Wednesday, September 19, 2007
Jihadists are looked upon favorably in Iraq
From the files of "we just don't understand":
Before I left the U.S., but after I had been notified of my pending deployment, I caught a radio show piece interviewing an Arabic/Islamist scholar, who pointed out how our lack of understanding Arabic and Islamic culture was sometimes manifest in our improper use of language. He further discussed how that improper use of the language compounds the many mistakes we continue to make in our efforts to win the hearts and minds of the people of Iraq.
Here's one example I discussed with our local interpreters- jihadists versus the mutaterrif.
The obligatory Wikipedia definition: Jihad (Arabic: جهاد IPA: [ ʤi'hæːd]), meaning "to strive" or "to struggle" in Arabic, is an Islamic term and a duty for Muslims. It is sometimes referred to as the sixth pillar of Islam, although it occupies no official status as such in Sunni Islam. In Twelver Shi'a Islam, however, Jihad (Holy Struggle) is one of the 10 Practices of the Religion.
So our declaring war on jihadists really is not going to help win the hearts and minds of an Islamic population- we are attacking a concept that is primary to their faith, and in that sense, against all muslims. I discussed this a bit with some of BLP's interpreters here, and they suggested to me the term mutaterrif (that's my attempt to spell an Arabic word), or "extremist" as perhaps being more of what we have in mind. They feel we could much more easily get folks on board if we asked them to help us against the extremists rather than against their Islamic brothers and sisters united in their struggles and strivings.
I look through many of our presidential candidates' web sites, and many other of our U.S. media and documents- all focused on stopping the jihadists- we don't get it- we've been here about 4.5 years, and continue to work at counter purposes to our stated desires because we fail to understand the people we are purportedly trying to help, and their language is an important part of understanding them (for the psychologists among you, you may think about the strong and weak Whorfian hypotheses as tangentially related concepts).
It is almost as if we say we'd like to help them, but only in the ways we want and on our own terms- we'll use their language improperly, and expect them to make the adjustment to understand what we mean, not what we say. It is not that much unlike the stories I enjoy about folks who give people gifts that are only of interest or value to the gift giver, not the receiver.
A good website for english language links on all kinds of things Islam: