Wednesday, June 04, 2008

A Dung Heap By Any Other Name

It's been a long time since I left Penn State, clutching my BA in Linguistics, but words still fascinate me. Words have a power that can't be denied, and as much as my mother used to say, "Sticks and stones will break your bones, but names will never hurt you," the names we give to things are incredibly important. They shape our opinions and beliefs, separate us from one another, or bring us together. In Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet, Juliet asks plaintively,

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."

Well, Juliet, that's a good point. But there are also some things that would smell just as bad no matter what we call them.

Take the phrase, war on terror. It's stupid. As rallying cries go, it lacks the punch of "Remember the Alamo," but we're stuck with it. Terrorism is a tactic employed for political or religious ends. It's not an ideology that can be contested, or an enemy whose lands can be devastated and capital occupied. It's a weapon. This article in the Financial Times makes the case pretty well.

Another name that seems to be badly misused is jihad, the word usually translated into English as "holy war." Muslims loudly split the definitional hair, insisting that the term refers not to sawing off the heads of those who disagree with them, but to an honorable quest to find one’s faith, or an external fight for justice (as described in Islamic terms). If this is the case, should we use a term with supposedly honorable and praiseworthy connotations to refer to the despicable activities of savage lunatics? This question has been asked before, and is addressed well in this New York Times op-ed article by P.W. Singer and Elina Noor. Singer and Noor argue that use of the term jihad to refer to the murderous actions of violent extremists acknowledges a legitimate religious justification for their actions, and that we should seek another, more descriptive term to use in its place.

So, if we aren't to use the terms jihad (for the activity) or jihadi (for the one who pursues it), what do we say? Religious lunatics probably isn't politically correct enough for government spokesmen and highbrow editorial pages; and violent extremists seems too simplistic. Singer and Noor reach into the Arabic language to recommend the terms hirabi or hirabist as likely replacements. They note that the basic root word, hirabah, refers to barbarism or piracy, and that "...Unlike 'jihad,' which grants honor, 'hirabah' brings condemnation; it involves unlawful violence and disorder."

Yes, Juliet, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. And a despicable murderer by any other name would smell as foul. So, as my little linguistic shot across the bow of those who would use religious justification for political murder, I intend to start using the term hirabi to describe these evil creatures, and hirabah to describe their philosophy. If the term jihad really does have an honorable meaning in an Islamic context (which, given how many Muslims use it themselves, I have to doubt), then I can't use it to describe those who would wrap themselves in an honorable religious cloak to justify the worst of subhuman savagery.

I just knew that all those hours I spent listening to lectures on semantics would eventually pay off.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.



The Mistress of the Dark said...

The heck with political correctness, religious lunatics is the best word

Amanda said...

You've taught me two new words today.

Before I today, instead of hirabi, I used to just think of the words 'monsters' and 'murderers'.

I'm not proud of it but during those days when all those videos of people getting beheaded were circulating, I did click on one of the links that landed in my email. Your words 'Sawing off the heads' really reminded me of it because it was so brutal and it was literally 'sawing'. Thats why I think 'monsters'. Till this day, I hate that I was stupid enough to watch that video.

Serena Joy said...

I concur 100% with every word you said. No word can make savagery honorable. I'm not very PC, either, and believe in calling things exactly what they are.

ssgreylord said...

I agree it's all about semantics, isn't it? I'm with you on using these new terms. Why on earth would we honor them with the jihad(ist) name?