Sunday, June 01, 2008

Words matter

My church book group recently finished reading a fabulous book, Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. Paraphrasing the summary from Amazon:
After a failed ascent of K2, Greg Mortenson needed to recover in the small Pakistani village of Korphe. In exchange, he offered to build the impoverished town's first school. The project grew into the Central Asia Institute, which has constructed more than 50 schools across rural Pakistan and Afghanistan. Throughout the course of Mortenson's efforts the reader is introduced to village elders, con artists, philanthropists, mujahideen, Taliban officials, ambitious school girls and upright Muslims. The authors argue that the best way to fight Islamic extremism in the region is though collaborative efforts to alleviate poverty and improve access to education, especially for girls.

During our discussion someone noted the difference in the subtitle between the hardcover and the paperback. The hardcover says One Man's Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations...One School at a Time. Whereas the paperback says One Man's Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time. The revision for the paperback was at Mortenson's insistence. He does not see himself as fighting terrorists. He sees his mission as promoting peace. He understands that words matter. He works very hard not to alienate anyone in the countries where he works. When faced with extremist hurdles to his work, he worked with Muslim supporters and Islamic courts to diffuse the issues. He also refused even indirect funding from the American government, so as not to make his motives suspect to the people he is trying to help. His story gives real insight into the everyday lives of the people of Central Asia, and shows that Americans are not blindly hated by everyone there.

Maybe our government is finally learning that words really matter as well. The Department of Homeland Security just issued a report urging caution with the use of terrorist language. While the article seems like common sense to most of us, it is extremely encouraging to see common sense start to come into some aspect of our international affairs. Here is the beginning of the CNN article:
Government officials should depict terrorists "as the dangerous cult leaders they are" and avoid words that aggrandize them, like "jihadists," "Islamic terrorists," "Islamists" and "holy warriors," the Department of Homeland Security says in a paper released Friday.

"Words matter," the agency says in the paper, which also suggests avoiding the term "moderate Muslims," a characterization that annoys many Muslims because it implies that they are tepid in the practice of their faith.

"Mainstream," "ordinary" and "traditional" better reflect the broader Muslim American community, it says.

Dan Sutherland, head of the agency's Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and author of the paper, said the paper is a recognition that words can help the government achieve its strategic goals.

Sutherland said he is starting to see results, with government officials using the term "mainstream Muslims" in meetings.

Sutherland's nine-page paper says the government should be careful not to demonize all Muslims or the Islamic faith or depict the United States as being at war with Islam.


briwei said...

I'm having a hard time believing OUR government actually put out a position like this. It sounds damn reasonable. Perhaps they aren't proofreading like they were in the early days of the administration.

barbie2be said...

i can't wait to read this book.