There is no doubt that the so called ‘Islamic State’ (formerly ISIS) is causing considerable problems – both locally in Syria and Iraq, and in the international community.
They made the ambitious decision in June to create the ‘Caliphate’ on the basis of their initial victories, with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the first re-established Khalifah. More recently, a series of publicity grabbing executions of western hostages has now brought down the inevitable military action by the USA and some of their Arab allies (particularly several Gulf States and Jordan). The aim of these strikes has been to ‘degrade’ the capability of ISIS, as well as two other Al-Qa’eda related groups in the area, al-Nusra Front and Khorasan Group.
In preparation for these strikes, Barack Obama went to great lengths in his 10 September speech to acknowledge what many Muslims have been arguing for a while. That the ‘Islamic State’ is not a state and it is not Islamic. To quote Obama directly:
‘Now let’s make two things clear: ISIL is not “Islamic.” No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim. And ISIL is certainly not a state.’
While many wish to agree with him, this statement in itself is not straightforward.
Although ISIS (or IS) act in barbarous ways, they consider themselves to be doing so according to Islamic teachings and requirements. Much of the framework of what they do is related to the teachings of Islam, even though their actions (and their clear lack of regard for the lives of any people that are not following their particular interpretation of Islam) are repugnant.
There has been no shortage of Muslims across the world condemning ISIS, and pointing out that they are not behaving very Islamically.
For example, in the UK a group of leading Imams issued a fatwa stating their position in unequivocal terms:
‘IS is a heretical, extremist organisation and it is religiously prohibited (haram) to support or join it’
Whilst separately, another group of Muslim leaders wrote to the Prime Minister, David Cameron to ask him to not call the group ‘the Islamic State’, as this name was a ‘slur on Islam’.
And a Muslim charity in the UK, named the Active Change Foundation, has launched a social media campaign, using the Twitter hashtag of #NotInMyName against ‘the criminals’ of IS who are ‘hiding behind a false Islam’. Barack Obama took note of this initiative in his speech to the UN on 24 September.
— Mehdi Hasan (@mehdirhasan) September 24, 2014
And in the US, a joint initiative by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Fiqh Council of North America produced an open letter signed by over 100 Muslim scholars refuting ‘the anti-Islamic extremism and violence exhibited by ISIS’.
There is overwhelming evidence that the majority of Muslims, in Europe, America, and across the world, are repulsed by the ideology and the actions of ISIS.
For them, this is not what Islam is about.
What is in a name?
However, the problem with names is that they are used in numerous ways. They may often be used in inappropriate and offensive ways, and despite the offence that this causes (and the misrepresentations that are perpetrated) it is very hard to control the meanings and contexts of their use.
‘Caliph’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his followers have taken the word ‘Islamic’ and have used it for their own purposes. No one can prevent them from doing so, all that can be done is that each individual has the choice of whether or not to continue and endorse that use. This is particularly so with leaders – as shown by Barack Obama’s carefully chosen use of words.
As the religion scholar Mark Juergensmeyer has argued, however, there is an argument counter to both Obama and the Muslim leaders who have objected to the use of the term Islamic in the ISIS name.
Firstly, Juergensmeyer has controversially corrected Obama on the issue of ISIS being a state. As he says:
‘Yet [ISIS] is governing. Though its state is not recognized by any other government, and is despicable in its actions, the region under its control is administered as a state. According to some reports from Mosul, the city is better managed than it was before… So despite our reluctance to honor it with the term “state,” ISIS actually is operating a kind of state.’
Whether or not ISIS will be able to continue that governance – in the face of internal factionalism and external pressure and attacks – is hard to judge. If it can accurately be called a state, it is as a rogue state, and is a long way from the type of ‘state’ that was governed under Khilafah rule in the past.
Having proclaimed itself as a state (even the Islamic State, led by the khalifah), it will also find it more difficult to assert its credentials if it loses its territorial possessions following the air and ground attacks. The group will find it much harder to maintain its role as the Islamic State if it is forced to revert back underground into hiding.
With regard to the issue of ISIS being Islamic, Juergensmeyer accepts the denunciations of the group by many Muslim leaders. But he argues:
‘Still, the leaders of ISIS claim Muslim authority for their actions, strict Shari’a[h] law as the basis of their jurisprudence, and the promise of salvation for those recruited into its ranks… The religious credentials of al-Baghdadi give some credibility to this religious appeal. He’s received a PhD in Islamic Studies from the Islamic University of Baghdad and knows the scriptures and the tradition of Islam better than most jihadists.’
And most importantly, the message of ISIS is aimed directly at Sunni Muslims, making use of Islamic religious ideas and symbols. Much of the presentation of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the ISIS is an attempt to seek religious and historical legitimacy for their particular khawarij-type sectarian position.
However, it has of course also been noted that at least some of the British ‘jihadis’ who have signed up for this cause did so with a quite rudimentary knowledge of the teachings of Islam. This is evidenced, for example, by Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed’s purchase of the books Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies from Amazon, in anticipation of their move to Syria to join the cause.
Islam or Islams? Authentic or not?
So what do we do with the ‘Islamic’ part of their title? Is it a neutral term that cannot be avoided, or is it safer to avoid the conflation of the majority experiences of Islam with this particular, violent group?
Two perspectives give us cause to think. First is the fact that religious names cannot be avoided in history. Groups that called themselves Christians (and are still considered to have been ‘Christians’) perpetrated high levels of atrocities through the centuries. The massacres during the Crusades were carried out in the name of Christians, as was the Inquisition, the religious wars of the seventeenth century, and the conquest (and regular slaughter) of the Native American groups in both the north and south of the continent. In the contemporary world, Christian groups lead violent campaigns against pro-choicers and abortion clinics, and are active in the resistance to now mainstream civil rights changes, such as gay marriage. At the extremes there are also the overtly Christian identity claims of the Ku Klux Klan and the religious pogroms throughout European history against Jews.
There are many Christians who would deny that any of these atrocities were ‘properly’ Christian. But we cannot deny that the term has historically been used to describe each of these within a Christian context. In short, in this sense the term is too embedded in the way we talk about these events to be avoided. Christian Europe has a very bloody history which makes contemporary Christians very uncomfortable about sharing the name ‘Christian’.
Another perspective on this is that offered by the anthropologist Abdul Hamid El-Zein, who attempted to provide a framework for understanding the diversity of Muslim cultures and societies – and perspectives of being Islamic – that can be found across the world. He phrased this in terms of ‘Islams’, meaning that there were many different meanings and ideas attached to the name ‘Islam’, which in large part distinguish different groups from each other.
The understanding of Islam by al-Baghdadi and ISIS is very different from most British, American, or other Muslims across the world. If it can be called ‘Islam’ it needs to be prefaced by some sort of adjective, such as ‘political’ Islam or ‘extremist’ Islam, or something else (such as the term ‘false’ Islam mentioned above).
But all Muslims view Islam as singular not plural. Islam in particular is united by the discourse of a singular Islam. Although Muslims in Britain practise their religion within the particular contexts in which they live, there is no particular entity that we could say is ‘British Islam’. There are just British Muslims, with perspectives and practices that relate to their circumstances and histories.
In another context, this was a problem faced by the movement for ‘Islam hadhari’, or what has been called ‘progressive Islam’. For many it appears to violate the assumption that Islam itself is a given (by Allah). Islam cannot be adjectivised, even though of course people across history and geography have been and continue to interpret the given of Islam in so many different ways.
It is tempting to save one particular adjective for groups such as ISIS. That is, to distinguish them out as not being ‘proper’ Islam (or properly Islamic). This overlaps with the view of them as ‘false’ Islam.
The problem with this view is that it requires us to make a faith-based assumption, that we know what constitutes the ‘proper’ Islam that they are being distinguished from. In the end, what constitutes the concept of Islam is a religious (faith-based) judgement. The outsider, whether they are a scholar or political analyst, is not in a position to make such a statement, since in doing so they become an insider, speaking from faith.
That is, an evaluation of what ISIS does as not ‘authentically’ Islamic can only be made from a faith-based perspective, by people who are within those discourses (i.e., by Muslims). An appeal to authenticity in Islam is a faith-based action, as is the opposite of denouncing a group for not being properly or authentically Muslim. It is a valid action in itself, but in short it is not particularly useful in the context of western attempts to talk about ISIS without suggesting that ISIS represents Islam more than any other group.
A non-faith approach, such as taken by the media and non-Muslim commentators (including academics) can only say that it is not ‘mainstream Islam’, and that many (faithful) Muslims do not consider is as ‘properly’ Islam (and find their actions abhorrent).
Obama’s comment (quoted above) that ‘no religion condones the killing of innocents’ is contradicted by history from across the globe. Whether condoned or not by religious texts and leaders, representatives of many religions (including Christians and Muslims) have had no qualms about taking the lives of innocents.
ISIS as Daesh: silencing the controversy
There is though the matter of sensitivity about using a word in a way that inflames prejudices.
ISIS have made deliberate use of the term Islamic as the basis for their mass executions, their expulsions and pogroms of Christians and Yazidis, and their videoed executions of westerners. They appear to have gone out of their way to present the world with a blood curdling manifestation of Islam that puts into reality the western fantasies and misrepresentations of the Islamic Orient. ISIS appear to be deliberately pouring gasoline onto the fire of western Islamophobia, most likely with the aim of then asserting themselves as the protectors of Islam and Muslims against such western prejudices.
In this respect, the use of ‘Islamic’ to describe ISIS is helping the group to achieve their ends.
A new approach to counter this problem has very recently been introduced by the French state. Laurent Fabius, the French Foreign Minister has picked up on the Arabic acronym Daesh (also rendered as Da’ish) to refer to ISIS.
The letters of Daesh (from in Arabic al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham) are roughly equivalent to the term ‘ISIS’ for the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham.
So included within the acronym is a reference to the name Islamic State, but (as with the abbreviation ISIS) the reference to ‘Islamic’ is not actually said when the name Daesh is used. Thus, the word silences the very thing the group want to say, that they wish to be seen as Islamic.
However, it appears that the term Daesh has come to us in part at least from Assad’s media in Syria, so it has its own baggage. But it is an interesting way to avoid the conflation of ISIS with Islam. It has been put to use largely to downplay the ‘Islamic’ claims of ISIS/Daesh and in particular to discourage Arab Muslims in the region from taking the group too seriously.
Although the term Daesh itself is meaningless in Arabic, it has various connotations of an insult, in particular suggesting that the group is ‘downtrodden’ (daes) and ‘causing discord’ (dahes).
The leadership of Daesh do not like the term. They have threatened to cut out the tongues of people who use the term publicly (which can, of course, be another way of silencing your critics).
When Laurent Fabius used the term last week, he put it together with a further adjective. He is quoted as saying:
‘I do not recommend using the term Islamic State because it blurs the lines between Islam, Muslims and Islamists. The Arabs call it “Daesh” and I will be calling them the “Daesh cutthroats”.’
Its emergence does, however, come at a good time, since it helps us to focus on a means of describing the group that we know as ISIS or the ‘Islamic State’. It gives us a way of talking about them without the underlying issues of misrepresenting the group as having wider support in the Muslim world – on the basis of its violent interpretations of Islam – that is clearly at odds with their largely pariah status.
So, in conclusion perhaps we can say that Daesh makes claims to be an Islamic State, and to have reinstated the Khilafah, but it has little attraction for most Muslims.
In this respect, the name Daesh does what we need it to do. It silences their exaggerations and simply labels them as another group of violence.