Religion, Terrorism and Language

Written by  //  September 16, 2010  //  Philosophy, Religion, Culture  //  4 Comments

The recent exchange between the Home Minister Chidambaram and Digvijay Singh over the use of the phrase ‘saffron terror’ has brought to the fore, the issue of political incorrectness in using language predicating terrorism of any religion. My aim here is not to focus on Digvijay Singh’s particular objection to the Home Minister’s use of the phrase ‘saffron terror’. I find my self hard put to detect any intelligible principle behind Digvijay Singh’s objection: he criticises the Home Minister for having used the phrase ‘saffron terror’ only to later assert that he would have preferred the phrase ‘Hindu terror’ instead. The soundness of Digvijay Singh’s objections aside, the episode does resuscitate important questions of principle and propriety concerning the use of language predicating terror of any religion. Is it ever alright for anyone, particularly those in the public sphere, to use phrases like ‘Islamic terror’ or ‘Hindu terror’? And if not what alternative do we have.

The argument against  

Those opposed to expressions like ‘Hindu terror’ and ‘Islamic terror’, rely on some rather overworked- but on the whole, sound – platitudes: ‘terrorism knows no religion’; ‘terrorists belong to no religion’. Their objection, albeit obscured by these platitudes, is an understandable one: in using terms like ‘Islamic terrorism’ or ‘Hindu terrorism’, one inadvertently projects the moral failings of few on to the entire community thus setting up an unreasonable guilt by association. Still worse, such phrases carry the implication that the religious beliefs of a few rogues, some how represent the ‘true’ belief system of the religion. There is no denying the fact that expressions such as these do at the very least carry a conversational implication of this sort, even if the speaker using such expressions may not intend his words to do so. And most significantly, this sort of language causes pain to the majority of reasonable right thinking adherents of a religion, who have nothing to do with these deviants or their misguided beliefs.

 The simple solution: No solution at all 

Before we proceed, let us dismiss one putative solution to this problem. The all too simple solution, prompted by the objections identified earlier is- simply stop using such expressions. Just call terrorists, whatever their religious motivations, as terrorists simplicter without specifying the (religious) source they take as justification for terror. No doubt this simple- even simplistic- solution would put to rest the problem of political correctness. But this solution comes at a heavy price: one that we can ill afford. It is a sad truism about our world that people terrorize and kill, ‘believing’ sincerely that their religion injuncts them to do so.  I doubt that any religion, properly understood would encourage wanton gratuitous killing. But what a religion ‘truly’ requires, as properly understood, is beside the point. We are talking here about people who understand their religion in a particular way, though ‘objectively’, ‘truly’ such an understanding may be deeply flawed.  It is a harsh fact that some people, however misguidedly, believe that their religions injunct them to kill and ‘take’ it as a justification for terror. This is a real problem facing us today; a problem we need to tackle with great intent and alacrity. I will have nothing to say here about how this larger problem can be addressed. However, we can make no progress is tackling this problem unless we can have an honest and open discourse on these matters. How is honest discourse possible if those in public life are prevented from naming the source these terrorists ‘take’ as their justification for terror? If we cannot speak about it or discuss it, we cannot expect to arrive at solutions to the problem. Effective governmental interference would come to a grinding halt if it could not ‘describe’ a problem for what it really is.  Thus the simple solution is no solution at all.

As with all hardy perennials, we find some sense in both sides of the argument. How does one reconcile this apparently intractable conflict? We must begin by reflecting on the nature of our language as the origins of the problem we encounter here, and also its solution, lie deeply embedded in our language. Let me set out the nature of problem before proceeding to propose a solution to it.

Language and emotion

Some words are used to purely ‘describe’ objects by designating some of its characteristics. This is a point so obvious that it hardly needs stressing. As examples of ‘descriptive’ words we could take ‘Scottish’, ‘British’ or ‘Indian’. In addition to such descriptive words we also have words that though apparently descriptive carry an emotive aspect; they ‘imply’ that the speaker using the word is expressing his condemnation or admiration of a certain object. Note that these words ‘imply’ an attitude of condemnation or admiration by the speaker: the speaker’s actual intentions are irrelevant. This was famously termed by the philosophers C.K.Odgen and I.A.Richards as ‘emotive’ meaning in their classic The Meaning of Meaning. Consider the word ‘Kraut’. For many years this word was used as a purely descriptive word to denote a person of German descent just like Scottish or British. However at some point, a negative emotive component came to be associated with the word such that a person using the word Kraut, was by conventional implication expressing an unfavourable, condescending attitude towards Germans. In America, the N word, now thought too despicable to even find mention, was used to describe people of a certain race. But when the N word came to be associated with a negative attitude towards the people of the race it stood for, it was replaced by the descriptive word ‘black’. ‘Black’ for some time continued to be a purely descriptive word. But then a negative emotive meaning came to be associated with that word and has now been replaced with the descriptive word African American. What is commonly understood as political incorrectness is a process of avoiding words with a negative emotive element and carrying on discourse by replacing such emotive words with descriptive ones.

It must be noted- and this is crucial- that what the speaker actually (privately) intends in using these ‘emotive’ words is not material at all. All that matters is that conventionally these words are taken by the society as a whole to mean something condescending or derogatory. The emotive meaning of words is fixed by how it is conventionally understood by the people who hear it. To think otherwise would be falling into Humpty Dumpty’s fallacy in Through the looking Glass. Humpty Dumpty says to Alice ‘when I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’ To which Alice replies `The question is, whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ One doesn’t have to be a professional logician to figure out that Alice is obviously right.

These examples show us that what politicians or journalists actually believe and intend while using phrases like ‘Islamic terror’ or ‘Hindu terror’ does not matter to what these expressions mean. The fact remains that the word ‘terror’ has the most negative of emotive meanings and when coupled with ‘Islam’ or ‘Hinduism’ it carries with it serious derogatory implications for the members of those religious denominations. These expressions predicate terror of a certain religion. They project the attitude of disapproval associated with the most emotive of terms ‘terrorism’ on to the religion. It is understood by the general public as an expression of condescension or disapproval towards their religion and their beliefs. These words carry a seriously negative emotive meaning. It is time we realized that the negative emotive meaning of these expressions is so overwhelming that we badly need to replace these words with some purely ‘descriptive’ words which do not carry any derogatory or condescending implications.

Saffron terror ? 

Being dimly aware of the problem, some politicians and journalists have tried to replace these words. Sadly, the replacement, even if well motivated, doesn’t really solve the problem. It is sometimes thought that this replacement can be carried out with a substitute word like ‘saffron’ instead of ‘Hindu’ or ‘jehadi’ instead of ‘Islam’. But this leaves the problem intact because people understand ‘saffron terror’ to be nothing more than an innuendo for ‘Hindu terror’ and ‘jehadi terror’ as innuendo for ‘Islamic terror’. When someone uses the word ‘saffron terror’ the hearer knows that the speaker is actually meaning to say ‘Hindu terror’ though he doesn’t use those exact words. That is how innuendo’s work in our language. They only replace words leaving the underlying concept or idea untouched. This is the reason why the law of defamation treats innuendos at par with direct assertions. Thus the solution involving ‘substitution’ is not a sound one.

 What we could do  

What we need is newly minted phrases, whereby we could ‘describe’ the problem in question while clearly ‘disavowing’ ourselves from attaching any emotive meaning to them. It would then be possible to use expressions to denote a problem, without thereby expressing a negative attitude towards any religion. The result could be tedious inelegant phrases instead of the snappy ones like ‘Islamic terror’ or ‘Hindu terror’. Yet, cosmetic value of a sentence is an insignificantly small price to pay for the problem it will solve. We could settle on phrases like ‘terrorists motivated by a fundamentally incorrect understanding of what Islam requires’ instead of ‘Islamic terror’ and ‘terrorists motivated by a fundamentally incorrect understanding of what Hinduism requires’ instead of ‘Hindu terror’. In using such phrases the speaker will cut off any negative meaning from being projected on Hinduism or Islam. This will enable us to freely discuss these problems for what they really are. Further, as these newly minted phrases are as ‘descriptive’ as descriptive can get- not carrying even the least of negative attitude towards any religion- they will not be found condescending by either Hindus or Muslims. We will earn ourselves the freedom to talk about these fundamental issues facing our country while at the same time respecting the sentiments of citizens. It will also negate the ground of futile dispute about these words between the political parties. Most importantly it will prevent us from getting distracted with language, and focus on the real underlying problem.

We must resist the thought that the whole issue discussed here is a merely ‘linguistic’ or ‘semantic’ one. Emotive words impact us in the deepest of ways as the history of the words ‘African American’ and ‘Kraut’ show. Using the N word is not a mere gaffe but an attack on the dignity of a certain class of persons. Mature societies sense the pulse of language and adapt themselves shifting from an emotive word to a descriptive one in problematic cases. Usually this process is a gradual like the ‘coming of winter’ as the philosopher Richard Hare once put it. However once we have realized the problem we need not passively wait for winter to come.

About the Author

Shiv is reading for a Doctorate in Jurisprudence at Oxford University. He read for a B.C.L at Oxford University in 2005-06. He read for his undergraduate law degree at Indian Law Society, Pune (1999-2004).

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4 Comments on "Religion, Terrorism and Language"

  1. Vipul September 16, 2010 at 10:46 pm ·

    Let me begin with a disclaimer that I am neither Hindu or Muslim, I am an atheist who isn’t fond of either of the two religions (or Christianity or Judaism or Scientology for that matter). Nonetheless, I think there is hardly a parallel between “Hindu” terrorism and “Islamic” terrorism. The latter is grounded in explicitly religious ideology based on quotes and verses from the Koran, so there is a nontrivial doctrinal religious component to it (though there’s much more). To the best of my knowledge, most “Hindu” mob violence and terrorism makes few references to specific quotations or commands from Hindu scripture, and seems to be more of an ethnic/group identity-based terrorism.

    See also this blog post of mine.

  2. Shivprasad September 16, 2010 at 11:07 pm ·


    I have nothing to say on whether there is a parallel between Hindu and Islamic “terror” . I specifically bracket that issue. No doubt what you highlight is a matter we need a proper public discourse on, in order to arrive at a solution to it . However before we do that we must earn the right to do speak about these things in a more dignified way. I argue that there is a fundamental problem with the politicians and the press using phrases such as ‘Islamic terror’ or ‘Hindu terror’. There is a much better way of talking about these problems and I have suggested one such way. This way we do not predicate terrorism of any religion and also find a way of talking about these problems openly . Of course this in itself does not solve the real issue underlying the ‘semantic’ one. However at the moment politicians, or at any rate some of them, use the semantic problem as a fig leaf to avoid discussing the real underlying problem.

  3. Subramanian September 17, 2010 at 1:17 pm ·


    Very thoughtful post. I agree entirely with your diagnosis of the problem of emotive words and the solution you provide on a ageneral level. While dealing with genuinely emotive words your recommendations are perfectly valid.

    I think however the controversy in relation to “saffron terror” is that certain sections on the hindu right even quibble with descriptive validity of the phrase. What I am able to decipher from the angst expressed by the BJP is that no such form of organised terror networks exist and not as many incidents have been orchestrated by the Hindu extremists to warrant the creation of a new genre of terrorism. Instead they would be happy to categorise them under say “miscellaneous acts of terrorism”. I think their logic is driven by grisly statistics – you need to have atleast say 20 bomb blasts and a certain global network for you to earn yourself a separate category of terrorism altoghether. They are not upset on the traditional logic that such terms sully the image of all Hindus.

    In a very practical sense I think they are playing on a very legitimate feeling. Reading certain left wing English language newspapers, one finds almost barely muted glee that Hindus have been found to be responsible for certain terrorist acts. A stray incident does not an epidemic make. However much you want to make one. Again – the same grisly logic – you dont have as many bomb blasts to warrant a separate cateogry of terrorism.

    But that does not mean that I subscribe to the theory that there is something innately terroristic about Islam or some other bunkum that the hindu right might come up with. It is just that as a social issue that we need to address, it might be sensible and accurate to talk about Islamic Terrorism (or as you suggest, ‘terrorists motivated by a fundamentally incorrect understanding of what Islam requires’) as a social phenomenon. You can then come up with responses to it. Of course, the question of when you can legitimately start talking about Hindu Terror, i.e, how many more bomb blasts you need, is a question I hope I will never have to answer.

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