« More on The New York Times and Haredi Photoshop | Main | As Four Jews Buried, MSNBC's Ayman Mohyeldin Redirects Back to Palestinians »

January 15, 2015

Words Matter Because Lives Matter

Fox News personality Greg Gutfeld lambastes CNN's Christiane Amanpour for her misuse of the word "activist." It may have been an honest mistake on Amanpour's part, but Gutfeld's outrage is rooted in some important truths.

CNN's Christiane Amanpour has been roundly criticized for her use of the word “activist�? when describing the two brothers who, on January 7, 2015 murdered 12 people, 10 of them staffers at Charlie Hebdo, a satirical newspaper in Paris that published pictures of Mohammed.

Amanpour’s use of the word “activists�? in reference to the two Islamist murderers was wrong, but maybe there is something that actually can be said in her defense. Maybe it was an honest mistake on her part.

Prior to using the word herself, Amanpour read from an interview with Charlie Hebdo editor Stefane Charbonnier (aka Charb) in the French newspaper Le Monde in which he said, “When activists need a pretext to justify their violence, they always find it.�? Charb made this statement after his paper was firebombed in 2012.

After reading Charb’s statement on the fly, on live television, Amanpour then said, “And on this day, these activists found their targets and their targets were journalists. This was a clear attack on the freedom of expression, on press, and on satire.�?

Maybe it’s a mistake to give Amanpour (who once compared an Evangelical Protestant to the Taliban) the benefit of the doubt over her misuse over the word “activists.�?

She is a seasoned journalist and should have known better than to use the word “activists�? to describe the murderers who ended 12 peoples’ lives on Jan 7.

But it is live television, and Amanpour had just quoted Charb, who used the word “activists�? himself. Maybe the word was at the top of her mind and she just unthinkingly repeated it.

And then there’s this: If Amanpour is at fault for using the word “activists�? then so was Charlie Hebdo editor Stefané Charbonnier. The people who firebombed his newspaper were “terrorists�? and “arsonists,�? not “activists.�?

Whether Amanpour made an honest mistake or not, the outrage she elicited is reasonable because terminology matters, especially in a time such as this. Intellectuals in the West have been downplaying the horror of Islamist ideology and the violence it generates for a long time, and it’s usually done in the name of peace.

Examples of this tendency abound.

One egregious example took place in 1997 with the publication of Islamic Activism and U.S. Foreign Policy by Scott W. Hibbard and David Little.

This book, published by the United States Institute of Peace, is not about benign “Islamic activism�? as the title states, but about Islamic terrorism, a fact revealed in the first sentence of the text: “Political violence in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world has come to symbolize for many people the threat of ‘Islamic activism.’�? Somewhere in the middle of that sentence is a magical machine that transforms murder and terrorism into “activism.�? (Too bad such a machine doesn’t exist in the real world.)

The publicity letter sent to reviewers at the time of the book’s publication followed the same bizarre line of illogic. The first sentence reads as follows: “For many in the West, political violence in Algeria, the Middle East, and elsewhere has come to symbolize the threat of ‘Islamic activism. Terrorist attacks such as the [1993] bombing of the World Trade Towers have solidified this view.�?

This is exactly the type of thinking that lays the ground work for the use of the word “activist�? when referring to jihadist killers. For example, in their discussion of “Islamic activism�? in Pakistan, the authors describe the Islamist organization, J’ama’at-i-Islami, as a grassroots organization that relies on “constitutional and legal means for achieving its goals.�?

Activists, in other words.

In their description of J’ama’at-i-Islami, an organization founded in 1941 by Sayyid Mawdudi, the authors downplay the group's role in the mass murder of thousands of Bengalis during Pakistan’s civil war in 1971. The authors report that the organization “participated with government forces in military action against the Bengali separatists in East Pakistan."

People who are the least bit familiar with the history of violence in East Pakistan (now known as Bangladesh) will know that this is a polite but dishonest, euphemism that fails to accurately describe what happened during Pakistan’s civil war of 1971. It was not “military action�? but mass murder. The Pakistani army and J’ama’at-i-Islami brutally massacred unarmed Hindu and Muslim Bengalis during the civil war.

J’ama’at-i-Islami is not merely a “grassroots�? activist organization. It is a totalitarian organization that has perpetrated mass murder. In 2013, one of its leaders, Abdul Quader Molla, was convicted of genocide by a Bangladeshi tribunal and eventually sentenced to death. (Others were convicted as well.)

Molla was not an “activist.�? He was a killer.

Hibbard and Little’s essay also includes a quote describing the ideas of J’ama’at-i-Islami’s founder, Sayyid Mawdudi as “revolutionary�? but his methods as “evolutionary.�? After reading this description, most observers would have no reason to suspect that Mawdudi promoted jihad or holy war.

But he did.

In his influential text, Let Us Be Muslims, Mawdudi made it perfectly clear that that the whole point of Islamic practices such as prayer, charity, making the Haj and fasting is to prepare Muslims for jihad. And the whole point of jihad is to overthrow secular governments that do not enforce shariah. Mawdudi makes it explicit in a chapter titled “Meaning of Jihad.�? He wrote:

The Prayer, Fasting, Almsgiving and Pilgrimage at their deepest level provide preparation and training for the assumption of just power. Just as governments train their armies, police forces and civil services before employing them to do their job, so does Islam, the Din [way of life or system of governance] given by Allah. It first trains all those who volunteer for service to God before allowing them to undertake Jihad and establish God’s rule on earth.

Mawdudi states that anyone whose heart is devoid of “any intention to undertake Jihad will find all ritual worship empty of meaning. Nor will those acts bring you any nearer to your God.�?

The last chapter of Mawdudi’s book, titled “Central Importance of Jihad,�? exhorts his readers to “come forward and fight in Allah’s cause with whatever we possess.�?

Mawdudi was not merely calling for grassroots activism. He called on his followers to fight (and kill) in an effort to impose their understanding of God’s will on their fellow citizens. Mawdudi's followers used his writings to justify their violence.

Another commentator who has used the word activist inappropriately – if not dishonestly – is Reverend Dr. Gary Burge, a professor of the New Testament at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois.

In the second edition of his error-laden book Whose Land, Whose Promise: What Christians are not being told about Israel and the Palestinians, Burge describes the “Free Gaza�? flotilla that attempted to break Israel's blockade of Gaza in May 2010 as follows: “Ships with 700 international activists. The Israeli Navy intercepts, 16 killed.�?

While many of the people involved in the flotilla can be called “activists,�? the word cannot be used to describe the passengers on board the Mavi Mamara, (where a total of nine – not 16 – deaths occurred) who attacked Israeli soldiers as soon as they landed on the vessel. The Israeli soldiers boarded the ship to enforce a legal blockade. They did not go onto the vessel with the intent of harming its passengers. For that reason, they used paint ball guns during the early part of the confrontation.

And for their troubles, the Israeli soldiers were beaten with iron bars, had their side arms stolen, and were stabbed with knives.

Prior to the flotilla some of the passengers chanted “Khaibar, Khaibar, oh Jews! The army of Muhammad will return!" (“Khaibar�? is a reference to a 7th century battle that resulted in the extirpation of Jews from the Arabian Peninsula.) (See Itamar Marcus and Nan Jacques Zilberdik, “Gaza flotilla participants created war atmosphere before confronting Israel: Participants chanted Islamic battle cry invoking killing of Jews and called for Martyrdom,�? Palestinian Media Watch, May 31, 2010.)

The people who initiated the violent confrontation on board the Mavi Marmara were combatants, not “activists.�?

Why does it matter? Why can’t we use the word “activist�? to describe the two men who killer the Charlie Hebdo staffers with an unspoken understanding that we all really know that they are terrorists and murderers?

We must call people and things by their true names because the words we use help determine how we respond to the threats we face.

If the perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo massacre were merely “activists,�? then we really have nothing to worry about, because its politics as usual. But if they are killers, then we’ve got a security problem that demands a forceful response.

Minimizing the dangers we face with words like “activism�? lets leaders responsible for protecting their citizens off the hook.

It also defames the victims of terror.

Bengali college students and intellectuals who were killed during Pakistan’s civil war in 1971 knew full well that the members of J’ama’at-i-Islami who murdered them were not grassroots activists with whom they had a resolvable political disagreement. They were being shot to death by people who regarded their existence as an obstacle to the millenial goals they wished to achieve.

The Israeli soldiers who were attacked with knives and steel pipes after they rappelled onto the deck of the Mavi Marmara in 2010 eventually learned full well they were not dealing with humanitarian peace activists, but with jihadis intent on killing them or taking them hostage.

And Stefané Charbonnier may have politely called the arsonists who firebombed his office in 2012 “activists�? but when he and his staffers were shot to death during an editorial meeting in 2015, they knew full well it wasn’t “activism.�?

It was murder.

Posted by dvz at January 15, 2015 01:32 PM


very good, Dexter. I agree. I also think that you might give some attention to another offensive euphemism used for terrorists, that is, militant.
At one time, militants could be labor union loyalists who would get up early in the morning to walk the picket line for better pay and working conditions. But in today's media newspeak, militant means terrorist mass murderer.

Posted by: Elliott at January 15, 2015 05:28 PM

The minute I saw Christine reporting from Paris on CNN, I knew she would interject some of her ongoing bias against Israel and Jews.
As long as CNN continues to employ people like her, CNN will continue to slant the general public's opinion against Israel and Jews in general. This is just one more error in a long string. She needs to go ASAP!

Posted by: Leon Kushner at January 22, 2015 11:49 AM

Guidelines for posting

This is a moderated blog. We will not post comments that include racism, bigotry, threats, or factually inaccurate material.

Post a comment

Remember Me?

(you may use HTML tags for style)