The endless battle for words and ideas

The endless battle for words and ideas
Kashmiri demonstrators hold up a flag of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

The word "jihad" is once again in the media, as a result of the actions of the radical group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its violent deeds in the Syria-Iraq region.

But before any further confusion is added to the already complex situation, we ought to remind ourselves of the fact that the word has a number of contested meanings, and has always been a complex idea.

There are in fact millions of ordinary Muslims who have a completely different understanding of what "jihad" means, which is understood by them as a struggle in a more comprehensive sense.

For millions of lay members of the Tablighi Jama'at pietist movement, for instance, their "jihad" or struggle has been of a more existential nature: a constant struggle against egoism and the temptations of the world - though their quiet pious work has seldom, if ever, been taken notice of by the media.

Herein lies the problem that we face today: Living in a world where the public domain has been infinitely extended, thanks to the advent of the Internet, and where there are virtually no limits to interpretation and the contestation of meaning, how are we to develop any consistent norms in public language use?.

The problem is fundamentally a linguistic one, but its implications go well beyond the ivory towers of academia.

At its root is the simple fact that the relationship between any and every word-sign (or signifier) and what it refers to (or signifies) is an arbitrary one; and it thus follows that the meaning of any word is necessarily fixed only by the norms of language use.

What is true for the word "jihad" is likewise true for other abstract words like "democracy", "freedom", "goodness" and "beauty"; and we know this to be the case for we are all familiar with the manner in which these words have evolved over time and how their meanings have changed according to use and context.

Take a general term like "beauty", for instance. Standards of beauty have obviously changed and shifted over the centuries, and what constitutes beauty today may not have been the case in the past.

The same holds true for what stands for good and righteous conduct today, which may be different from earlier settings not too long ago: The belief that students should remain quiet in class and never question their teachers may have been the norm in some societies in the 19th century, but today no progressive teacher would hold such a view and insist that his or her students remain passive in a classroom setting.

Equally evident is the manner in which some words that are used in everyday political discourse have also changed and been contested in the past, as compared to what they are today. What "socialism" means to a supporter of a Labour party today is almost diametrically opposed to how the very same word was used by right-wing "National Socialists" in the 1930s-40s.

In the case of the latter, the word "socialist" had been reappropriated to denote an exclusive sense of national belonging, a society that was defined in narrow racial-ethnic terms, and certainly not based on a sense of universal humanism.

The difficulty in pinning down the meaning of such terms lies in the fact that in all the cases, we have the same word being given different, and sometimes competing, meanings by different actors who inhabit the same public domain and who use the same language.

The word isn't the problem.

For those engaged in the ongoing campaign against all forms of religio-political extremism and radicalism, the battle for words and ideas is part and parcel of the long struggle.

Necessary to this struggle is an understanding of how language works, and how words come to have the meanings that they do in different contexts.

The linguist will note that words in themselves have never been the problem, for on its own a word does not possess any power to change the world or compel people to do anything. Nor would removing or banning certain words solve the problem, for the word is merely a signifier that stands for the idea that is signified.

But words can, and are, often manipulated by those who have the intention of giving them meanings that are specific and exclusive.

In the process of rehabilitating terrorists and extremists, it has often been observed that the biggest challenge lies in the domain of language use. It is hard to convince people that certain forms of action are not justifiable, even in the name of "faith" or "justice" or "humanity".

Yet surely we are all acquainted with how words have, in the past, been manipulated thus: Imperialism was once justified in the name of "progress", colonialism justified in the name of "civilisation".

In all such cases, it is blatantly clear that word-signs like "civilisation" and "progress" have been recontextualised, and been put to work in other unrelated political agendas.

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