Nearly eight years on from the September 11, 2001 attacks, the Federal Government is launching a review of the official language used to discuss terrorism, and terms like ‘islamo-fascism’, ‘jihad’ and ‘war on terror’ are within their sights.
“Experience has shown that the language used to describe terrorism can be counterproductive,” the Attorney-General, Robert McClelland, told The Age this morning. “Certain words have the potential to glorify terrorism and terrorists, while others can cause anxiety among Australians and create divisions within and between communities.”
Already, focus groups consisting of members of the Australian public are being poked and prodded for their views on the language of terrorism. The conclusions drawn from those focus groups will be used, along with public submissions and the advice of experts and government agencies, to create a set of guidelines that will shape the way Government talks about terrorism and a report on the “Lexicon of Terrorism“.
The executive director of the Australian Multicultural Foundation, Hass Dellal, is facilitating the focus groups. He told Crikey that participants have expressed concern over terms that link terrorism to religion, and in particular, to Islam.
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“One of the terms the focus groups have brought up is ‘jihadist’ … which in its original Koranic meaning is more like ‘self-discipline’, there’s not necessarily any connection to violence,” he said. “The other term the focus groups have mentioned is ‘moderate Muslim’ … [Focus group members] see that as meaning largely non-practising Muslims, Muslims who are not fully committed to their faith. The term is meaningless. One simply is a Muslim or not.”
Mr Dellal likened the term to describing someone as “a ‘moderate Christian’ or a ‘moderate Hindu’.”
Mr Dellal says the groups’ members represent a cross-section of the general public — Muslims, non-Muslims, young and old — many of whom have become involved in the research through their involvement with community groups, including Islamic and youth groups. Participants are asked to respond to the language of statements made by political leaders about terrorism, and to discuss their views on the most appropriate language to use.
“I’ve also decided to conduct some specific one-on-one interviews [with key leaders],” Mr Dellal said. “Sometimes people don’t feel comfortable saying what they think — sometimes if you put a Muslim in a group of non-Muslims, out of courtesy, people won’t say what they think — so we try to remove that element so they’ll be free to say what they need to say.”
The language review echoes similar initiatives from abroad.
The European Union got the ball rolling two years ago, secretly issuing guidelines to its spokespeople that reportedly banned them from using terms including “jihad”, “Islamic” or “fundamentalist”.
The British home office drew up a “counter-terrorism phrasebook” last year, which issued similar guidelines to those issued by the EU, and from which inspiration for the Australian Government’s language review was taken.
Over in the States, an internal memo leaked last year showed that the Bush administration was keen for its spokespeople to avoid certain terms when describing terrorists who invoke Islamic theology to justify their attacks. In particular, government representatives were urged not to “take [Osama bin Laden’s] bait,” and to “Avoid labelling everything ‘Muslim’. It reinforces the ‘US vs. Islam’ framework that Al-Qaeda promotes.”
Yet for all the guidelines, there is evidence political leaders abroad are not taking the language recommendations on board. In March, the Obama administration came out with a document entitled “Domestic Extremism Lexicon“, which refers specifically to “Islamic extremism” in its preamble.
And at home, some members of the public are wary of the crackdown on language. One blogger ominously referred to the project as “a new entry for the Orwellian doublespeak award”.