In January 2008 the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties in the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) published a memorandum of mark: ‘Terminology to Define the Terrorists: Recommendations from American Muslims.’ As its title suggests, the memorandum was built atop counsel from ‘influential Muslim Americans,’ and proposes to map the ‘difficult terrain of terminology’ so as to avoid dancing to the tune of recruiters making hay on the ‘clash of civilisations’ narrative. Its opening gambit was that ‘words matter,’ but the matter of which words to prefer above others proved to be trickier terrain than anticipated. Initial talks about what to call ‘terrorists who invoke Islamic theology’ bore smoke but not flame. In the end, a group identified as ‘US-based scholars and commentators on Islam’ drafted an easy reference guide for ‘describing the terrorist threat.’ These unidentified consultants urged officials to favour terminology carrying a negative charge, for example, cultist or sectarian. By contrast, officials ought to avoid terms that glamorise or legitimise extremist activity and that may be too nuanced to be ‘strategic’ for a general audience, for example, jihadist, Salafist, or Islamist. On the trail of off-putting terminology, the memorandum’s authors soberly weighed the merits of ‘takfiri death cult.’ After all, the ‘Three Points’ of The Amman Message had recently ruled takfir or declaring apostasy impermissible between the vast majority of Muslims worldwide. In the end, ‘takfiri death cult’ ran afoul of the memorandum’s sage instruction to eschew Arabic and religious terminology. The wider Muslim population ought to be described in terms counterpointing cult and sect, for example, ‘mainstream,’ ‘ordinary,’ or ‘traditional.’ ‘Moderate’ should be binned on grounds that ‘many Muslims’ rejected it as code for the West’s ‘good Muslim,’ the marginally religious Uncle Tom. In 2007, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan reviled the logic of moderation as ‘ugly’ and ‘offensive,’ titillating his base with the dictum, ‘there is no moderate or immoderate Islam. Islam is Islam and that’s it.’ Erdogan’s observation lit up right wing media in the US, who fancied it to be confirmation of their insight into the secret depravity of Islam (see, for example, Robert Spencer’s 2008 Stealth Jihad, which hurrahed Ibn Warraq’s distinction between moderate Muslims and immoderate Islam). In the nine page DHS memorandum, the term ‘extremist’ appeared six times, but never as recommended lexis, a tacit recognition of the obstacles to its ‘strategic’ appliance.

Published twelve months ahead of the inauguration of Barack Obama, the 2008 DHS memorandum reflected a course adjustment to the severe route struck by the 2006 National Security Strategy (NSS) of the George W. Bush administration. The 2006 NSS held infamously that ‘the struggle against militant Islamic radicalism is the great ideological conflict of the early years of the twenty-first century.’ That claim sat cheek by jowl with friendlier locutions like ‘Islamic world,’ ‘responsible Islamic leaders,’ and lumbering attempts to distinguish the ‘proud religion of Islam’ (a construction so painstakingly formulaic that it verges on Homeric) from its ‘perversion.’ Granting that ‘proud’ sometimes signifies a salutary quality, it has sometimes enjoyed a darker acquaintance (e.g., ‘Death be not proud’ or ‘Boast not, proud English’). Suffice it to say that the NSS spares neither jot nor tittle on other ‘proud’ religions. Its engagements with Islam evoke something out there, a portentous and foreign matrix mysteriously generative of ‘peaceful’ Muslims (our allies in the great conflict) and ‘the terrorists.’ The forty-nine page policy document spars only briefly with ‘religious extremism,’ ‘terrorist extremists,’ and ‘terror-supporting extremism’ before retreating to box comfortably and tirelessly with ‘the terrorists.’ ‘Terror’ and its cognates register one hundred and twenty-five appearances, a close second to ‘free’ and its cognates at one hundred and thirty, tallies that could prompt charges of over-lexicalisation.

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