The name game

In late April and early May,  the blogosphere was in an uproar over two documents circulated by the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), which is charged with strategic coordination among federal agencies of the war against terrorism. “The Words That Work” and “Terminology to Define the Terrorists” urged government officials and U.S. diplomats to avoid “Islamism” and “Islamist,” “jihadism” and “jihadist,” and “mujahadeen” to describe  groups like al-Qaeda and their program. Doing so, the documents suggested, could “unintentionally legitimize terrorism.” “Never use the terms ‘jihadist’ or ‘mujahadeen’…to describe the terrorists,” the argument went. “A mujahad, a holy warrior, is a positive characterization in the context of a just war.”

Twenty-four years in Washington having immunized me against surprise when Uncle Sam does something stupid, I didn’t feel personally rebuked by this admonition to verbal chastity, despite having used the naughty J-word in Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism (then perched on the Foreign Affairs and Catholic Booksellers Association bestseller lists). My obstinacy was subsequently reinforced by a Muslim interlocutor, who described  the entire exercise as “complete lunacy” on the part of the governmental agencies involved:

“Muslims are big boys and girls and understand these matters much better than anyone in the United States government. The term ‘Islamofascism’ originated with Muslims, ‘jihadist’ is used negatively all the time by Muslims, and ‘mujahadeen’ is not a term of honor when it is abused by terrorists…The real insanity in this is the idea that the State Department is making its policy recommendations on the basis of amateur social psychology. Jihadists are not created by [the] U.S. [government]’s vocabulary…The point should not be to try to get Muslims to like the U.S. by using some kind of ameliorative vocabulary, but to convey to the Muslim masses that the U.S. knows who the enemy is, will punish them, and will support moderate Muslims who also hate the enemy.”

In Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism, I criticized the administration’s failures in public diplomacy, so I’m not insensitive to the necessity of making our case for the war against jihadist terrorism—which is, among other things, the war for an Islam capable of living peacefully with social and political modernity—in appropriate terms. Years of reading the great Lebanese-born scholar Fouad Ajami have also taught me to be mindful of what Ajami calls the “pathologies” of the Arab Islamic world, including a hyper-sensitivity rooted in a profound sense of failure. So yes, by all means, let’s make our case in the most persuasive language possible.

But let’s not distort the truth in the process. Let’s not assume that those who shape the debate within the Muslim world are dolts. And let’s not transplant the worst habits of the interreligious dialogue industry—like the habit of avoiding hard issues—to the sphere of U.S. foreign policy.

The NCTC and the State Department might do well to reflect on Benedict XVI’s remarks to leaders of other world religions in Washington in April:

“Dear friends, in our attempt to discover points of commonality, perhaps we have shied away from the responsibility to discuss our differences with calmness and clarity. While always uniting our hearts and minds in the call for peace, we must also listen attentively to the voice of truth. In this way, our dialogue will not stop at identifying a common set of values, but [will] go on to probe their ultimate foundation. We have no reason to fear, for the truth unveils to us the essential relationship between the world and God.”

Improving U.S. public diplomacy in this war of competing ideas about the just society must be a priority of the next administration. The false counsel in “The Words That Work” and “Terminology to Define the Terrorists,” which reflect the views of Muslims identified with the interreligious dialogue industry, suggests the need for a major course correction, with the government finding itself more thoughtful Muslim counselors, less given to pandering in the face of wickedness. As Benedict XVI insists, real dialogue begins with the hard questions—and names things for what they are.

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.


Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash