Recently the Department of Homeland Security came out with a report on the proper verbal etiquette federal agencies should use in talking about the murderous scum who are trying to kill us all. The report found its way to the Associated Press and a good thing, too, because the rest of us need to know this stuff.
The report addresses the delicate question of separating, in our sometimes-careless use of vocabulary, a great world religion, Islam, from the antics of a relatively small band of lunatic adherents. The report said U.S. officials may be “unintentionally portraying terrorists, who lack moral and religious legitimacy, as brave fighters, legitimate soldiers or spokesmen for ordinary Muslims.”
Surprisingly, considering our often-counterproductive efforts to improve U.S. standing in the Muslim world, the report makes a lot of sense. And DHS arrived at this happy pass by the happy, and, one would think, obvious, expedient of asking American Muslims how to not inadvertently give offense to tens of millions while denouncing a relative handful.
Al-Qaeda should not be described as a movement because it implies legitimacy and broad support to terrorists whose treatment of its co-religionists in Iraq’s Anbar Province was so loathsome that the Sunni tribes violently turned on them.
Don’t use the term “jihad,” struggle, or “jihadist” because these have broader religious meanings. Broader indeed. The index of The Oxford History of Islam devotes 23 lines of citations to jihad. “Mujahedeen” means holy warrior, far too honorable a term for a mope who straps on a suicide vest or, worse, persuades someone else to do so.
The report dismisses as too broad a brush and thus indiscriminately offensive the term “Islamo-fascism,” a formulation so clunky that only the Neocons that coined it could love it.
And the report cautions, too, about using Islamic theological terms — salafi, sufi, ummah — unless you’re confident of their meaning and implications. The Oxford History is 749 pages if you want to begin boning up. “Murderous scum,” however, is both descriptive and nondenominational. You’re welcome to it.