Here is the latest semantic assault from the party that brought you “Islamo-facism” (circa 2005) and “Axis of Evil” (2002). The term “stealth jihad” is suddenly voguish among politically ambitious right wingers who see President Obama’s approach to terrorism as insufficient. If it sounds like a phrase from a military-fantasy summer blockbuster, that’s on purpose: in its cartoonish bad-guy foreignness, “stealth jihad” attempts to make the terrorist threat broader and thus more nefarious than it already is. The only thing scarier than an invisible, homicidal, suicidal enemy with a taste for world domination is one who’s sneaking up on you. In the words of former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich at a July speech at the American Enterprise Institute, “stealth jihad” is an effort “to replace Western civilization with a radical imposition of Sharia.”
The term wasn’t Gingrich’s invention. It’s the title of a two-year-old book by Robert Spencer, whose hyperventilating antiterror blog, Jihad Watch, is cited and circulated widely on the far right. But the recent vicious debate over the proposed community center and mosque near Ground Zero gives Gingrich an excuse to use “stealth jihad” and its variants frequently—not just at the AEI but in an interview with this magazine. (In an essay on the conservative Web site Human Events, he referred instead to “creeping sharia.”) Gingrich’s like-minded peers have seized on the language, too. “Muslim Brotherhood operatives, like [Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the center’s founder and leader] are extremely skilled at obscuring … their true agenda,” said Frank Gaffney, founder of the Center for Security Policy, on FOX’s Glenn Beck show. “It’s part of the stealth jihad.”
Words matter, and if you say them often enough and with enough authority, they start to sound true—even if they’re not. Abdul Rauf, for instance, has no affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood and is an “operative” (another nefarious word) only in the sense that running a small, progressive interfaith nonprofit is an “operation.” As for his “stealth jihad,” it’s virtually impossible to imagine how such an event would—logistically—occur. Would the construction of an Islamic prayer site near Ground Zero inevitably lead American women to wake up one morning and find themselves veiled and confined to their homes? “The term is ever-so-slightly goofy,” says Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at the University of California, Berkeley. The paranoia conveyed by “stealth jihad” brings to mind the anticommunist campaigns of Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, Nunberg adds. Just as McCarthyites imagined a communist behind every lamppost, the word “stealth” conflates all Muslims with terrorists. In a stealth campaign you never know who your friends are.
Also, simply put, foreign words freak people out. “Jihad” and “Sharia” reinforce the sense among Americans that Muslims in general have an unfathomable world view. During World War II, formerly obscure words like “hara-kiri” and “kamikaze,” which suggested the “warlike ferocity” of the Japanese, became common parlance, Nunberg says. “There was this sense of being confronted with this hostile, alien culture.” The Japanese were “literally demonized,” he says.
Gingrich has already used the mosque debate to evoke many of America’s historic enemies, comparing Muslims indirectly with Nazis and communists and even the Japanese. “We would never accept the Japanese putting up a site next to Pearl Harbor,” he said on FOX recently.
But that is not true. Fourteen percent of Hawaiians call themselves ethnically Japanese, according to the U.S. Census, and dozens of Japanese temples stand near Pearl Harbor—as they have for decades. One of them, the Buddhist Aiea Hongwanji Mission, is less than half a mile away. “You can see Pearl Harbor from the roof, maybe. We’re really close,” says Wade Yamamoto, the temple’s treasurer. The temple allows people “to practice their religion from back home,” he says. Gingrich, a historian, might take a lesson here. After the attacks of Dec. 7, 1941, more than 100,000 people of Japanese descent—two thirds of them American citizens—were interned in camps in a shameful episode that later legislation called the result of “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” Last week, a New York City cab driver was stabbed for answering the question “Are you a Muslim?” in the affirmative. Our enemies are dangerous. Let’s be clear about who they are.
With Johannah Cornblatt
Lisa Miller is NEWSWEEK's religion editor and the author of Heaven:
Our Enduring Fascination With the Afterlife. Become a fan of Lisa on Facebook.