CRUCIBLE: US politics of euphemism on Islam and terrorism (1st of two parts) By Julkipli Wadi

(A paper read during the Forum on Islam and Terrorism, held at Gloria Maris Restaurant, Greenhills, San Juan City, Metro Manila, on June 6, 2010.)

When some brothers from the Insan Islamic Assembly Manila (IIAM) and the Muslim Inter-organizational Meeting (MIOM) approached me and expressed their desire to hold a forum on Islam and terrorism, I silently reacted: “why just now.” I feel that this forum should have
been held long time ago, perhaps when the Abu Sayyaf was still on an even keel while we were interested to know why and how the said group has persisted despite the RP-US tandem to quell it and despite the massive pouring of economic development assistance to Mindanao these
past years.

In light of issues we’d faced in the international front, this forum should have been held during the Bush’s presidency immediately following 9/11 and when the neocons lorded it over the use of this heavily loaded word called terrorism while made to connect with such frightening terms like Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and Global War on Terror (GWT), the main casualty of which was Iraq and Afghanistan and the “US opening of second front of terror in Mindanao”
which, as things transpire, is actually a pretext euphemizing today’s “US opening of oil reserves in the Sulu Sea.”

At any rate, given the persistence of this subject and the new “politics of euphemism” in the White House relative to calibrated use of terrorism vis-à-vis Islam and the Muslim community, this forum, admittedly, has its continuing relevance. Besides, given today’s renewed tension in Gaza with the killing by Israeli soldiers of peace activists aboard the Mavi Marmara and the continuing violence in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is clear that the issue of terrorism is here to stay.

There is no doubt that Muslims in many parts of the world have been disgusted over the arbitrary association of Islam and many Muslims themselves with terrorism whatever it means and however it is defined or is made to be defined by a host of powers – big or small – that are affected or at times have benefited from the scourge of terrorism.

This is not to say that such claim has been without basis given the preponderance of unconventional violence perpetrated by some quarters of Muslims across countries. Indeed, the Muslim world is not a monolithic entity with monolithic interpretation of Islam, social
condition, historical current and political ferment. It is expected that there could be varied political expressions of Islam and the way it is made to relate to varying situations of Muslim society.

It is expected, too, that there would be varying unconventional ideas, groups, strategies and tactics that may emerge not only to challenge the present political order and international norms but may espouse certain ideas and engage certain political conduct and advance their own version of politics that could become a source of disagreement even between and among Muslims themselves. It is because while Muslims supposedly adhere to a single faith, their psychology, culture, experience, nationality, power, interest, loyalty and many more vary from one group to another, from one country to another, from one region to another.

This rather varied pictures of Muslim society and the multifarious conducts of politics and struggle by some of them would be a good start in connecting or reifying the various labels associated with Islam such as Islamic fundamentalism, extremism, terrorism and the
like and why their often misinformed, callous and even arbitrary use have rather confused rather than helped in understanding the current surge of Islam in many countries and regions. There are obviously many terms that have been attached with the construct “Islamic” and have often created new meanings of its own like Islamic revivalism and resurgence and others. For the purpose of this presentation, discussion would be limited to two terms mentioned – Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism.

I would not dwell lengthily on these terms or hair-split them as I am fully aware of their essentially conceptual yet strategic roles as first-line justifier if not propaganda material in the matrix of legitimacy for power configuration. In the words of the late Edward Said:

…terrorism and fundamentalism which derived entirely from the concerns and intellectual factories in metropolitan centers like Washington or London. They are fearful images that lack discriminate contents or definition, but they signify moral power and approval for whoever uses them, moral defensiveness and criminalization for whomever they designate (1994: 375).

Rather, what must be emphasized is how these constructs or what Said refers to as “fearful images” and their semantic cousins that are usually in vogue with media have become “language of power” as revealed by Robert Fisk in his illuminating and courageous speech during the Fifth Al-jazeera Annual Forum last May 23 this year.

According to Fisk:

…power and the media are not just about cosy relationships between journalists and political leaders, between editors and presidents.

They are not just about the parasitic-osmotic relationship between supposedly honourable reporters and the nexus of power that runs between White House and state department and Pentagon, between Downing Street and the foreign office and the ministry of defence.

In the western context, power and the media it is about words – and the use of words. It is about semantics. It is about the employment of phrases and clauses and their origins. And it is about the misuse of history; and about our ignorance of history (http://english.aljazeera.net/focus/2010/05/201052574726865274.html).

Fisk added: “more and more today, we journalists have become prisoners of the language of power.”

If one is keen in following the news on Islam and terrorism in the Philippines, Fisk’s words could easily be transplanted locally on how the Abu Sayyaf Group for instance has been called with many names since their emergence until these days like peace saboteur, MNLF lost command, bandit group, Islamic fundamentalist, Islamic extremist, Muslim radical, Islamic terrorist, and now the recent one Al-Qaida affiliated terrorist group.

And lo and behold! Despite their simply being a ragtag band of disenchanted youth that was formed in the late ‘80s, more than twenty years hence, the Philippine military aided by US soldiers could not or would not want to finish the Abu Sayyaf off.

Yet, even if a firecracker explodes in Jolo or in Basilan the media would call it the handiwork of the “Al-Qaida affiliated Abu Sayyaf terrorist group” even if there is probably none from the present craft of ASG that has ever been in contact with directly or indirectly or much less know the Al-Qaeda and its affiliates.

In similar vein, when USSR invaded Afghanistan in the early ‘80s, the CIA referred to the Afghans as freedom fighters or Mujahideen. When Russia withdrew from Afghanistan, the US also withdrew leaving the Afghans into a quagmire that led eventually into the rise of the
Taliban calling them later on Islamic terrorists. With the new politics of euphemism in the White House, “Islamic terrorist” becomes “Islamic insurgent” even if US drones have never been as indiscriminate in bombing many innocent families and civilians in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Why is there such propensity in the use of “fearful image” through arbitrary crafting of names on what are generally perceived as the source of terror even if the act of doing so is already tantamount to creating a mountain out of a molehill? How can such image be delineated from the norms of civility that Islam and the bulk of Muslims believed in? As Edward Said implies, why is such delineation not enough unless it is viewed from the prism of power, control and hegemony? (Mindaviews is the opinion section of Mindanews. The author is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies at the Institute of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines Diliman.)