Since a good part of my day is spent perusing news from around the Middle East (and by extension, occasionally Europe, Central Asia, and Africa), editing articles from some of these organizations and wire services, and writing about various warlords and rebel groups, I want to take a minute to explore the kinds of language journalists use and how it varies from place to place.
The organization I work for recently made the decision to strike the word “terrorist” from its lexicon, and it’s a decision I happen to agree with. We only use the word if it’s in the context of a categorical definition (eg. “designated as a ‘terror’ group by the US”) or in a direct quote. Even then, I think we hesitate to use it unless it’s an integral part of the story. Like if we’re discussing the meaning of “terrorism” or if new counter-terror laws are passed somewhere. At best, “terrorism” is a subjective word and oversimplifies complex issues. At worst, it promotes prejudice, dehumanizes people presumed to be associated with it, and might even lead to more violence.
To quote Robert Fisk in The Great War for Civilisation: “Terrorists, terrorists, terrorists. In the Middle East, in the entire Muslim world, this word would become a plague, a meaningless punctuation mark in all our lives, a full stop to finish all discussion of injustice, constructed as a wall by Russians, Americans, Israelis, British, Pakistanis, Saudis, Turks, to shut us up. Who would ever say a word in favour of terrorists? What cause could justify terror? In the 17th century, governments used "heretic” in much the same way, to end all dialogue, to prescribe obedience.“
Fisk goes on to say, either in the same book, or in another, that since our definition of terrorism is beholden to the interests of a government on a given day, when journalists use the word, it does more than make us biased – it turns us into combatants.
Let’s say news breaks about a Palestinian stabbing an Israeli soldier or police – since this has been an ongoing string of individual violence going on for the last few months. If Jerusalem Post breaks the story first, the headline inevitably reads “Palestinian Terrorist Stabs Officer.” I don’t support ANYONE stabbing people. But what follows, in an article that’s about four sentences long, is the words “terror” “terrorism” “terrorist” “criminal” “suspect” and so on repeated five or six times, with very little information about what actually happened, and certainly no context to explain it. So I wait and maybe Ma’an News or Reuters or Anadolu will pick it up, and I can get information about where the attacker was from, what hospitals they were sent to, and so on. And it’s so predictable – usually following this, travel permits for the attacker’s entire village get cancelled, or the IDF does a nighttime raid and arrests 10 people – and the next morning there are more headlines about “terrorism.”
From the other end of the spectrum, parsing the language of Anadolu Agency (Turkey) or Press TV (Iran) is also a fascinating exercise. Sources like this are interesting because they often break stories before other outlets, and their reporting is at least factual. I can verify the events and people and what was said. But an Anadolu article will always read “205 PKK Terrorists Killed in December,” when we’re talking about a low-intensity urban war in southeast Turkey, with curfews, civilians cut off from communications, and snipers picking people off streets.
Press TV on Yemen is a whole other thing. Again, it’s all pretty much factually accurate. But where we would say “Yemen’s embattled president” or “Saudi-backed President,” they say “mercenary former president.” Where western media says “Saudi-led coalition fighters,” Press TV says “mercenaries fighting for the regime in Riyadh.” Where we say “Houthi rebels/fighters,” they say “the Yemeni army.” They also love throwing around the word “takfiri,” a word used to accuse another Muslim of abandoning one’s faith, which is pretty serious business.
I know I’m picking some extreme examples. JPost is definitely considered right wing, Anadolu is state-owned (and PKK=terrorists is part and parcel to the Turkish state’s raison d’etre), and Press TV represents (frequently at least) the official viewpoints of Iran. But it gets murky. Yemen’s president Hadi went into exile in Saudi Arabia, and has set up a de-facto capital well outside Sanaa. Is he a “former president”? That’s why we say things like “embattled” or “Saudi-backed.” And by the way, there are actually mercenaries fighting against the Houthis, but it’s not correct for us to refer to the whole coalition as such.
Most of the news we read, if you’re reading something fairly mainstream, is going to fall somewhere in the middle. Maybe they won’t throw around “terrorist” so liberally, but they will probably say “2 dead in shooting; terrorism suspected.” It comes up in more subtle differences like referring to “migrants” instead of “refugees,” or “illegal aliens” instead of “immigrants.” Over time, one way or another, language affects the way people feel about these issues. And for most people, it’s not their job to read news from 20+ Middle Eastern news sources everyday, many people don’t speak the languages of the region, many people, in short, don’t have time to be critical thinkers of news.
Words matter in war, and we have a choice in how we tell these stories.