When the 57 representatives to the Organization of the Islamic Conference failed to endorse Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s proposal to condemn all attacks which target civilians as terrorism, they missed a golden opportunity to repair the damage done to their community by extremists. Also they failed to acknowledge the definition of terrorism in Islamic law that has stood for centuries.

The Arabic word to describe terrorist acts is “hirabah.” Khaled Abou el Fadl, a professor of Islamic law at the University of California at Los Angeles, defines hirabah as the “killing by stealth and targeting a defenseless victim in a way intended to cause terror in society.”

Here in the United States, the crime of “terrorism” is a recent addition to our law. It first appeared in 1996 in the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which was passed in response to the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. However, the crime of hirabah long has been a part of Islamic law and is the most severely punished crime in Islam.

Professor Roy Mottahedeh of Harvard, a specialist in Medieval Islamic history, has urged the worldwide Islamic community to indict Osama bin Laden and other top al-Qaida members for the many ways they are violating Islamic law.

Mottahedeh points out that there are strict rules of engagement that absolutely prevent the harming of innocent civilians. This prohibition is based on the Koran and on various pronouncements of the Prophet Mohammad. Verse 190 of the second chapter of the Koran says, “Fight in the path of God those who fight you, but do not transgress limits.” Also, Mohammad said, “Do not cheat or commit treachery, nor should you mutilate or kill children, women or old men.”

Yesterday the Islamic nations adopted an agreement to condemn terrorism “in all its forms.” However, by failing to charge the perpetrators of the 9-11 attacks with the crime of hirabah along with those suicide bombers in Israel, they are empowering terrorists around the world.

However, before we condemn Islamic leaders for their speech, we should be examining our own. Here in the United States, we commonly use the Arabic word “jihad,” normally translated “holy war,” to describe the sick, twisted acts of Middle Eastern extremists who are killing innocent people, instead of the more accurate word hirabah. When we do, we fan the fires that burn within the hearts of those who plan and carry out such evil deeds.

Jim Guirard, the president of the True Speak Institute in Washington, D.C., was one of the first to point out that this type of mislabeling is not only dangerous to us, it is an insult to many peace-loving Muslims in our midst.

The term “holy war” was first used in Europe during the Crusades to justify war against, not by, Muslims. A more accurate translation of jihad is “holy struggle.”

“Islam for Today” points out that, in a purely linguistic sense, jihad means “struggling or striving.” In Arabic, there are two different, unrelated words which mean war.

In a religious sense, jihad means striving for the benefit of the community or the restraint of personal sins. It can refer to internal as well as external efforts to be a proper Muslim. If such a struggle is required to protect the faith, it can be performed using legal, diplomatic, economic and political means. When there is no peaceful alternative, Islam allows for the use of force, but as Professor Mottahedeh has pointed out, that use of force has limits.

Also, while Islamic guerrilla fighters are commonly called mujaheddin, or “holy warriors,” we should refer to these wanton killers as mufsidoon, evildoers and mischief-makers.

Could it be that we the people are unwittingly empowering terrorists with our speech? Words have specific meanings and when we adopt the speech of terrorists, it gives them an unintended helping hand. It is an indication to them that they are right and they are winning. It encourages them to carry out more of their diabolical schemes.

I am no expert on Islam – never claimed to be – but I do know the value of truth-in-labeling. Three decades ago, we adopted the language of the convenience killers in the abortion movement, fed to us by a well-meaning, misguided media. As a result, the deliberate taking of life of a human being in the womb first became a “choice” and then a “right.”

Now, we are adopting the language of Islamic extremists fed to us by the same well-meaning but misguided media. Are we really ready to proclaim these genocidal and suicidal acts a “mandate of god” to be inflicted on society by his “holy warriors”? Words have meaning. Repeat them often enough and they become a self-fulfilling prophecy.


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