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Words in war

By Henry Schuster
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Editor's note: Henry Schuster, a senior producer in CNN's investigative unit and author of "Hunting Eric Rudolph," has been covering terrorism for more than a decade. Each week in "Tracking Terror," he reports on people and organizations driving international and domestic terrorism, and efforts to combat them.

(CNN) -- When is a jihadi not a jihadi? It depends what he is fighting for and who he is fighting against.

To Doug Streusand, a faculty member at the Marine Corps' Command and Staff College, the question is not intellectual wordplay or a matter of being politically correct.

Instead, it goes to the heart of information warfare, whether the U.S. is at war with Islam and even who we are calling an enemy.

Streusand recently wrote an article called "Choosing Words Carefully: Language to Help Fight Islamic Terrorism," for a journal run by the National Defense University. In it, he argues that "we ... simply do not comprehend the meaning of many words that we use to describe the enemy."

Jihadi is the term that is Streusand's biggest bugaboo. He told me that journalists, academics and even U.S. military and government officials use it to describe young Muslim men, often terrorists, who have taken up arms against the United States.

But jihad is a term of great and positive import in Islam. It is commonly defined as striving or struggle, and can mean an internal or external struggle for faith.

If the point is to separate the movement led and inspired by the likes of Osama bin Laden from the larger Muslim population then, Streusand says, the most important thing to do is "make the group of people who identify with our adversary as narrow as possible."

This is where he believes words matter.

Just how much words matter was brought home shortly after 9/11 when, in answering a reporter's question, President Bush said: "This crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take a while."

"Crusade" may have been stripped of its religious context in the West, but to many Muslims, sensitive about the historical meaning of the Christian Crusades against Islam, President Bush's use of the word just five days after 9/11 was a signal that there was a religious aspect to the war on terror.

Clarifications notwithstanding, that suspicion has not gone away, and Streusand says it was "extremely harmful."

Using the term "jihadis," he says, misuses another religious term and causes other trouble.

"Calling our enemies jihadis and their movement a global jihad thus indicates that we recognize their doctrines and actions as being in the path of God and, for Muslims, legitimate," he writes.

It would have been the equivalent, he tells me, of Americans in World War II calling their Japanese enemies "heroic samurai warriors."

Even worse, he says, is that by conceding religious legitimacy to this movement, it makes it appear that the war on terror is a war on Islam.

"In short, we explicitly designate ourselves as the enemies of Islam," he writes.

When American soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan use the term "muj" or "haji" to describe someone at the other end of a firefight, then they are once again conceding the war of words, Streusand says.

Muj is shorthand for mujahid, which means "holy warrior." It was a term that came into use in the 1980s to describe the Afghans and other Muslims who fought the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

Fair enough, says Streusand. But that was then and this is now.

"To extend the term to our current enemies dishonors our allies as well as authenticates our opponents as warriors for Islam. Even to a Western audience it can lend a sense of nobility to an otherwise ignoble enemy."

Interesting company

A similar point was made to me earlier this year by Jamal Khalifa -- Osama bin Laden's brother-in-law who says he was close to bin Laden until the two had an ideological parting of the ways in the late 1980s.

The battle against the Soviets in Afghanistan was a jihad, he said, and the men who fought there earned the title of mujahedeen.

But the young men in Saudi Arabia carrying out suicide attacks were terrorists and should not be called jihadis, he said.

When I sent him a copy of Streusand's article, Khalifa said he agreed. "That is what I was telling you. When you are using the same [words] for everybody, you start mixing people up."

Saudi religious scholars, he said, have begun using the term "hirabah" (unlawful) to describe the London and Madrid bombers.

Just who is a jihadi religious warrior and who is an irhabi terrorist in Iraq is a little less clear-cut to Khalifa than Streusand, however.

"In Iraq, it is possible for someone to be a mujahedeen. But it is mixed up, you don't know who is who," says Khalifa. "In Afghanistan, it was clear."

Referring to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the now-dead leader of al Qaeda in Iraq who orchestrated a number of brutal, high-casualty terrorist attacks, Khalifa said, "I don't know if he was making jihad or killing people in the streets."

What it depended on, he said, was the decision by religious scholars as to what was a legitimate jihad.

Is anyone listening?

Doug Streusand would like to see colonels and columnists start using a word such as "irhabi" instead of jihadi, when talking about a current adversary.

And rather than calling al Qaeda and its operations the "global jihadi movement," he prefers the "global hirabah," meaning warfare contrary to Islamic law.

Politicians, the military and journalists should start by taking a Hippocratic oath to "first, do no harm" with words, he says.

So far, Streusand's admonition (don't call it a crusade or jihad) hasn't caught on in the West.

I mentioned to Streusand that, in the early days of CNN, founder Ted Turner decided that he was going to ban the word "foreign" from our stylebook. He didn't like it, he said, because it highlighted the differences between countries and that was something he didn't think healthy in a world that seemed on the brink of a nuclear confrontation.

Anyone caught using the word would be fined $50.

Ted's all but gone now from CNN and on any given day you will hear the word foreign used several times on our air.

Streusand doesn't want to go that route, although he is serious about his war of words.

"There is always a tendency to equate something like this with political correctness. This is a matter of national security."

Calling people like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi "jihadis" can give their attacks legitimacy in the Muslim world, Doug Streusand argues.


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