Word Magic: Blasphemy and Terrorism

In a recent article exploring the origins and evolution of blasphemy across Muslim, Christian, and Jewish traditions, the Economist touches on the useful concept of “Word Magic,” which they attribute to this prior piece by Stephen Pinker. It is the idea that in particular cultural traditions, words spoken—or visual depictions, as the Charlie Hebdo massacre reminds us—induce a response simply through their very utterance. Such is the case with the policing of blasphemy. It is also the case, as Pinker points out in his essay, in the sanctioning of saucy language on prime-time television.

The idea that some words have real causal power with

relation to the sacred is common to all Abrahamic traditions, the Economist argues. Moreover, it persists to the present day among believers; what has actually changed is both the severity of the response to transgressions. Contemporary observant Christians and Jews may not appreciate those who blaspheme but responses, even in conservative states and communities, typically range from mild to non-existent. This is in sharp contrast with the situation in many Muslim states, and even more so with what is often referred to as “militant Islam.” Adherents of the latter have arrogated to themselves the right and duty to censure anyone, anywhere, at any time, in a manner of their choosing, for violation of their own interpretation of Islam’s teachings on blasphemy—an interpretation that, we read elsewhere, stands in stark contrast with the actual much more nuanced wording on the subject that actually appears in the Quran.

While I didn’t set out to quibble with any of this, it’s worth pointing out that the Economist appears to miss two key points in Pinker’s essay, namely that 1) meanings and responses change over time and 2) retaining some visceral responses to taboo words in our language is actually not a bad thing; it’s just the policing of such taboos that becomes absurd and ultimately self-defeating. Had the Economist more rigorously applied those points, they probably would have ended up with a more interesting column. The clear implication is that militant Islamists’ attempts to enforce their conception of blasphemy are as doomed as the FCC’s game attempt to stamp out the “Seven Words You Can’t Say (Sometimes).” Indeed, the fact that so many of George Carlin’s seven words have since been repealed serves to bolster Correctly Applied Pinker’s case.

[10 minutes pass as I try and fail to not watch that clip in its entirety.]

Where was I? Right, my original plan was to go in a different direction and consider how the use of the word “terrorist” itself, the conscious labeling of specific actions and actors respectively as terrorism and terrorists, carries its own force in contemporary society. In this case, it is a force of the constitutive kind. (Successfully) labeling an actor as a terrorist changes perceptions of that actor among a number of significant (and distinct) audiences in a manner analogous to—but also distinct from—what IR scholars refer to as “securitization.”

Further complicating matters is the fact that many that we label as terrorists want to be known as such. Calling a violent actor a terrorist may be giving them exactly what they (or their controllers) want. It’s become routine for competing terrorist factions to compete for credit in the wake of any particularly successful or notorious attack. With such credit comes enhanced legitimacy and reputation in the eyes of their own community. Successful terrorists lay claim to being true defenders of a given population, and when they deliver on such claims, they gain power to influence as a result.

“Don’t let the terrorists win” has been a central goal of states and societies in the West since September 2011, and yet simply by labeling someone a terrorist, we may well be handing them exactly what they want. The more loudly we do so, the greater their victory.

Certainly no one would argue that what took place in Paris, France or Baga, Nigeria is anything but terrorism of the bloodiest kind. Even in the most clear-cut cases of terrorism however, there are good reasons to remain modest and circumspect in our usage of the term, and to take care in the amount and kinds of attention we pay the attackers. Stephen Walt makes the case in a recent piece in Foreign Policy:

In the present context, overstating the risk [of terrorism] fuels Islamophobia, and growing anti-Muslim sentiment will inevitably encourage a few more Muslims to embrace the jihadi cause. It leads governments around the world to devote excessive resources to counterterrorist activities. Exaggerated fears of terrorism led many Americans to support Bush’s misbegotten invasion of Iraq, and similar fears led President Barack Obama to escalate and prolong U.S. involvement in Afghanistan to little purpose. Shamefully, it led the United States (and some of its allies) to engage in acts of torture and illegal surveillance, thereby threatening America’s core political values. A few months from now, inflated fears of terrorism could propel even France’s National Front into office, a step that would reinforce nationalist tendencies within Europe and put the future of the European Union in doubt.

Simply put, just because one can shout the word “terrorist!” loudly and often doesn’t mean one ought to. Terrorism, even more than most security risks, tends to defy rational analysis and proportional response in our present political climate.

The aftermath of Paris demonstrated to the world that the tragic shooting of 12 French citizens, given the right political framing, will bring the West to a grinding halt, diverting leaders, commanding attention, and monopolizing debate. That is power that we give to terrorists. With the unfortunate coincidence of timing provided by the awful events in Baga, we sent out the simultaneous message that two thousand Africans coldly slaughtered fails to bring about anything like the same response. Once again, we inadvertently reinforce a script that strengthens precisely those who perpetrate such terrible acts.

Moreover, while it may seem obvious who is and is not a terrorist in many cases, the truth is not always so simple—and I don’t mean in the old “one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter” sense.  The case of Maher Arar remains a vivid example of what the terrorist label can do in the case of a given individual, how a life can change with its application without due process and the hope of justice that comes with it.

More recently, interpretation of Michael Zehaf-Bibeau’s assault in downtown Ottawa last October remains contested. Was it terrorism? Was he a terrorist, or just deranged? Can one meaningfully be both? These and other questions are not yet resolved, and indeed remained hotly contested in Canadian political discourse. The governing Conservatives seem intent on insisting the attack was indeed “terrorism,” even as the RCMP determined that the video constituting the primary evidence in support of the claim will not be publicly released.  Others, such as NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, have pushed back against a terrorism narrative, attempting to frame the issue as one of criminality and mental heath instead. (On an interesting, that same link provides comment from an expert in terrorism who argues that Zehaf-Bibeau did perpetrate a terrorist act, but not from an expert in mental health.)

Whoever wins will have implications for how the case is remembered, which will in turn inform future policy decisions. If Canadians conclude it was an act of terror, it follows that the solution might include strengthened counter-terrorist policies of the sort proposed by the government in Bill C-44 currently before Parliament. Certainly, Canadians would be more predisposed to such an outcome, lending support to the party taking that stance.

Conversely, if Canadians conclude it was the act of an unstable loner, they may demand increased funding for mental health initiatives in response, perhaps in combination with limited kinds of intelligence activities, along with prosaic solutions like enhanced screening at all entrances to Parliament. Either way, given the present government’s apparent determination to place counter-terrorism and onto the agenda for the expected 2015 election, it is a debate that will continue.

One may hope that Correctly Applied Pinker is right, and that the policing of blasphemy may eventually disappear from the world altogether. Even if it does, however, we should have no illusions: words will continue to have power, with some wielding more than others. In the contemporary period, perhaps none is more powerful than “terrorist.”

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