A U.S. military “Red Team” charged with challenging conventional thinking says that words like “jihad” and “Islamist” are needed in discussing 21st-century terrorism and that federal agencies that avoid the words soft-pedaled the link between religious extremism and violent acts.
“We must reject the notion that Islam and Arabic stand apart as bodies of knowledge that cannot be critiqued or discussed as elements of understanding our enemies in this conflict,” said the internal report, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times.
The report, “Freedom of Speech in Jihad Analysis: Debunking the Myth of Offensive Words,” was written by unnamed civilian analysts and contractors for the U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for the Middle East and South Asia. It is thought to be the first official document to challenge those in the government who seek to downplay the role of Islam in inspiring some terrorist violence.
“The fact is our enemies cite the source of Islam as the foundation for their global jihad,” the report said. “We are left with the responsibility of portraying our enemies in an honest and accurate fashion.”
The report contributes to an ongoing debate within the U.S. government and military over the roots of terrorism, its relationship to Islam and how best to counter extremist ideology.
• Read the internal report, “Freedom of Speech in Jihad Analysis.” (download pdf)
It cites two Bush administration documents that appear to minimize anylink between radical Islam and terrorism.
A January 2008 memorandum from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties stated that unidentified American Muslims recommended that the U.S. government avoid using the terms “jihadist,” “Islamic terrorist,” “Islamist” or “holy warrior,” asserting that would create a “negative climate” and spawn acts of harassment and discrimination.
Dan Sutherland, Homeland Security officer for civil rights and civil liberties, said the document is not department policy.
“This was a compilation of recommendations and thoughts provided to us by some prominent American Muslim thinkers and never was intended to be Department of Homeland Security policy,” he said in an interview.
“If a paper from another part of government says this doesn’t make sense, that’s a valid point. This memo is a thought piece meant to stir discussion.”
Mr. Sutherland said he agrees that a debate on terrorist terminology is needed in describing “the very serious threat we face.”
A second document mentioned by the report was developed for the State Department by the National Counterterrorism Center’s Extremist Messaging Branch.
It urges officials to use the term “violent extremist” and never to use “jihadist” because that will “legitimize” terrorists.
Michael E. Leiter, director of the counterterrorism center, questioned some of the memo’s conclusions during a July 10 Senate hearing, said spokesman Carl Kropf.
“I do think you cannot separate out the fact that the terror fight we are fighting today involves Islam as a religion,” Mr. Leiter said under questioning from Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent. He added, however, “the ideology which motivates these terrorists has very little to do in reality with the religion of Islam.”
Oneof the most sensitive issues in the new report involves the word jihad.
An Arabic word derived from the verb meaning “to strive,” it appears about 30 times in the Koran, but “the preponderance of references refer to internal striving to prove one’s piety,” said William Graham, a professor of Middle East Studies at Harvard University.
About 10 references are clearly to fighting, said Mr. Graham, who is also dean of the university’s divinity school.
The word, often translated as “holy war,” has been used in a military context throughout Muslim history, said Princeton University Professor Emeritus Bernard Lewis, a leading authority on Islam.
Several terrorist groups, including Palestinian Islamic Jihad, include the word in their titles.
The Red Team report said jihad is an obligation of all Muslims under Islamic law and must be performed “until the whole world is under the rule of Islam.”
However, the Koran states that the embrace of Islam must be voluntary, Mr. Graham said.
Jim Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, said he had no problem using words such as jihad, provided it was made clear that militant groups were misusing the terms to justify their violent actions.
“They’re not talking about jihad in a theological sense,” Mr. Zogby said. “Jihad means to struggle or strive for the good and against evil. These people are talking about violent revolution.”
Stephen Suleyman Schwartz, executive director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism in Washington, cautioned against interpreting the debate as a dispute between those who think Islam as a whole is bad and those who think Islam as a whole is good.
“Islam is manifestly in crisis, with bad people who are Muslims fighting against good people who are Muslims. That should be the point - how to mobilize the good people against the bad people,” Mr. Schwartz said.
The Red Team report said the government documents in question reflect “the views and opinions of a very small [number] of Americans whose contributions may have escaped critical review. … While there is concern that we not label all Muslims as Islamist terrorists, it is proper to address certain aspects of violence as uniquely Islamic,” the report says.
The report notes that some terms for terrorists, such as “Islamo-fascist,” are “conspicuously offensive.”
The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), a prominent U.S. Muslim group, has argued that government terminology should minimize any connection between Islam and terrorism to avoid fanning religious hatred.
A council spokesman said Corey Saylor, CAIR’s legislative director, recently stated the group’s views on the issue in a Detroit News Op-Ed article.
Mr. Saylor said CAIR opposes the use of “jihadist” and other Islamic terms because the use of non-Islamic terms “serves the strategic purpose of isolating extremists and removing the false cloak of religiosity that they use to justify their barbarism.”
Marine Corps Maj. Joseph D. Kloppel, a Central Command spokesman, said Red Team reports “are often controversial.”
“But the resulting debate sharpens reasoning, forces intellectual integrity, and improves decisionmaking and subsequent action,” he said in an e-mail, noting that its products are “designed for internal use” and not meant to represent the personal views of the Centcom commander.
Willis Witter contributed to this article.