The popular American singer and songwriter, Prince, emerged as a very successful artist in the 1980s. In 1993, a contract dispute with his record label — under which the name “Prince” had been trademarked — caused him to change his name to an unpronounceable symbol. As such, he became known as “[Symbol] — The Artist Formerly Known As ‘Prince.’ ”
In 2000, as the contract ended, the unpronounceable symbol and “Formerly Known As” moniker were dropped — his name reverting to “Prince” again. From a legal and marketing standpoint, it was a clever maneuver, enabling him to maintain high visibility for the name “Prince” while claiming not to be “Prince.”
Despite this name-gaming process, the public readily knew him as “Prince” regardless of what other label was attached. However, a recent U.S. government decision to undertake a similar name change effort is not so clever.
A document titled “Words that Work and Words that Don’t: A Guide for Counter-Terrorism Communication” published last month by the U.S. government’s National Counter-Terrorism Center (NCTC) urges officials to avoid referring publicly to al Qaeda and other terrorist groups as “Islamic” or “Muslim” or use terms such as “jihad” or “mujahideen.” The rationale: Such words tend to “unintentionally legitimize” terrorism. “Avoid labeling everything ‘Muslim,’ ” the document reads. “It reinforces the ‘U.S. vs. Islam’ framework that al Qaeda promotes.” Instead, such terrorist groups should be characterized as “violent extremists,” or “totalitarian and death cult.”
NCTC explains “a large percentage of the world’s population … subscribes to this religion [and] … unintentionally alienating them is not a judicious move.” Also discouraged are words such as “Islamist” and “Islamism” as “the general public, including overseas audiences, may not appreciate the academic distinction between Islamism and Islam.” NCTC concludes, even though such terms may be accurate, there is a “strategic” concern about officials using them.
A U.S. Department of Homeland Security representative asserts avoiding the word “Islam” in the same breath as “terrorism” is by no means a “watering down [of] what we say” and is “in no way an exercise in political correctness.” However, that exactly is what it is.
At a time the general public — here and in democracies abroad — struggles to understand a major threat to our way of life, it is important we not sugarcoat it. Interestingly, NCTC’s Report on Terrorist Incidents for 2006 revealed that a majority (56 percent) of fatalities worldwide for which responsibility was conclusively determined were attributable to “Islamic extremism.”
Islamic extremist attacks against U.S. targets include: 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Iran and its staff; 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon; 1983 bombing of the Marine Barracks in Beirut; 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland; 1993 attack on New York’s World Trade Center; 1996 attack on Khobar Towers U.S. military complex in Saudi Arabia; 1998 bombings of U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania; 2000 attack in Yemen of the USS Cole; and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. A common pattern emerges: Islamic extremists kill.
The NCTC is failing to heed the advice of British-American historian and Middle East expert Bernard Lewis — “the most influential postwar (World War II) historian of Islam and the Middle East.” Mr. Lewis finds descriptions like “Islamic terrorism” appropriate due to “the essentially political character which the Islamic religion has had from its very foundation and retains to the present day. An intimate association between religion and politics, between power and cult, marks a principal distinction between Islam and other religions.” Terms like “violent extremists” or “totalitarian and death cult” do nothing to educate and/or sensitize non-Muslims to the most dangerous threat to their existence.
Several years ago, the posting on the Internet of a violent extremist’s diary reflected his intense hatred for Americans. Diary entries described his desire to murder American students. On April 20, 1999, he and a fellow terrorist acted upon this hatred at Columbine High School in Colorado.
Clearly, Islamists do not lay sole claim to violent extremism. But we have to recognize threats posed by the Columbine terrorists and by Islamic extremists are much different. Terrorist acts by the former focus on impacting those within the perpetrator’s limited “world;” terrorist acts by the latter focus on impacting the entire world, achieving global submission to Islam. Thus, the former is an anomaly; the latter is not.
U.S. concerns over alienating a peace-loving Muslim majority choosing to remain silent as their religion is hijacked by Islamic extremists should not cloud the language used to identify the threat within their midst — and ours — for what it really is. This extremist mindset has been inbred within Islam for centuries, responsible for the deaths of more Muslims by fellow Muslims than non-Muslims.
An inability of this silent Muslim majority to comprehend the Islamic extremist threat should not impose upon us a reluctance to use descriptive words to help educate Americans where from the threat really emanates.
The artist Prince had it right in using a name change to maintain high visibility for himself; but a similar effort by the U.S. government to rename al Qaeda and other Islamic terrorist groups for what they are not does a great disservice by clouding the true identity of this threat. If this is to be the policy, we should at least insist a moniker similar to that Prince used be applied — thus calling these killers “Violent Extremists formerly known as ‘Islamic extremists’ ” so their true identity, as was the case for Prince, is prominently highlighted.
James G. Zumwalt, a Marine veteran of the Persian Gulf and Vietnam wars, is a contributor to The Washington Times.