Language can be a weapon of soft power, and reclaiming words that have been politicised is an important step towards defeating the hatemongers
Muslims must reclaim 'Sharia'
Language is a weapon in the arsenal of soft power: destroy, dilute or manipulate a language, and you erase a culture and its people. Language describes a world view, a unique perspective. Through subtle forms of attrition you can attack the world- view of a people.
That is what is happening today in the global discourse about Muslims: Islamic words are being made toxic, and being used to stir up hatred.
Take the word "Sharia". Instead of being an insight into the choices Muslims make in conducting their lives - how they live, why and how they choose to pray, eat halal food and go to Haj, for example - the word "Sharia" is now used pejoratively and maliciously. Sharia is incorrectly equated with capital punishment. And there is a deliberately misleading suggestion that the Muslim "goal" is to establish Sharia law around the world.
Muslims see Sharia as a moral compass by which to live their lives. Even when it comes to Sharia law, it covers a whole range of legal situations, of which most are in the personal and family domains, and only a few related to capital punishment, and those are contentious.
Instead of all these nuances being conveyed when the word Sharia is used, it is thrown about with almost no actual understanding of what it means. In fact it is used as a crude symbol for the myth of the "violent Muslim". With this semantic shift, it is used to stoke fear.
A recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public life that surveyed 38,000 Muslims in 80 languages across 39 countries aimed to get a deeper understanding of what Sharia actually means to Muslims.
Muslims have different understandings of what Sharia means in practice. The percentage of Muslims who say they want Sharia to be "the official law of the land" varies widely around the world, from fewer than one-in-10 in Azerbaijan (8 per cent) to near unanimity in Afghanistan (99 per cent).
So this is not the plan for world domination that "Sharia" is made out to be. In fact, most supporters of Sharia think Islamic law should apply only to Muslims.
If that were not enough to dispel myths of violence and imperialism, the study shows Muslims tend to believe Sharia law should be implemented only in the sphere of domestic law, to settle family or property disputes, and then only for Muslims. In most countries surveyed, there is considerably less support for severe punishments, and even in the domestic sphere, Muslims differ widely on questions such as whether polygamy, divorce and family planning are morally acceptable.
In short, Muslims like the idea of Sharia as a moral compass, more than they necessarily want to see the implementation of what is commonly called Sharia law. What Muslims actually mean by wanting Sharia is nuanced and varied.
We don't hear any of this. But we should. If we are to have any meaningful dialogue between Muslims and the wider world, the word Sharia needs to be detoxified and reclaimed in the political narrative.
The words "jihad" and "fatwa" have been similarly toxified. They remain part of the hateful lexical shorthand for describing the myths that Muslims in general are violent and expansionist.
Every time each of these words is misused, hatred and misunderstanding is perpetuated. Wresting language away from those who wilfully manipulate it is an important step towards defeating the hatemongers.
Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at www.spirit21.co.uk