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Beware loaded language in Islamic center debate

By Roy Peter Clark, Special to CNN
  • Roy Peter Clark: Language turns up heat on issues such as debate over Islamic center
  • Whoever controls discourse, controls issue, he says, and news consumers must be alert
  • Clark says loaded words, often with religious imagery, appeal to emotions, can distort views
  • Clark: Words such as mosque and ground zero have gained new rhetorical power

Editor's note: Roy Peter Clark is vice president and senior scholar of the Poynter Institute and founding director of the National Writers Workshops. He has taught writing for more than 30 years and has spoken about the writer's craft widely. He is the author of the recently released, "The Glamour of Grammar."

(CNN) -- The usual incivility and hyperbole of the internet gets magnified on hot-button issues, especially when they concern religion, politics and ethnicity.

So as I've read through the feedback loops accompanying reports and commentary on the so-called ground zero mosque, it has not surprised me to find flaming insults coming from both extremes.

On one end, we find an internet preacher named Bill Keller (no, not the editor of The New York Times) who calls Islam a "1,400-year-old lie from hell." And on the other, a new word has been coined to describe such expressions: "Islamophobia." Meanwhile, the right focuses on the dangers posed by fanatics they call "Islamofascists."

Islamophobia vs. Islamofascism. Not much wiggle room for moderate debate there.

The debate over Cordoba House is, in part, a fight over language -- a battle, according to Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, one of its planners, over who controls "the discourse." And so, news consumers should stay alert to the fact that partisans in this and every ideological battle fight for the upper hand by framing the debate in language favorable to their position.

For example, is the proposed construction project a "mosque" or a "community center"? Is it "at" the spot where the twin towers fell, or just "near"? Should that now infamous place where so much dust turned to dust be described in the lower case as "ground zero" or in the upper case as "Ground Zero"?

Defenders of the project, including New York's mayor, have pointed out that what is proposed is not a mosque, per se, but a cultural and community center, and that its location would be more than two long blocks from the hallowed ground capitalized some places now as a proper noun: "Ground Zero."

Opponents of the project have been louder and more organized and, as a result, you may have seen them more in the news. The high-minded among them use the language of law and ethics: that with freedom comes responsibility, that just because you have the "right" to build does not mean that you "should" build.

Fiery abstractions may heat up public discourse, but more meaningful arguments turn on much smaller language distinctions and definitions.

Farah Pandith, an American government expert on the Islamic world, said on CNN that while Islam comprises "one-fourth of humanity," it is the "small voices that are making hay," with hateful language. Dalia Mogahed, an analyst of research on Islam, argued on the same show that what young Muslims around the world most desired from the West was "respect" and help with "economic development." Such moderate language can hardly compete with images of Qurans or American flags being consumed by flames.

S.I. Hayakawa, the great semanticist who would become a U.S. senator, wrote in 1939 about the need for unbiased reporting as an instrument of self-government. To write a straight report, he wrote, the author must avoid "loaded words."

In commentary, religious imagery gets picked up on our emotional radar in words such as "sacrifice," "sacrilege," "martyrs." On the other side our civic loyalties respond to talk of "freedom of religion" and "intolerance."

To understand the language of the debate, readers need a propaganda filter, the ability to distinguish between a word's denotation -- or explicit meaning -- from its connotation -- it's secondary, and often emotional meaning.

Connotatively, a "community center" carries benign associations, of people coming together from all walks of life. To some American ears, the word "mosque," on the other hand, stills sounds exotic, alien and even dangerous, the way "temple" might have in an earlier era.

Using "mosque" can become a disguised editorial, often appearing in the sheep's clothing of straight reporting. In the post 9/11 era, it has become a loaded word, even though it has a long history, going back to Aramaic (the language of Jesus!) meaning, simply, "to bow down, worship." The supporters of the Cordoba House project realize this and have been at pains to use "cultural center."

And what about ground zero? Without capital letters the word denotes these definitions in the American Heritage Dictionary: 1) target of a missile 2) area where an atomic bomb is detonated 3) a center of explosive change 4) a starting point (a synonym for "square one").

These are strong images that skirt the the term's new weight in American language. None of these definitions captures the emotional power of the destruction of 9/11 and its aftermath. Yes, the twin towers were destroyed by jetliners turned into missiles. But, if I had to define it now, I would want to include a connotation of "hallowed ground"; Ground Zero (in the upper case) is, after all, a place where pilgrims and tourists visit to remember the dead, to pray, to sing hymns, to cry.

Consider then the rhetorical power of juxtaposing "mosque" with "Ground Zero," especially as it is used and received by opponents of the project. Even without terms like "an affront to the memory of those who died on 9/11," as one news report put it in describing objections, the propaganda effect of this odd coupling is to suggest that the proximity of an Islamic holy place defiles the now sanctum sanctorum of America's civic religion.

Our emotional struggles over the legacies of 9/11 will not go away, but our attention to the way the language of the debate colors our view should not either.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Roy Peter Clark.