Recently, the British-Libyan head of BBC Arabic, Tarik Kafala, announced that the BBC will avoid designating the perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo attacks as “terrorists.” His explanation appears in the Independent, a British newspaper that quotes him directly:
We try to avoid describing anyone as a terrorist, or an act as being terrorist. Terrorism is such a loaded word. The UN has been struggling for more than a decade to define the word, and they can’t. It is very difficult to. Clearly, all the officials and commentators [in Paris] are using the word “terrorist”, so obviously we do broadcast that.
By refusing to name the heinous actions of Islamist Jihadists as what they truly are — the acts of terrorists — BBC Arabic signals, at best, that it is intimidated by the Islamist cause. At worst, it could signal a blatant alliance with Islamist ideology and that it is pandering to Islamist sympathizers who may form part of its viewership. More offensive still is that BBC Arabic, by attempting to sanitize the lexicon, is infantilizing educated Muslims everywhere.
BBC Arabic is not alone in its efforts to expunge Islamism from the public conversation. National Review Online reported on Al Jazeera English’s similar sanitization of the lexicon for public discourse: Network journalists there have been prohibited from using the words “Jihadist,” “Islamist,” “militant,” and “extremist.”
Lexicons matter. They are key to mastering narratives. Mastery over narrative means mastery over culture, and mastery over culture empowers ideologies. As an observant Muslim who is publicly devoted to an anti-Islamist stance and as a British citizen, I am deeply disturbed that the uniquely powerful BBC is colluding, unwittingly or not, with Islamist sympathies.
I have argued elsewhere (most recently in the Spectator) that the jihadists who executed a dozen French citizens were illegitimately prosecuting the fictional crime of blasphemy — fictional because it is unrecognized by Islam proper. The Quran tells us that blasphemy, if it is a crime at all, is to be judged between the individual and his Maker. In murdering the Charlie Hebdo employees and the Jews inside the Jewish supermarket, the assailants violated every principle of Islamic morality. If these are not the acts of terrorists, it’s hard to say what would be.
BBC Arabic, first launched as a radio network and more recently in the last decade as a global television network, recently celebrated its 77th birthday. Since the 2011 Arab Spring, its audience has grown significantly, allowing it to compete with powerful regional networks in the Middle East and Africa, where objective media are particularly needed. As recently as this month, Australian journalist Peter Greste was released after 400 days incarcerated in an Egyptian jail for unbiased reporting. In such a region, retreating from reality — failing to name terror when it occurs — represents a new nadir in media malfeasance.
To be sure, BBC Arabic might justify its new linguistic policy by claiming that it wishes only to avoid inflaming easily roused tensions in the Muslim world. But since the Charlie Hebdo massacre, efforts to control public discourse about the murders and their perpetrators have exposed the West’s total inability to enter into what is the most incendiary debate of our time. We have to do better. Western broadcasters will improve the quality of their reporting when they cover the critical work spearheaded by courageous Muslim political scientists who have labored to distinguish Islamism from Islam. Brave Muslims first began to contend with Islamism in the 20th century, and for their efforts, many lost their homes, livelihoods, and often their lives.
Such work is undermined when prestigious media organs such as BBC Arabic attempt to corral and simplify public discourse. Certainly we are living in extreme times, times that often motivate extreme speech. Understandably, BBC Arabic, like all respectable networks, eschews association with extreme ideas. This I accept. But refusing to designate the perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo massacre as terrorists serves only to advance the Islamist narrative.
Islamism has two fronts in its assaults on secular democracy. One is the violent assault, which takes the form of conventional terror. Some might call this front “assymmetric insurgency” or its perpetrators “activists” (as CNN’s Christiane Amanpour described the Charlie Hebdo terrorists). Those who speak in such euphemisms no doubt do so out of misplaced sensitivities, sensitivities they express only because they are ignorant of Islamism’s true intents. The other Islamist front on secular democracy is insidious and nonviolent: It seeks to control the narrative, prohibit analysis, and make scrutiny of Islamism taboo.
It’s true that a universal definition of terrorism has indeed eluded counterterrorism experts and lawmakers, but this does not mean that “terrorism” is a defunct term for the average imperiled citizen. Far from it. Viewers, including Muslim viewers, know terrorism when they see it.
Tarik Kafala’s decree to avoid “terrorism” as terminology emerged at an extraordinary time. During the same week, the world gathered in Poland to mark the passage of 70 years since the heights of another totalitarian ideology: Nazism. Having just returned from the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz from the Nazis, I am acutely aware of the enormous power that comes from controlling language and denying reality. The Nazis used both to monstrous effect; they are a shared feature of Islamist ideology, which is also totalitarian, anti-pluralistic, genocidal, and anti-Semitic.
Here in the United States, our federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, are prevented by President Obama’s administration from using words such as “Islamist,” “caliphate,” and “jihadist.” In the weeks since Charlie Hebdo, President Obama has demonstrated a similar reluctance to name and classify the beast that has declared us its enemy: Islamism. This reluctance, from the highest office in the land, influences discourse both in the opinion pages and in living rooms around the nation. A silence is falling upon us, a silence that suffocates our freedoms as it nurtures the enemies of liberal democracy.
Muslims know, often at a high personal cost, that a great violence is unfolding against one of the world’s ancient monotheisms, Islam. Islamism is at war with Islam. In refusing to name Islamists as they are — would-be authors of the destruction of liberal democracy — and by refusing to name their violent manifestations as “terrorism,” BBC Arabic, like Al Jazeera English, hands the architects of the Charlie Hebdo massacre a legitimacy that no amount of money could buy. Such legitimization imperils equally the United States and Britain. While Al Jazeera is an organ of Qatar, BBC Arabic is explicitly British. If BBC Arabic remains unchallenged in its efforts to obscure critical analysis, we obscure Islamist ideology — at British taxpayers’ expense. Such intellectual confusion benefits only the Islamists. Both the British public and millions of Muslims around the world who daily suffer repression, violence, and execution in the name of Islamist ideology must hold the BBC accountable. Silence is not an option. The world was silent once before. Once before, the world turned away from totalitarianism masquerading as democracy. Once before, the world refused to name a genocide inspired by lethal anti-Semitism. Lets not make that same mistake, willing or not, again.
— Qanta Ahmed is the author of In the Land of Invisible Women, an account of her experiences as a physician in Saudi Arabia. She is the 2014 Ford Foundation public voices fellow with the OpEd Project. Recently, she joined the Shoah Foundation’s 2015 Mission to Poland for the Past Is Present, a commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Follow her on Twitter @MissDiagnosis.