We all like conciseness. The ideal is a short name such as "Higgs boson" that specifies exactly what you mean, and which conveys that precise meaning to everyone who hears the name. However in politics names are rarely as precise and the same words can mean very different things to different listeners. Accordingly some words can be very damaging to use.
I want to explain why we should never call people such as the Woolwich killers or the insurgents in Mali "jihadis" or "jihadists".
Some words are inherently good
In the English language, calling someone a "cleric" tells you their role, but does not specify their character. He or she may be a virtuous cleric or an evil cleric. However if you call someone a "saint", then you are specifying their character as virtuous. There are no "evil saints"; the phrase is an oxymoron.
"Crusade" is another such word. Regardless of how much we learn about the actual conduct of the Crusaders, in English a crusade is always a virtuous activity. That is why after 9/11 President George W Bush found it is entirely natural to refer to his personal mission to combat Al Qaeda as his crusade. He never repeated the word because his advisers pointed out that Crusaders are seen differently by Middle East Muslims!
Similarly "freedom fighters" are always good people. That is why our government has never once referred to the IRA as freedom fighters.
The Arabic word jihad means struggle or striving. It has two meanings in Islam.
- The inner struggle to resist temptation and to live your life in accordance with God's teachings.
- Military struggle to defend the Muslim community against aggression. There are various rules within Islam regarding when such a jihad can be declared.
In Islam, both forms of jihad are inherently good things. Accordingly to a Muslim the phrases "evil jihadi" or “evil jihadist” are oxymorons.
Against this background there are two good reasons why insurgents such as those in Mali should not be referred to be referred to as jihadis.
(1) It legitimises them
The Mali insurgents, the Woolwich killers, and others engaged in similar activities see themselves as "doing God's work" by engaging in what they claim is jihad. For us to reinforce their self-image by calling them jihadis merely strengthens their self-esteem and their determination to continue their activities. It is as silly as the UK government calling the Provisional IRA "freedom fighters."
One also needs to consider the effect on other Muslims.
If I were stupid enough to believe that the Mali insurgents were engaged in jihad, I would regard it as my duty to give them whatever moral or material support I could manage. Very few Muslims are likely to have their views changed by the description UK politicians and the media use for the Mali insurgents, but why take the risk when other words are available that do not confer approbation.
(2) It feeds a narrative of Western conflict with Islam
For the press or politicians to refer to the Mali insurgents, or even worse the Woolwich killers, as jihadis conveys the implication that the government and media regard jihad as a "bad thing." To say that jihad is a bad thing is an inherently anti-Islamic statement. It is conceptually no different to saying that "Muslim pilgrimage" or "Muslim prayer" is a bad thing.
It is equally damaging to use phrases such as "jihadist violence."
Such use of language, even though it arises from lack of clear thinking rather than anti-Muslim malevolence is simply foolish. The last thing that the Government should do is to use language that implies it is opposed to a fundamental concept within Britain's second largest religion. It is also completely unnecessary when there are many alternative words available to describe people such as the Mali insurgents or the Woolwich killers. All one needs is a good thesaurus.