The “war on terror” reads like a “war on Islam” in the Muslim world. Why do Muslims have this perception? Perhaps because the U.S. is attacking Muslim countries and the U.S. media routinely link the term “terrorism” with the word “Islam.” Muslims worldwide can easily see this phenomenon on American news programs beamed into their countries via satellite TV.

When violent acts are perpetrated by non–Islamic groups, their religions are not mentioned. Has any political leader affixed the term “fascist” to any other religion lately? Surf the worldwide web for the terms “Islam” and “fascism” or “fascist,” and you will be regaled with millions of hits, many less than kind to this great religion. Then there are the fallback recruitment tools for the extremists: Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. The repeated, nearly real–time footage of Muslims being rounded up, questioned, and sent off to prison to be held indefinitely and tortured make the situation even worse. The fact that most American Muslims are well educated, well–off, patriotic, and committed to their country and families seems to be lost in the derogatory drama of the moment.

Which religious book is sometimes attacked whenever the media wants to discuss terrorist acts? The Koran. When our religious and political leaders make public statements on Islam, those statements are often not complimentary.

Our use of terminology is profoundly counterproductive. How often do Muslims hear the talking heads of the small screen refer to jihadists as threats? To be sure, those distorters of Islam who execute wanton and indiscriminate attacks on innocent people are a serious threat. But are they jihadists? By calling these persons jihadists—essentially, one who gives forth effort in the way of God—one not only gives religious cover for those who support or might support them, one also insults Islam and Muslims. Nothing in Islam’s laws of war allows indiscriminate murder. To say that the Koran supports such activities is a grave insult to Muslims. The correct terms for these transgressors in Islamic terminology might be erhabeen (terrorists), mufsidoon (evil ones), and the like. One of these persons is not a mujihad, but a qatil ’l amd, a murderer—plain and simple. Before one states something about a complex part of the world, one should at least get one’s terms of reference correct. Calling them jihadists is like calling Che Guevara and Carlos the Jackal “freedom fighters.”

There are some good people in the State Department and elsewhere putting great efforts into countering such perceptions in the Muslim world, but they work with tiny budgets and within a political environment that is not exactly conducive to open thought on issues related to Islam. I admire the diplomats and others who work against gigantic odds to help stave off the clash of civilizations. However, every time they make headway, something seems to work against them. There are Marines, soldiers, and others who have a great deal of sensitivity to certain situations, and really try to do the right thing, but it seems they are often trying to swim against a great tide of misunderstanding, suspicion, and profoundly ingrained ignorance.

It is time for America to wake up and start seeing clearly what is out there. It is time to wake up before the really big alarm clock strikes. It is not too late. We need to get smarter on this, and we need to be aware of the real issues and the real enemies. They are not Islam and the Muslims. They are those who claim to represent this great faith and its adherents, but clearly, by their actions, represent just the opposite.