For policymakers, the language of terrorism is a moving target

Ottawa Citizen | January 29, 2015

Following the terrorist attacks in Paris earlier this month, Prime Minister Stephen Harper cranked up his rhetoric.

“We will not be intimidated by jihadist terrorists,” said Harper during an appearance in a Vancouver suburb, adding that “the international jihadist movement has declared war” on Canada and its allies.

Now, just a few weeks later, the term “jihad,” or “jihadi” has become a routine part of the government’s speaking notes. This vocabulary – along with terms such as “Islamist” which the prime minister has also used, and even “war” – is one method politicians use to try to frame the often-complex debate around terrorism policy.

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Last fall, when groups such as the National Council of Canadian Muslims released an anti-terrorism handbook, they similarly asked law enforcement and spy agencies to avoid using such terms.

“National security discourse, especially within the media and in the public narrative, tends to erroneously conflate Islam with terrorism,” said NCCM Executive Director Ihsaan Gardee. “It can serve to embolden prejudicial elements in our society and in sort of a circular way, feed the extremist narrative propelled by terrorist groups about a clash of civilizations.”

But the RCMP has also noted that stretching to avoid terms used in popular culture provokes its own reaction. “The media and the public are often highly critical of these attempts to shape discourse, arguing that they distort reality by effectively ignoring a critical component of the problem,” reads their 2009 guide.

Gardee suggested that using narrower terms such as “ISIL-inspired” when a link has been established “can contextualize threats to our shared national security to help meet these challenges together.” …