Friday, April 9, 2010

Changes to USNCTC communications guide reflect longstanding DOF policy

We've received numerous citizen inquiries about how the new Obama terrorism communications policy will impact DOF.  For the most part, recent changes to the WWWGCTC of the USNCTC reflect longstanding DOF policy.  For the benefit of the public, following are excerpts from a staff-edited summary of the new policy, with comments dictated by DOF Directorate Secretary Malcom P. Stag III:
An 2008, the US National Counter-Terrorism Centre produced a document, called “Words that Work and Words that Don’t: A Guide for Counter-Terrorism Communication,” which encouraged government agencies and officials to avoid characterizing Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups as “Islamic” or “Muslim,” as that could “unintentionally legitimise” their tactics.
Sec. Stag: With few exceptions, DOF has followed this new policy since its inception in 2004.   We have been critical of other agencies that have not adopted what some deride as "political correctness" on our part.
The document that the Obama administration is consulting for drafting the new strategy — “A Guide for Counter-Terrorism Communication” — urges US officials to “avoid labelling everything ‘Muslim.’ It reinforces the ‘US vs. Islam’ framework that Al Qaeda promotes.” It reminds US officials that “a large percentage of the world’s population subscribes to this religion” and “unintentionally alienating them is not a judicious move.”
Sec. Stag: DOF seldom uses the label "Muslim." Instead, the Department talks mainly about "danger," "terrorism," and we emphasize "risk."
Urging officials not to use the word Islam in conjunction with terrorism, the guide notes that, “Although the Al Qaeda network exploits religious sentiments and tries to use religion to justify its actions, we should treat it as an illegitimate political organisation, both terrorist and criminal.”
Sec. Stag: This part of the guide needs some more work.  We are talking about an illegitimate political organization "with an army". They forgot to mention that part.  They may be criminal, but we do not want the public to think of Al Qaeda fighters as mere common criminals or community organizers.  We must portray them as soldiers of a powerful -- and yes, illegitimate -- organization.   
Instead of calling terror groups Muslim or Islamic, the guide suggests using words like totalitarian, terrorist or violent extremist — “widely understood terms that define our enemies appropriately and simultaneously deny them any level of legitimacy.
Sec. Stag: Totalitarian, terrorist or violent extremist -- all good words.
By employing the language the extremists use about themselves, the guide warns, officials can inadvertently help legitimise them in the eyes of Muslims.

“Never use the terms ‘jihadist’ or ‘mujahideen’ … to describe the terrorists,” instructs the guide. “A mujahid, a holy warrior, is a positive characterisation in the context of a just war. In Arabic, jihad means ‘striving in the path of God’ and is used in many contexts beyond warfare. Calling our enemies Jihadis and their movement a global Jihad unintentionally legitimises their actions.”
Sec. Stag: Approved. "Terrorist" sounds just as scary.
The guide also bans the use of the word caliphate to describe Al Qaeda’s goal. The term “has positive connotations for Muslims,” says the guide, adding, “The best description of what (Al Qaeda) really want to create is a ‘global totalitarian state.’”
Sec. Stag: The phrase "Beware the Caliphate" has dependably scared English-speaking peoples for almost a century.  On this account, it would seem a shame to abandon a phrase that has proven track record.  But over the past decade, with the American public ever more ignorant, fewer citizens have a clue what a Caliphate is, let alone why they should  fear one.  As per our moto [ed. note: timendi causa est nescire,  "ignorance causes  fear"] this trend is indicative that our overall approach is succeeding.  Approved.
A longer document — “Terminology to Define the Terrorists: Recommendations from American Muslims” — says officials should use “terms such as ‘death cult,’ ‘cult-like,’ ‘sectarian cult,’ and ‘violent cultists’ to describe the ideology and methodology of Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.” It recommends eschewing the terms Islamist or Islamism — the advocacy of a political system based on Islam – while referring to terrorist groups.
Sec. Stag: DOF approves.  Americans hear the term "death cult" and they think "suicide cult."  Nobody is afraid of a suicide cult.  And only the freaks are lining up to join one. Most recently, we had the Branch Dividians in Texas who blew themselves up.  Christians!  These organizations pose a danger mostly to themselves.  How  many Americans have heard of the Om cult in Japan that gassed a subway?  If it didn't happen in America, Americans don't remember or care.  Americans don't fear cults.  It's a wise move to discard all these terms.
The document urges officials to consider describing Al Qaeda’s ideology as “Takfirism” — the practice of declaring Muslims who disagree with extremism apostates who can be killed.
Sec. Stag: They've got to be kidding.  DOF won't be using that term.

Editor's summary
DOF gives the new communications guide its qualified approval -- pending submission of the above noted revisions.  Essentially, the federal government will retain ample linguistic latitude to frighten Americans, it's just that officials will no longer be quite so culturally insensitive in their choice of words.  From the perspective of DOF, that's always been the essence of good communications policy. 


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Dr. Rebecca Wolf
Undersecretary for Community and New Media
United States Department of Fear