WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Government officials should depict terrorists "as the dangerous cult leaders they are" and avoid words that aggrandize them, like "jihadists," "Islamic terrorists," "Islamists" and "holy warriors," the Department of Homeland Security says in a paper released Friday.
A study says Muslims in America prefer the designation "mainstream" over "moderate."
"Words matter," the agency says in the paper, which also suggests avoiding the term "moderate Muslims," a characterization that annoys many Muslims because it implies that they are tepid in the practice of their faith.
"Mainstream," "ordinary" and "traditional" better reflect the broader Muslim American community, it says.
Dan Sutherland, head of the agency's Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and author of the paper, said the paper is a recognition that words can help the government achieve its strategic goals.
Sutherland said he is starting to see results, with government officials using the term "mainstream Muslims" in meetings.
Sutherland's nine-page paper says the government should be careful not to demonize all Muslims or the Islamic faith or depict the United States as being at war with Islam.
"The terminology the [government] uses should convey the magnitude of the threat we face, but also avoid inflating the religious bases and glamorous appeal of the extremists' ideology," the paper says.
The paper emphasizes that the recommendations do not constitute official government policy. Instead, they represent guidance from influential Muslim leaders who met with Homeland Secretary Michael Chertoff in May 2007 to discuss ways that the Muslim community can help the department prevent the violent radicalization of Muslims.
The paper suggests that government officials may want to avoid using theological terminology altogether.
"Islamic law and terms come with a particular context, which may not always be apparent," the paper says. "It is one thing for a Muslim leader to use a particular term; an American official may simply not have the religious authority to be taken seriously, even when using terms appropriately."
The paper, titled "Terminology to Define the Terrorists: Recommendations from American Muslims," was designated "For Official Use Only" and distributed internally in January.
Sutherland said the paper was not released publicly because the Department of Homeland Security did not want Muslim leaders to believe their meeting was an attempt to garner publicity. But the document was widely distributed in government and was published in late April by The Associated Press, "The Investigative Project on Terrorism" and others.
A story about the terminology concerns on the "Jihad Watch" Web site was followed by dozens of comments, most critical of the suggestions.
"Every day, I read another story which angers me. This whitewash of Islam, by our highest-ranking officials is unacceptable!" one commenter said.
The paper is silent on one term frequently used by some people at the highest level of U.S. government but scorned by others: "War on Terror." Sutherland said there is not a consensus on the term.
Some argue that "war" is too grandiose and adds legitimacy to the other side, because there are two legitimate sides to wars.
"We really face a legitimate threat and we need to guard against complacency," Sutherland said, explaining the rationale supporting the use of the term.