The weight of words: `Intifada' and `jihad' pack a punch

October 08, 2007|By Ira Rifkin

Bitch is an appropriate word when referring to a female dog. Yet how many of us would use the term when chatting about a pet's gender with a stranger in the park? Few, I'd venture to say - because of our sensitivity to the word's negative connotations.

Then there's the word love. Two strangers meet at a singles bar and one asks the other to return home with him to "make love." That's love as a euphemism for sex. How different the meaning is when a couple of a quarter-century's duration stay home on a Saturday night to talk, snuggle and make love.

Clearly, words - nouns and verbs in particular - take on contextual, historical and cultural meanings that go beyond their primary dictionary definitions. Non-English words used in an English context carry additional baggage.

That's why it seems disingenuous when highly educated, English-speaking American Muslims argue that their use of the words jihad or intifada is benign and misunderstood - despite the links to violence those words have for non-Muslim Americans living in a post-9/11 world where terrorist threats persist.

Esam S. Omeish is the latest Muslim official to stumble over his use of this loaded language. Dr. Omeish, a respected surgeon and a mosque and Muslim organization leader in Virginia, was forced to relinquish his appointment to a state immigration commission after a speech he gave in 2000 advocating "the jihad way" for Palestinians in their conflict with Israel surfaced on YouTube recently.

Dr. Omeish defended himself by arguing that jihad's broader meaning is "struggle," and that criticism of his use of the term amounted to an anti-Muslim "smear campaign."

In fact, jihad - derived from the Arabic word for "effort" - has multiple meanings. It can refer to an inner spiritual struggle as well as external political struggles. However, there is no denying that it also means "holy war" and that violent groups claiming to be fighting on behalf of Islam use the term to mean just that, even incorporating it into their name.

When Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei says, "The only way to confront the Zionist enemy is the continuation and fortification of resistance and jihad," his use of the word is unambiguous. So is its inclusion in the name of the radical Palestinian group Islamic Jihad.

Not long before the report of Dr. Omeish's linguistic misstep was revealed, Debbie Almontaser, a veteran New York City educator, committed her own verbal faux pas. She was forced to step down as principal of that city's first public school dedicated to teaching the Arabic language and culture after she defended the use of the slogan "Intifada NYC" on a T-shirt.

Ms. Almontaser argued that intifada "basically means `shaking off'" in Arabic. Technically, she's correct - just as the word bastard has a primary dictionary definition and another in common usage.

The Palestinian uprising against Israel is known worldwide as the intifada, thereby forever associating the word with the bombings of coffee shops, pizza parlors, markets and municipal buses. Moreover, Ms. Almontaser spoke in New York, a city that is still traumatized by the events of 9/11 and that lives with the knowledge that somewhere terrorists are likely planning, or at least dreaming about, another attack on the city.

Muslims reacted furiously when, soon after 9/11, President Bush described the U.S. response to the terrorist attacks as a "crusade." The term reminded Muslims of the Crusades, the Christian attempts to wrest Jerusalem and its holy sites from Muslim control in the Middle Ages. Embarrassed White House officials said Mr. Bush did not mean to imply that the war against terrorism was a new war against Islam. No matter, countered angry Muslim commentators; The term invoked a context that they could not ignore and that Mr. Bush should have been aware of.

Crusade was an insensitive word choice, given the president's context. But jihad and intifada have become just as loaded, and Dr. Omeish and Ms. Almontaser - at the very least - are equally guilty of insensitive speech, which was compounded by their hypocritical attempts to deflect criticism when called to task.

Words convey multiple meanings. To claim exoneration on linguistic technicalities while blaming others for misunderstanding is intellectually dishonest. We are all responsible for our revealing rhetorical blunders.

Ira Rifkin is an author and journalist living in Annapolis. His e-mail is irifkin1@earthlink.net.

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