July 28, 2005

Struggling Against Extremism?

In an effort to reframe the global conflict that we've contributed to since the September 11 attack, the White House (allegedly with the guidance of former Bush campaign advisor Karen Hughes) has renamed the global war on terror. Yes, folks, we are now engaged in the "global struggle against extremism."

This new language bothers me for a couple of reasons. I'm bothered by the decision to replace the word war with struggle, and I'm equally (if not moreso) bothered by the decision to replace the word terror with extremism. To be sure, these are very calculated moves by the White House, which -- contrary to what they might say -- cannot possibly be designed to improve our diplomatic efforts with largely Muslim nations, but must be designed to persuade the American people that what we've been participating in since 2001 is actually something quite different from what we previously thought.

First, I'm concerned with the word war being replaced by the word struggle. Obviously, there are vastly different meanings implied here. A war implies an armed conflict, an active or vigorous conflict, which involves the injury and death of people on both sides. Meanwhile, a struggle implies proceeding with difficulty or great effort against an opposing force, which, while possibly being similar in nature to a war, nevertheless implies a different connotation in the minds of those who are observing the change in terminology. Isn't it appropriate for us to wonder if the administration hasn't changed this terminology in an effort to obscure the fact that this "struggle" is killing people on both sides -- our own troops, in addition to insurgents and innocent civilians in both Afghanistan and especially Iraq? And yet as we saw vividly portrayed last night in the new TV show Over There, this "struggle" is indeed injuring and killing many. If this terminology will serve to decrease American awareness of the human cost involved in this war, and if it will make Americans turn an apathetic blind eye, then it must be spurned.

I'm also very concerned about replacing the word terror with extremism. Whereas terror and terrorism imply behavior, the term extremism implies belief. The problem with this, of course, is that people will increasingly begin to see this war as a war against Islam, instead of seeing it as a war against the Muslim terrorist minority. I've begun to see this happening more and more among conservative news commentators. For instance, I watch The Situation with Tucker Carlson on MSNBC on a regular basis, and despite Rachel Maddow's insistence that there are moderate Muslims who are condemning terrorism, not to mention the fact that she also provides examples, Tucker Carlson (and occasional commentator Monica Crowley) will hear nothing of it.

In truth, though, Mr. Carlson and Ms. Crowley are moderates compared to commentators like Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity, who imply even more strongly that this war is, in a very real sense, a war against Islam. My concern is that changing the terminology so that the war is seen as being against belief instead of behavior will contribute to this sentiment among mainstream Americans, which will increase hate crimes against Muslims in this country and abroad. It will also take our focus off of the real problem, which is international terrorism, not Islam. This is not to say that there isn't a struggle going on against Muslim extremism; but this struggle, like all ideological struggles, must be fought from within and not from without. While moderate Muslims like those in Britain and North America condemn terrorists in the strongest language, including by issuing fatwas (similar to excommunications), we should support them in that effort instead of ignoring their statements or playing them down. Meanwhile, we should remember that no society is immune to extremism, and we should continue to purge extremism from our own society -- especially the extremism propagated by those on the Christian Right who are ready to portray this war on terror as a holy war between Christians and Muslims. Such a portrayal is unacceptable, and it's time for us as Americans (and Christians) to own our own extremism and seek to aggressively repudiate it.

Almost four years into the war on terror, is it really wise to seek to reframe this conflict in language that obscures the horror of war while also contributing to anti-Muslim sentiment among the American populace? I don't think that it is. I think it would be far wiser to continue to call this conflict precisely what it is: a war on terror, and a war against terrorists specifically. In this war, Islam and those who believe so strongly in it can be our allies, or we can make them our enemies as well. If we choose the latter course, we shouldn't be surprised when we lose the "struggle"; a united Christian Europe was barely capable of keeping Muslim invaders from crossing European borders during the unfortunate period of the Crusades. Do we really think that a fractured, secular Western Hemisphere will be able to turn back the tide of a true Muslim holy war if we choose to bring it upon ourselves? It's a question that we must ask ourselves, as we remember the insistence of our Christian leaders (including Pope Benedict XVI) that this is not a holy war, and that such a holy war is not an option.