- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 1, 2005

Language is a powerful tool. Used well, it offers hope. Used with evil intent, it can undermine hope, destroy honest ambition, mislead and confound both history and truth.

One tool of so-called “jihadists” in Iraq, largely a bunch of Saudi and Syrian killers seeking to murder democracy and self-rule, is language.

Chief offender in this war of “redefining terms” is the notion, boldly asserted and often parroted, that a person who kills large numbers of civilians, including innocent Iraqi women and children, together with courageous young Americans supporting an Iraqi transition from hell to democracy — is somehow a “martyr.” Nothing could be further from the truth — historically, syntactically, or religiously, from either a Christian or Muslim viewpoint.

Where do you begin in tossing out such a glorification of evil, the insertion of syntactical madness into civil dialogue? Let’s begin with the basics, Webster’s. In secular parlance, a “martyr” is “one who submits to death rather than forswear his faith.” Note this embodies no aggressive act toward another, no insistence on killing, maiming, kidnapping, attacking, beheading, let alone insulting someone of different faith.

Martyrdom is a quintessentially passive act. It is defiance, resolution and content absorption in one’s faith, under the pressure of violent religious persecution. Examples are legion in all faiths, but the key characteristic is peaceful acceptance of persecution, not violent murder of another.

In the Christian faith, general understandings of martyrdom and sainthood are ancient and unchanging. In “The Saints of Anglo-Saxon England,” it was written that “for over a 1,000 years, from the coming of the first disciples of Christ to the Norman Conquest in 1066, there flourished in England that form of Christianity which is today found mainly in the countries of the Orthodox East, Greece, Eastern Europe and Russia.”

Together with this early faith, Catholic, Protestant and later versions of Christianity adhere to an empirical fact: No Christian is viewed as a martyr or saint for having taken the life of an innocent, let alone murdering innocent children, and taking one’s own life in the bargain.

That whole, revolting notion contravenes core tenets of the Christian faith. Indeed, one historical volume, titled “Ancient Christian Writers,” describes a martyr as necessarily “seated in peace, like a ship in port.” Perhaps this is not relevant in Iraq.

Fast forward, then, to the Muslim faith. The Koran celebrates innocence; it forswears both taking innocent life and suicide. In one section, there is a deliberate appeal to protection of noncombatants during war, while in another “kindness” is openly encouraged toward “unbelievers.” The Koran’s main “jihad” — or holy war — actually seems to call on the individual to wage and win the internal battle with evil, as in other faiths, not to export violence.

The Koran’s text is unswerving: Suicide is prohibited. In another section, the Koran states clearly, “Do not kill your people.” Notable scholars of Islam offer greater depth, but there is a common understanding that, from 680 AD until at least the 1970s, “martyrdom” in any Muslim faith was passive.

Fast forward again. Over the last 35 years, events shrouded in the mists of time have suddenly been reinterpreted. Politically active suicide bombers are now, rather ironically, recast as “fundamentalist” Muslims. They are simultaneously given leave to lose their minds and die in a fanatical rage. Such reinterpretations of the Muslim past are viewed — presumably — as justifying the carnage we now see in Iraq and elsewhere.

There is no obvious textual support for such a radical turn toward violence. The departure leaves in its wake only the same kind of senseless human devastation and loss that brave Americans of another generation fought to stop and prevent — attacks on innocence, freedom and civil society.

Where does that leave us? In one sense, only in the fog of a war that must be won. In another sense, with greater insight into the manipulative, ruthless, victimizing and valueless nature of an enemy of the Sovereign People of Iraq, of those who stand tall to free a captive population, and of all free peoples.

Language is a powerful tool. Bold efforts to redefine long-established terms, especially one as saturated in innocent blood — of any faith — as “martyrdom,” should be unavailing. In America, killing another and taking one’s own life is a murder-suicide. That is a first-order double felony, with evil written all over it. No attempt to describe such an act as anything else changes it. It is what it is. So let’s drop the term “martyr.”

Heartless, fanatical, foreign killers in Iraq are nothing less than that. They live to redefine our world, undermine the hope of innocent Iraqis, destroy honest ambition, mislead and confound both history and truth. We cannot let them do this. Language was, frankly, meant for better things.

Robert Charles, former assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement, 2003-2005, is president of the Charles Group in Gaithersburg, Md.

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