EU carefully chooses words on Islam, terror

BRUSSELS — Still ruffled by the furor over the Prophet Mohammad cartoons, the European Union is refining a communication strategy in an effort to help stop disenchanted Muslim youths turning to terrorism.

How is the word “Islamist” understood in Muslim countries? What does the term “jihad” really mean? These are just some of the questions the EU is trying to answer with its dictionary on issues sensitive among civilisations.

Yet even before the row over the cartoons, first published in Denmark last year and which triggered Muslim protests, the 25-member grouping was trying to define a “common vocabulary” for talking about radicalism.

Since taking over the EU’s rotating presidency in January, Austria has hosted conferences involving experts on Islam, religion and linguistics and has drawn up a first document, which it hopes will be finalised by December.

“Unintended stigmatisation resulting from an ill-considered choice of words may have serious negative psychological effects and thus contribute to the process of radicalisation,” the text’s preamble says.

It urges EU governments to “ensure that they do not inadvertently and inappropriately impose a sense of identity solely linked to religious affiliation.”

European governments and officials are also warned not use religious language or interfere in any religious debate “as it may discredit the efforts of mainstream Muslims to curb extremist interpretations of Islam.” The common lexicon, for the moment, consists of just three terms: “Islamist,” “fundamentalism” and “jihad.”

Rather than dictionary-style definitions, the lexicon tries to place the words in their cultural, historical and political context to inform users and give them a better idea of how their use could be misunderstood.

So “Islamist terrorism” should be used instead of “Islamic terrorism,” because the -ist “links terrorism to a distinct political ideology, not to a religion as a whole, and might therefore be preferable.” But it is not that simple. Most Islamists, the lexicon goes on, do not use violence to achieve their political goals and indeed the difference between Islamist and Islamic might not be obvious to the average European.

“As a rule of thumb, a reference to the name of the group or individual responsible for a terrorist attack, or the location of a terrorist attack, is a good choice,” the text goes on.

Or alternatively: “terrorism that invokes an abusive interpretation of Islam.” As for the word “fundamentalism”: Avoid it.

The term refers to beliefs and convictions, which do not always have immediate political repercussions and when it is coupled into “Islamic fundamentalism” could be offensive to Muslims.

Finally, “jihad” — commonly used in the media to mean “holy war” — is based on contested interpretations of classical Islamic texts which legitimise the use of war against the state.

“Mujahedeen” is used to describe those who fight this war.

But the lexicon explains that it is an intellectual, social or other kind of personal exercise — “great jihad” — or to describe a war in defence of the Muslim community, “little jihad.”

“The latter is either regarded as a collective duty or as an individual obligation incumbent on any capable Muslim,” the document says, adding that the word’s misuse can also cause offence.

For the European Commission, the EU’s executive body, the common vocabulary’s only aim is to be a “tool” to all those — whether they be an official or a bureaucrat — who have no special knowledge of Islamic culture.

“It’s not a question of being politically correct but rather a small tool among many others for reducing incitement to radicalisation,” said the commission’s justice affairs spokesman Friso Roscam Abbing.

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