamic

I have been worshipping at the altar of Language Log for quite some time now. Normally, all I can do is stand aside, marvel and try to learn. But today, reading Bill Poser's post "Political Correctness, Linguistic Incorrectness", I just had to pause, think hard and finally respond. Since Lameen took the first step and published his reaction, I decided to throw in my €0.02 and republish parts of the email I sent to Bill Poser earlier today. But first, a brief recap:

Bill Poser's post is a passionate reaction to an article in the Telegraph which reports that

Brussels officials have confirmed the existence of a classified handbook which offers "non-offensive" phrases to use when announcing anti-terrorist operations or dealing with terrorist attacks.
Banned terms are said to include "jihad", "Islamic" or "fundamentalist".


The article also specifies the phrase "Islamic terrorism" as one of those to be replaced by more PC alternatives. Bill Poser draws the rather incomprehensible conclusion that

The EU really thinks that there is no such thing as Islamic terrorism.

and, in Lameen's words

seeks to justify the term "Islamic terrorism" by saying that "Dozens of terrorists have explicitly said that they are Muslims and that their motivation was Islam. Moreover, there is clearly widespread support among Muslims for terrorism."

Bill Poser supports this by quoting two polls centered around support for suicide attacks against civilians and specifically Americans which purport to show that Muslims support such actions. Lameen retorts by quoting another statistic which shows that a large number of Americans support bombing of civilian targets and wonders whether

Americans' killings of Muslim or Muslim-looking civilians ought to be termed "patriotic terrorism"

Well, ought it?

Lameen also makes one very important point:

The likes of Al-Qaeda wrongly describe their own terrorist acts as jihad in order to make them appear legitimate to other Muslims; for Western governments to publicly accept this characterisation is about as sensible as it would be for Muslim critics of Bush to start losing no opportunity to call him a true American patriot...

Needless to say, I absolutely agree. I am also very sorry to see that Bill Poser has fallen into the same trap many pundits and pseudoexperts cannot seem to avoid: he appears to be taking the "terrorist" rhetoric at face value. To parody a Slovak "expert" on Middle Eastern affairs (may his arse itch and his hands be so short he could not scratch it!): "They say they kill for Islam. Well golly gee gosh aw shucks, they say it, then it must be true! Anyone who says otherwise is an apologist!" Please. We are scientists. No matter how emotionally affected we are, we must always question the first impression, always dig deeper, never believe we know it all and understand everything. If we do, what do we become? Pundits, I fear. And I don't know how about you, but I'd be better off in a pine box on a slow train back to Georgia Košice.

And now for my original comments: first of all, I cannot help but notice that Bill Poser has failed to define "terrorism". I can only conclude from his statistical examples that by that he means actions like suicide bombings against civilians. If I'm correct, then I must confess that I find the comparison he uses rather puzzling. He is in fact equating a group people whose distinguishing characteristic is a fight for/against something (Roman Catholics/Evangelicals - abortion) with a group of people whose distinguishing characteristic is the use of certain tactics (Muslims - suicide attacks). Please forgive me if the phrase "apples and oranges" sounds more than appropriate.

My second objection to Bill Poser's conclusions is based on his attempt to take the logic behind the alleged EU guidelines ad absurdum:

By the same token, "Christian opposition to gay marriage" does not imply that all Christians are opposed to gay marriage or that Christians are particularly associated with opposition to gay marriage.

That is true. But isn't it also true it's the Christians who are particularly associated with opposition to gay marriage and abortion? Consequently, there are two ways to understand the phrase "Christian anti-abortionists":

(1) people who oppose abortion who are (happen to be) Christians.

and

(2) people who oppose abortion because they are Christians.

In other words, (1) provides a description, while (2) indicates a causal relationship. In this case, both interpretations would be correct, as the majority of Christians are bound by the tenets of their belief and the teachings of their churches to oppose abortion.

Similarly in case of "Islamic terrorism", when I hear this phrase, I understand it to mean

(3) people who comitted terrorist acts and who are (happen to be) Muslims

whereas a faithful Fox News viewer or LGF reader might actually hear

(4) people who comitted terrorist acts because they are Muslims.

While (3) certainly is correct in any sense of the word, (4) is probably not. There are two reasons why this may be so - the first one (all major authorities of Islam have denounced terrorism and terrorists) is still rather controversial and will be best left for experts to pronounce final judgement on. The other reason is far more interesting and hinges on the answer to the following question: do Muslims commit terrorist acts because the commandments of their faith order them to? Does a Hamas suicide bomber blow himself up because the Qur'an tells him so or does he actually hope to contribute to a bigger cause? Do the "insurgents" in Iraq drive trucks full of explosives into US Army checkpoints just because the Imam said so or do they see it as another step in achieving a goal? It seems they do. Hamas is - at least nominally - fighting for an independent Palestine state. Various factions in Iraq are either trying to get the US troops out or to wipe out each other. Even Bin Ladin's final goal was the overthrow of the Saudi royal family.

That being so, doesn't it mean that there is a small but significant difference between the semantic content of the word "Christian" in "Christian anti-abortionists" and "Islamic" in "Islamic terrorist"? My answer would be yes. In fact, my observations indicate that the adjective "Islamic" in "Islamic terrorism" is not a purely descriptive one, but is very often used to point out the causal relationship between Islam and terrorism. Needless to say, this a) distorts reality (to believe that, say, a Hamas suicide bombing and an attack on US troops by the Badr Corps share the same cause is sheer lunacy) and b) is designed provoke an emotional response. That's just not helpful and only desirable to those with their own dark motives.

Here I would like to point out that it is by no means certain that the EU Commission and/or Parliament are in fact banning the term "Islamic terrorism". I'm a cynical SOB and I hate journalists, I will therefore not believe a word The Telegraph prints until I get independent confirmation. Especially not if their description of the terms prohibited by the "secret handbook" (my, my, my, what an interesting choice of words...) sounds too recycled. But even if the EU did adopt such a policy, the use of terms like "ostrich-like approach" and "stupid and dangerous" to describe such steps would still be rather unfortunate. In these times of empty rhetoric, rejecting meaningless terms and nonsense phrases like "Islamic terrorism" in favor of more accurate descriptions would be most welcome. Holding on to them is irresponsible.

9 comments:

Quintesse said...

What is missed in both your and Lameen's items is the fact that the _official_ stance of the Roman Catholic church (best example because it's probably the largest christian community) to be against gay marriage. Which means of course that if I hear "Christian opposition to gay marriage" I actually assume this to be true! That doesn't mean I believe all Christians agree but it _does_ mean, IMO, that it is the _official_ stance of their governing body.

And like you said, I've not seen any proof that the same holds true in the case of "Islamic terrorism".

Language said...

the _official_ stance of the Roman Catholic church (best example because it's probably the largest christian community)... it is the _official_ stance of their governing body.

That makes no sense. The Vatican is in no sense the "governing body" of Christianity as a whole; we've only recently gotten past the era when there were actual wars between the branches of Christianity. And it makes no sense to talk about "Christian opposition to gay marriage" unless it's clear from context that you're talking about a particular subset of Christians.

adela said...

(may his arse itch and his hands be so short he could not scratch it!) is a pretty euphemizing way of expressing the punishment HE'd deserve... but anyway... k++ (if there existed a system like this on blogspot...)

ithaca said...

I assume the EU Commission were concerned, in any case, partly because it's so easy for a term like "Islamic terrorism" to become a fixed phrase; we already see the ease with which "Muslim" seems to have become for many synonymous with "terrorist".

bubis said...

"all major authorities of Islam have denounced terrorism and terrorists"

Very nice, but what do they mean on that? What do they mean on terrorism? Have you ever tried to discuss this issue with Muslims? Try once! It will most possibly (and is most cases) turn out that terrorism is what Israel and the US do, and not the ppl whO we call terrorists.

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