Problems of Terminology: Fighters, Rebels, Islamists, Jihadists, Insurgents, Militants?

The other day I started thinking about the language American bloggers use in writing on foreign affairs, particularly regarding combat zones like Afghanistan and Somalia. A Twitter user called me out for using terms like "terrorist attacks" and "insurgency" without making clear distinctions. Am I too glib? If so, what are the consequences?

I've thought about these issues before, but that doesn't mean I have solutions for problems of terminology. As a writer, I want to describe the people who belong to the Taliban, al Shabab, and other movements using a variety of words. As a (minor) political commentator, though, I ought to proceed carefully. Words carry weight.

So here's a question: are members of al Shabab

  • Fighters (a relatively neutral term)?
  • Rebels, a term that perhaps imbues the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia with legitimacy?
  • Militants, a designation that suggests people who approach politics through the lens of violence, and a cousin to extremists, a word that refers to people whose politics go beyond what the author considers acceptable?
  • Radicals, meaning people whose politics are extreme in comparison to their peers?
  • Insurgents, which could be equivalent to rebels but in the current climate suggests people who disrupt global order?
  • Islamists, which implies Muslims who favor Islamic solutions to political problems?
  • Jihadists, which could mean "extreme Islamists" who reject democratic processes, or could mean anyone who participates in jihad?
  • Or terrorists, which to me suggests people who threaten or commit acts of violence against civilians in the service of political goals?

I use fighters and rebels because they are accurate. I also use militants and insurgents but honestly that reflects the sources I read and the language they use more than it does my own critical thinking. That gives me real pause.

Extremists sounds overwrought to me, though I sometimes use radicals.

Islamists and jihadists I consider fair game because of al Shabab's expressed ideological leanings and their vision for Somalia (one in which Islam represents the source of law and political decisionmaking), but we can debate the value of those terms. Islamist, for me, is a political descriptor like liberal and conservative -- which are flawed but useful. Jihadist I see as more neutral, ironically enough -- if someone says they are fighting a jihad, I call them a jihadist.

But my thinking regarding the terminology of political Islam is in flux, and I don't mean to be glib about it. A critic might say that Islamist means little if everyone from Morocco's PJD to al Qaeda falls in the same basket.

Finally, despite its extreme politicization, I think the concept of terrorism has use and should be preserved. I tend not to talk about "terrorist groups," but I do call individuals terrorists if they commit acts of terror.

As for consequences, words are important for at least two reasons. For one, I target multiple audiences: US policymakers, the American public, students and scholars from around the world, and people from the regions I write about. In blogging I don't make the precise linguistic distinctions that I might in an academic paper, but I do want to write in a way that most readers, regardless of their background, feel is fair, accurate, and not overly sensationalized. I find that balance tricky, and I'm still working on it.

Our use of language can have another consequence: certain linguistic habits can make us callous. I see this with the debate about Afghanistan. Overusing the language of "interests," "safe havens," and "population-centric counterinsurgency" can produce cold-blooded passages like this one from Matt Yglesias:

If you define the goal as "eliminate safe havens" then maybe airstrikes that accidentally kill Afghan civilians aren't that big a deal. By contrast, if we're there to help Afghan civilians, then killing Afghan civilians is a very big deal.

Whether Yglesias meant that he personally saw the significance of civilian casualties strictly in light of how they intersect with US military objectives is beside the point. For me, the question is whether abstract geopolitical language blinded Yglesias to the human lives on the other side of his words. I hope not to fall into that trap, because no matter where one sits on various political spectrums, politics have consequences for flesh-and-blood people. When writers forget that we lose a little piece of our souls.