Let me provide one example of a relatively easy change to implement that would be hugely beneficial to any communications strategy aimed at debunking extremist propaganda. It has to do with retraining the media’s misunderstanding and continual misuse of Islamic terminology to report on terrorism. The mainstream media (as well as government officials) is often guilty of inaccurate and sometimes cringeworthy reporting of terrorist-related incidences. They sometimes use words and terminology that may seem innocuous because they have become so commonplace, but are actually counterproductive to any real effort to counter extremist rhetoric.
The most competent journalists will generally focus on areas of interest and specific issues that complement their expertise. These can include, but are not limited to, areas such as media, politics, policy, defence, and national security. Although I am unfamiliar with the internal workings of media companies and how a given journalist gets assigned what story, I do not think it would be too much of a stretch to place the right person in the right job—and keep them there. For instance, Australian political journalist and media commentator Laurie Oaks has worked in the Canberra Press Gallery since 1966. Mr. Oaks is the most established and credited journalist within this space, having forged a reputable and award-winning career spanning over four decades.
When Laurie talks, people listen. His nickname, “Sphere of Influence,” is a testament to this. His reporting comes from a wealth of knowledge, and is therefore almost always accurate. He doesn’t ignorantly misuse words, as this is his area of expertise. Quite simply, he wouldn’t have earned the credibility he has if he did. From a counterterrorism perspective, the indiscriminate use of certain words by media outlets actually feeds into and validates the exact propaganda that terrorist organisations are pushing out. It has the ability to not only undermine those within the Muslim community who also oppose extremists, but can reinforce the validation of others against the West in general.
So let’s take the widespread and entirely inaccurate use of the word jihad. This one word has become one of the most commonly used and misinterpreted words since the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. In fact, the word has been abused to the point that it has become almost entirely synonymous with terrorism itself. The mainstream media and other news peddlers, as well as government officials and spokespersons, have simplified their jobs for over a decade by lumping any form of Islamic extremism under the banner of jihad. What they haven’t realised is that this ignorance may not translate as such; it may actually be attacking some of Islam’s most fundamental—and non-extremist—principles, which are adhered to by the moderates we need on our side.
It is critical for any de-radicalisation strategic communications plan to fully comprehend the language that it is using to be effective. History is littered with examples of corporate communications disasters where marketing and advertising campaigns failed due to translation issues. For instance, when KFC opened its first restaurant in China in the late ’80s, its famous slogan, “Finger-lickin’ good,” was accidentally translated into “Eat your fingers off.” The Dairy Association’s “Got milk?” slogan was unsuccessfully translated in Mexico as “Are you lactating?” A Coors brewing slogan of “Turn it loose” translates into Spanish as “Suffer from diarrhea.” Pepsi’s slogan of “Pepsi brings you back to life” literally translates in Chinese as “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave.”
The car industry has some of the best examples of names which have been completely lost in translation. An ad campaign for Ford that said, “Every car has a high-quality body,” translated in Belgium into, “Every car has a high-quality corpse.” Other car companies have also failed completely with their choice of vehicle names. The Mazda LaPuta translates into “the whore” in Spanish; the Buick LaCrosse translates into “masturbating teenagers” in French; the Mitsubishi Pajero translates into “wanker” in Spanish; and the Honda Fitta translates into “vagina” in Swedish and Norwegian.
What these examples serve to highlight is how detrimental the inappropriate use of a single word can truly be. A car company can spend hundreds of millions of dollars designing, developing, testing, and manufacturing a car for an international market, only to fail because nobody wants to be seen driving, say, the “Buick Masturbating Teenager” or the “Mitsubishi Wanker.” These marketing and advertising oversights have a lot more in common with de-radicalisation strategies than one might initially think.
Although governments are competent in a wide variety of spaces, the creative advertising one would expect from a successful multinational company is not usually one of them. Effective strategic communications within a counterterrorism context undoubtedly requires expertise from the disciplines of marketing and advertising to go with it. It is this type of creativity that de-radicalisation strategies need, which means that a unique fusion of disciplines is required to achieve this.
So let us revisit the terminology issue. A number of Muslim terms are relatively new for most people, having only been brought to the fore after the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. Jihad has been among the most overused, incorrectly interpreted Muslim terms by the media since the beginning of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Its accompanying term, mujahideen, has suffered a similar fate at the hands of the media. Unlike jihad, which only entered the daily lexicon for most after 2001, mujahideen has seen a complete reversal of meaning from its widespread and positive use during the Soviet-Afghan War to a meaning synonymous with terrorism.
Even across my deployments to Afghanistan, the term mujahideen was often used interchangeably with Taliban fighters or any insurgent, for that matter. I had read a number of books on the both the Soviet-Afghan War and the early accounts of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, which helped me form an understanding of the term, but I could easily see how its consistent use to describe people who were actively trying to kill us could poison this traditional concept.
The term mujahideen is used to describe someone who is engaged in jihad. Thus, it is this unbreakable association of the former with the latter that has tainted a once “heroic” image. My next article will cover the term jihad in more detail. I will also discuss the media’s rampant misuse and oversimplification of the word and the potential effect that this can have on counter-radicalisation strategies.
(Featured image courtesy of nationalgeographic.com)