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Ignoring al Qaeda’s Ideology is a Threat to US National Security

May 31st 2010

Presidential - John Brennan (Counterterrorism)
House Counter Terrorism Advisor John Brennan

In preparation for publicizing the new National Security Strategy by the Obama Administration, John Brennan, White House Advisor on Counter Terrorism, said the President’s strategy “is absolutely clear about the threat we face.” From such an announcement, one might project that the new narrative would be as precise as it should be. That is, to define the ideology and the goals of the forces we’re facing, namely, the Jihadists--either Salafists or Khomeinists. Unfortunately, it was just the opposite. Mr Brennan said the Obama Administration doesn’t “describe our enemy as Jihadists or Islamists,” because, as he argued, "Jihad is a holy struggle, a legitimate tenet of Islam, meaning to purify oneself or one’s community.” He added that “the use of these religious terms would play into the false perception that al Qaeda and its affiliates are ‘religious leaders’ and defending a holy cause, when in fact, they are nothing more than murderers.”

In reality, abandoning the use of terms such as “Jihadists” or even “Islamists” in defining the threat is a strategic setback in the war of ideas fought against al Qaeda, the Taliban, Shabab al Jihad, Hezbollah, the Pasdaran, and all other adherents to Global Jihadism. It is the equivalent, in a classical war, of banning the use of radars, AWACs, and broadcast. In short, this is a shortcut to utter self defeat.

The premise of the new national security doctrine regarding the identification of the threat and the appropriate names to use is flawed at its root. Linguistically, Jihad doesn’t translate into “Holy Struggle,” for the latter in Arabic is al Nidal al muqaddass. In its substance, Jihad does not mean a purification of oneself in abstract, like Yoga. Theologically, it is a call for efforts on behalf of Allah (Jihad fi sabeel Allah), which could take different forms, some of which could be in the battlefield. It is in its origins a theological notion that US Government officials have no business in defining or redefining—as Mr. Brennan and the national security doctrine of President Obama are attempting to. The United States secular Government shouldn’t enter the fray of stating that Jihad is legitimate or illegitimate from a theological standpoint. Instead they should identify if a particular ideology self described as “Jihadist” is or isn’t a source of threat and radicalization.

الجهاد Jihad is a Theological Notion;
الجهادية Jihadism is an Ideology

However, and that’s the Administration’s second intellectual mistake: Jihadism is not the same thing as Jihad: the first is an ideological notion while the latter is originally a theological notion. The Administration’s experts have tried to link Jihadism, and thus the “Jihadists” to the controversially debated concept of Jihad. This is academically flawed: Jihadism is a movement in contemporary times and their ideology has been established for almost a century. They are geopolitical in nature and involved in conflicts, wars, and radicalization. More importantly, they’ve declared a war against the U.S. and have waged it for decades. Whatever is the debate about Jihad as a notion, the Jihadists exist in reality and they are the foes of democracies.

An AP story posted on April 7 reported that President Obama’s advisers will remove religious terms such as “Islamic extremism” from the central document outlining the U.S. national security strategy and will use the rewritten document to emphasize that the United States does not view Muslim nations through the lens of terror. It added that “the change is a significant shift in the National Security Strategy, a document that previously outlined the Bush Doctrine of preventative war and currently states: “The struggle against militant Islamic radicalism is the great ideological conflict of the early years of the 21st century.” This means that the Obama Administration is saying there is no such thing as “Militant Islamic Radicalism“ thus the U.S. narrative should not talk about ideology as a threat to national security. But banning all terms that identify the threat other than describing it as “extremist” or “violent” is not only wrong from a scholarly viewpoint, but would in turn constitute a threat to America’s national security. Extremism and violence are abstract terms used to describe ideologies, movements and organizations. But “description” is not “identification.” One can say the Nazis or the Bolsheviks are extremists, but one must identify the threat before describing it.

For while it is positive to refine and improve the quality of U.S. rhetoric, and thus select the best words to identify the enemy’s identity and doctrines, cleansing the official narrative from all words allegedly “Islam-related” would simultaneously eliminate the very words and terms that determine and specifies the particular network and world vision which are at war with the entire international community including the United States but also the moderate Arabs and Muslims. Arguing that abandoning terms such as “Muslim Terrorists” may be helpful in narrowing the identification process to the very movement and ideologies involved in the threat. Rejecting generalizations against communities is the right thing to do, but eliminating the naming of the actual enemy would be a disaster on many levels. Indeed, the Administration’s experts have accordingly advised deleting terms such as Jihadists, Jihadism, Salafism, Khomeinism, Takfirism, and even Islamists. But these are the vital identification codes for the entire web engaged in war, indoctrination, incitement, and terrorism, first against Muslim societies and also against Western and American democracies. These are ideological and political identifications of the threat without which U.S. national security would be as blind as if during WWII word such as Nazism and fascism or during the Cold war, words such as Soviets and Communists, had been dropped from the rhetoric. The terms Jihadists and Islamists are not descriptive of Islam or Muslims but of the forces which claim them. If we drop these words, we would be doing exactly what the Jihadists want us to do: linking them to the entire community instead of separating them from the majority of Muslims. If we accept the premise advanced by some advisors that Jihadism is Islam and mentioning it negatively would offend the Muslim world, al Qaeda wins.

The AP says these revisions “are part of a larger effort about which the White House talks openly, one that seeks to change how the United States talks to Muslim nations.” This is a worse argument as the public debate and narrative in the Muslim majority countries use this terminology 24/7. How is it arguable that terms such as al Jihadiyya, al Salafiyya, al Islamiyun, al Khomeiniyun, al Takfiriyun are used in on Arab airwaves, in print, and in the blogosphere to depict the radicals, extremists, and Terrorists from Morocco to Pakistan, and White House advisors claim such words would offend if used in that sense in English? There is something very odd here. If these terms define the enemy within the Arab and Muslim world, who are we trying to confuse here? The only possible answer is that if these words were banned, the American public wouldn’t use them — not that the Muslim world wouldn’t be offended. This looks like a war of ideas, with the goal of preventing American citizens from understanding by making them believe that the very words that Arabs and Muslims use to isolate the terrorists also offend them.

Cutting Edge Terrorism Analyst Walid Phares is the author of The Confrontation: Winning the War against Future Jihad and of The War of Ideas: Jihadism against Democracy.


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