- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 24, 2002

Muslim scholars who want to get rid of the oft-used word "jihad" are meeting with U.S. officials today in Washington.
The academics, who have origins across the Muslim world, want to engage in an ideological battle within Islam to replace "jihad" with a term that labels terrorists as cowardly pirates who kill women and children, which in Islam is the crime of "hirabah."
"There has been an increase in the number of people working on terrorism, and some of them have portfolios that include the Muslim world," a U.S. official said, confirming the closed conference. "Yes, more analysts are working on that."
In an attempt to penetrate the mysteries of Islam, analysts and the public often have begun with the Arabic word "jihad," made famous by the 1979 Iranian revolution and now used widely by terrorist groups such as Islamic Jihad and al Qaeda.
But because the term roughly means "religious effort," the West can come off as attacking the daily life of ordinary Muslims worldwide, while the terrorists get away with wrapping their crimes in religious phraseology.
"When people carelessly dump on jihad, it has an immediate polarizing effect," said Khaled Abou el Fadl, a professor of Islamic law at the University of California at Los Angeles who will attend the meeting.
Mr. Abou el Fadl is among those who want the despised label of "hirabah," reserved for terrorizing bandits, to become the popular label for the radical groups.
"It may not change much, but it allows Muslims and non-Muslims to say something about terrorists without appearing to malign Islamic theology," said Mr. Abou el Fadl, who has advised U.S. officials since the September 11 terrorist attacks.
"'Hirabah' is seen as a bad thing, while 'jihad' is a good thing," said Mr. Abou el Fadl, whose book compares the two concepts.
Riffat Hassan, a professor of religion at the University of Louisville, agrees that a proper war of words can help attract rank-and-file Muslims to democracy.
"Language is how we describe reality, and this is not a difficult word," she said of "hirabah." "It might take some getting used to."
To critics of this gradual approach, Islam is too deeply flawed to be changed by words and needs an internal upheaval.
"I think we must drive Islam to have a Reformation, which is what Salman Rushdie is saying, that Islam unreformed will be brutal and barbaric," the Rev. Patrick Sookhdeo of the Institute for the Study of Islam and Christianity in London said in a talk here earlier this year.
Yet State Department and intelligence officials are clearly interested in this verbal battle for hearts and minds, and advocates note how terms such as "peace" colored the Cold War and how using "pro-life" or "anti-abortion" tilts the reproductive-policy discourse.
"We should use language to move moderates toward the West and quarantine the extremists," said M.A. Khan, director of international studies at Adrian College.
Another U.S. official said there are pockets of "self-examination" in global Islam related to tolerance, women and democracy, and they are important to U.S. foreign policy. "We have to find the moderates and encourage them. It's not easy."
Some scholars of Islam have drafted a religious indictment of al Qaeda's crimes and hope to circulate it for signing by Muslim authorities worldwide. The impact on popular opinion, they say, would be to cast such groups as outlaws, not holy warriors.
The terminology debate began after President Bush used "crusade" in early comments on the war on terrorism, but switched in a televised policy speech to saying that radicals "hijacked" Islam and that the United States was not in a religious war.
Since then, fierce debate has broken out on whether a good religion was hijacked or Islam is inherently violent, a debate that both interests and divides U.S. policy-makers, according to participants.
With the shift in the emphasis of U.S. intelligence from the Cold War to Islamic topics, there was a ready adoption of an all-or-nothing "clash of civilizations" view, according to analysts.
"The debate is getting much more sophisticated now," said Cleveland State University professor David F. Forte, whose writings influenced the president's TV speech on the "hijacking" of Islam.
"Whatever language we use will be politicized by Muslims, so getting it clear on our side is important for long-term policy," Mr. Forte said.
"In my view, we don't want to contest a remnant of triumphalist Islam with a new triumphalist Christianity," he said. "Triumphalist religions always gets in trouble, so we should work to develop a moderate Islam."


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