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Junk the jihad, it's jargon we need

By Richard Ackland - posted Monday, 13 July 2009

Don't you just love it when things are "rolled out"? Supermarket unit pricing is rolled out; new radar system for the boys in Afghanistan is rolled out; Nokia rolls out an Apple apps store.

The latest rollout was announced this week by the Attorney-General, Robert McClelland. It's a "national roll-out of a project to promote the consistent use of language in engaging with communities on national security issues". It's branded as the "Lexicon on Terrorism".

It's not quite roll out the barrel, but it's still going to be a lot of fun. The first thing the project should examine is the use of the words "roll-out" and while they're at it "going forward" also needs some attention.


Mr McClelland's announcement was necessarily fuzzy. "We need to use language that does not inadvertently glorify terrorism but rather describes it in terms of base criminal behaviour of the most reprehensible kind." Inappropriate use of language in a terrorism context can lead to "misunderstanding".

Fortunately, work on the project is being led by one of the most culturally sensitive organisations in the country, the Victoria Police, in partnership with the Victorian Premier's Department, the Australian Multicultural Foundation and the Commonwealth Attorney-General's Department.

Attorney-General McClelland is confident that if we get the lingo right "community harmony" will be strengthened and extremists "disempowered".

The United States, the European Union and Britain have all done lexicon of terrorism projects and produced guidebooks for official use.

For instance, in the US the Extremist Messaging Branch of the National Counter Terrorism Centre issued a memo in March 2008 which the State Department approved for use by US diplomats. "It's not what you say but what they hear," it declared, which basically boils down to not using in conversations words such as "jihadist" or "mujahideen". Presumably, "Islamo-fascist" is also out.

According to Associated Press, which reported these developments last year, it now appears that these terms could actually encourage support for extremists "by giving them a veneer of religious credibility or by causing offence to moderates".


It might have saved a lot of lives and misadventure if only we'd known earlier that jihad doesn't just mean "holy war", but can also mean "struggle for good". The Department of Homeland Security and the National Counterterrorism Centre in a report on the lexicon added that even if "jihad" is used accurately and in context it still may not be "strategic" to use it.

And whatever you do, don't call al-Qaida "a movement".

According to the Americans, the appropriate terms to use to "define our enemies" are "violent extremist" or "terrorist". It would not surprise if the Victoria Police, the Multicultural Foundation et al came up with a similar set of language guidelines to help strengthen our "community harmony" and "disempower" the bomb throwers.

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First published  in The Sydney Morning Herald on July 10, 2009.

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About the Author

Richard Ackland is a Walkley Award winning journalist who edits the law journal Justinian.

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