Farish A. Noor, For The Straits Times

The endless battle for words and ideas

Word battles over the meaning of 'jihad' are not just about semantics. Meanings of words have to be contested, to fight the ideas behind them.


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.

But to prevent such casual appropriation of words and their entanglement with other political agendas is not as easy as one might think.

For starters, to suggest that the word "civilisation" has been abused or misused when deployed in a manner that justifies imperial ambitions would be to suggest that there is, ultimately, one and only one correct definition of the term - which flies in the face of the linguistic rule that all word-signs are arbitrarily tied to the concepts they denote.

The slippery nature of language and meaning means that unfortunately all word-signs are vulnerable to use and misuse time and again. This also explains the possibility of the multiple meanings and shifting meanings of words when used in poetry and literature. If all words are exposed to the possibility of casual misappropriation, what then can be done? Can we ever fix their meanings permanently?

No end to the struggle

UNFORTUNATELY there can be no end to this struggle to define the meaning of words in general, and words used in political discourse in particular.

The arbitrary and contingent nature of signification means that every single word is up for grabs, and that there will never come a day when the world can ever speak a singular language where everyone can be perfectly understood.

Both the linguist and political theorist may counsel a more pragmatic, realistic approach that accepts the terrain of language and word use as a permanently shifting one, where words will also become contested objects in the domain of politics. If this is indeed the case, what can be done to prevent words like "democracy" or "freedom" or "jihad" from being hijacked by those who wish to give them different meanings?

The answer may lie beyond the singularity of the specific word, but in the wider context of the society that uses it.

We note, for instance, that while standards of beauty and goodness may change over time, at any given moment there is a public consensus on what they actually mean. That is because language is also public in nature, and we cannot willy-nilly invent words by ourselves; and try to make ourselves understood if our words only mean what we individually decide that they mean.

Likewise, the words that are often contested in the domain of politics are also meaningful according to a public consensus that is determined by norms that are upheld by the people who are engaged in that domain.

At present, we see that the appropriation of the word "jihad" by radical groups like ISIS has been met with a vocal response by scholars and laymen alike who reject the appropriation of that term, and who insist that the word means something entirely different for the vast majority.

This, in effect, is how meaning is decided upon and fixed in the public domain, and it is also why the battle for hearts and minds in any counter-radicalism policy has to take into account the need for public support and public engagement.

Apart from the pragmatic approach that has to be taken when dealing with all forms of extremism - from religiously inspired militancy to extreme hyper-nationalism - there is the vital need for policymakers to engage with the communities that are affected, and to bring them into the broader struggle to regulate the use of words in the public domain. This is why the public outcry against the abuse of the term "jihad" that we see in Europe at the moment, led by religious scholars and laymen alike, is so important to the long-term struggle for moderation on all fronts. When German-Muslim scholars organise large gatherings against extremists in their midst, they are reminding their communities that the concept of "struggle" has to be understood in the most comprehensive sense, to include social development, education, economic progress and the like.

One can argue that this is necessary not only for words like "jihad", but also for other contested signifiers like "freedom" and "democracy".

In the decades to come, the struggle for meaning - of words and ideas - is not likely to abate, but rather intensify. The world is now better connected than ever before, largely thanks to developments in communications technology, including the Internet.

As we have seen in the case of those who were accused of self-radicalisation, exposure to narrow and dogmatic interpretations of texts and ideologies is one of the major contributors to the phenomenon of radicalism today.

We cannot hope to prevail in this struggle unless we understand the workings of language, and the manner in which the meaning of words and ideas is contested on a daily basis.

Above all, we need to remember that words and ideas are crucial components of any political project, benign or malevolent its intentions may be.

To focus only on the practical component of anti-radicalism without engaging in the battle for words and ideas would be a case of missing the heart of the matter, and leaving the terrain of ideas open to the manipulation of those for whom words are merely convenient tools.

Thus if the struggle for moderation is to have any meaning, the determination of meaning itself will have to become part of that struggle.

The writer is an associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.