Is There an Islamic State?
Earlier this year, Barrack Obama began using the term ‘violent extremists’ in reference to the United States’ central enemies in Iraq and Syria, avoiding all use of the term ‘Islamic extremists’. More recently, David Cameron criticized the BBC for using the term ‘Islamic State’, rather than referring to the group as ‘so-called Islamic State’, ‘ISIL’ or, still better in his opinion, ‘Daesh’. In sum, both are insistent that their enemy is not Islamic (and nor does it form, Cameron added, a state). The French government has already begun using only the term ‘Daesh’ with Laurent Fabius, the foreign minister, adding that he personally would only use the term ‘Daesh cut-throats’.
I agree with this approach: we should not call the group in question ‘Islamic’ and we should probably call it ‘Daesh’. But Obama and Cameron’s actions were met with strongly worded objections from both academics and the media. For some, it is farcical to be so concerned with language. Others insisted that that these fighters obviously are Islamic, since they certainly claim to be Islamic and attempt to ground their activities in their interpretation of Islamic texts and history. Furthermore, mislabeling the enemy in this way would blind us to its essential nature and thus lead to strategic errors in our response. Finally, according to some critics, it is problematic to ask media sources to avoid using the name a group has given itself, because it undermines the ideal of press neutrality. Let’s take a closer look at each of these concerns.
Firstly, isn’t it just pointless ‘nitpicking’ to be so concerned with language, as John Crace and others have complained? This can only be a distraction from the very real problems of preventing death, destruction, and oppression. Those are certainly important problems. But that doesn’t mean that language use is irrelevant. The first argument for avoiding the term ‘Islamic’ is one of principle. It is crucial to avoid any suggestion that, say, the United States considers Islam to be a religion of wanton violence and cruelty. To do so would be to express a message of exclusion and intolerance towards the majority of Muslims who categorically reject Daesh’s ideology and deny that it is Islamic. There is also a second, more pragmatic, argument for caring about language use. A major source of Daesh’s power is its ability to recruit new soldiers, including from the United Kingdom and the United States. Much of that ability depends on Daesh’s success in representing itself as the legitimate moral and political authority over all Muslims. So, the language question is part of a much broader ideological struggle that is not a distraction from preventing death, destruction, and oppression, but a necessary means of doing so.
What of the second complaint, that it’s just plain false to say that Daesh is not Islamic? After all, Daesh members explicitly rely on the Quran to justify their actions, claim to organize their internal structures in light of the Caliphate of the past, and so on. A closely related objection holds that there’s something especially inappropriate about non-Muslim politicians and reporters judging whether Daesh is Islamic or not. It isn’t their place to decide who is Muslim and who isn’t.
An initial response to these complaints is to point to the many resources within Islam for finding Daesh nothing but reprehensible. Daesh assiduously avoids engaging with traditional Islamic scholarship and institutions. Those most susceptible to Daesh’s message are often converts and others who are relatively disengaged from the broader Islamic community. As Muslims around the world have insisted, there is a large wealth of traditional Islamic theology that categorically rejects central features of Daesh’s strategy, such as the killing of civilians, children, and so on. According to the Quran ‘There shall be no compulsion in religion’.
Critics will reply that Daesh still offer an interpretation of Islam. Protestantism and Catholicism for instance, can’t both be right, but they are still both versions of Christianity. It cannot be denied, Tom Holland and Graeme Wood claim, that there are extractable parts of the Quran and the Hadith that do lend support to Daesh’s ideology, even if there are others that don’t.
“A major source of Daesh’s power is its ability to recruit new soldiers, including from the United Kingdom and the United States. Much of that ability depends on Daesh’s success in representing itself as the legitimate moral and political authority over all Muslims. So, the language question is part of a much broader ideological struggle that is not a distraction from preventing death, destruction, and oppression, but a necessary means of doing so.”
There is much to be said about how the sources Daesh relies on have been dealt with in the long history of Islamic thought, but I won’t get into that theology here, because there is a more fundamental reply to critics like Wood and Holland, which is that they have misunderstood the nature of Obama’s and Cameron’s actions.
Obama and Cameron are not claiming to have the last word on the meaning of Islam. They are trying to show trust in and respect for the vast majority of Muslims in their countries, and indeed the world, who refuse to identify in any way with Daesh and its ideological mask. For instance, several British Imams specifically lobbied Cameron to use the phrase ‘un-Islamic State’. And he was right to take them seriously, understanding that many Muslims “listening to this [BBC] programme will recoil every time they hear the words’ ‘Islamic State’”. Cameron’s actions express not the pronouncements of a non-Muslim from the outside, but a willingness to accept what Muslim fellow-citizens and their allies have declared, respecting their decisions about how to interpret their religion and whom to include in their community.
Does this involve naïve or inappropriate behavior for a politician, as Holland argued on This Week? To the contrary, it seems to be exactly what the leader of a liberal democracy ought to be doing. Britain is home to a large population of Muslims who see no tension between their religion and basic democratic values. It is appropriate for a political representative to treat these people as equal citizens, by respecting their desire to disavow any connection with those who are enemies of justice and democracy.
The third variety of worry about dropping the word ‘Islamic’ is that it will blind us from the actual goals and strategy of Daesh. To understand and predict Daesh’s behavior, it is essential to look to its views on the relation between mosque and state, its eschatology, and so on, all of which inform its policy and understanding of the global order. Perhaps, the argument goes, much of Daesh’s message is really endorsed by its leaders on strategic grounds, as a means to seeking power rather than just salvation, but in that respect the organization doesn’t differ from many historical institutions associated with major religions.
But, again, these concerns arise out of a misunderstanding of the point of refusing to call Daesh Islamic. No-one, certainly not Obama or Cameron, is denying that at least part of Daesh’s declarations and actions can be explained by reference to specific and selective interpretation of some texts associated with Islam. But that still doesn’t mean that the rest of the Muslim community must accept Daesh as an Islamic institution. Non-Musims can and should respect the community’s decision to treat Daesh as outsiders while fully recognizing the ways in which Daesh’s behavior can be explained and predicted. The argument of Muslims against Daesh is not that some of its declarations and cloaks do not contain roots in Islam, but that the contents of these, along with Daesh’s actions, are so reprehensible and unIslamic that the idea that they must be accepted as fellow members of the Islamic community, the Ummah, is just outlandish.
“Britain is home to a large population of Muslims who see no tension between their religion and basic democratic values. It is appropriate for a political representative to treat these people as equal citizens, by respecting their desire to disavow any connection with those who are enemies of justice and democracy.”
A fourth set of concerns was raised specifically about media outlets and their reporting on Daesh. The BBC, for instance, announced that it would not accept Cameron’s proposal, on the grounds that it would violate the BBC’s firm commitment to neutrality. But why is it neutral to refer to Daesh as ‘Islamic State’ or ‘IS’? The central argument seems to be that standard practice is to refer to organizations by the name they give themselves, so to break with practice in this specific case would be to show bias.
This argument ignores special features of the present case. Daesh did not declare itself ‘Islamic State’ simply for there to be a proper name that could be used to refer to the organization. Rather, using that name is part of Daesh’s declaration that it is a state, thestate, to which all Muslims owe their allegiance. It is tantamount to Daesh referring to itself as ‘The One True Caliphate’. But no amount of political power entitles Daesh to declare itself the Caliphate in this sense. That would require a legitimacy that Daesh manifestly lacks. To grant them the name ‘Islamic State’, then, is to tacitly recognize a status to which Daesh is not entitled.
To illustrate this point, suppose someone were to declare herself to be ‘Queen Heather of England’ and claim that she is the genuine inheritor of the throne, and not (so-called, according to Heather) Queen Elizabeth II. No-one in Britain would willingly call this person Queen Heather, because to do so would be to acknowledge the status she claimed for herself. Nor would it be appropriate for foreign media to say that they were going to be neutral and use the term ‘Queen Heather’ because it was self-given. British people would have a legitimate complaint that they were tacitly lending credibility to Heather’s claim to the throne, something all members of the UK would consider absurd. Most Muslims think that granting Daesh even minimal credibility as the true Caliphate is equally absurd and much more dangerous.
Now, while it’s very easy to avoid using the term ‘Islamic extremism’ — Obama’s ‘violent extremism’ works just fine — it’s a little less clear what to use in place of ‘Islamic State’. ‘So-called Islamic State’ accomplishes much of what I have argued for, but is a little cumbersome. The other obvious option is to use ‘Daesh’, as I have above. The downside of this is that ‘Daesh’ is ultimately derived from an acronym for the Arabic phrase, ad-Dawlah al-Islāmiyah fī ‘l-ʿIrāq wa-sh-Shām, which means, yes, Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham. So using ‘Daesh’ may seem like no progress at all.
But I think that on balance it’s still the best term we have. Consider two different audiences: English speakers (and those from the non-Arabic speaking world more generally) and Arabic speakers. The majority of English speakers don’t know what ‘Daesh’ abbreviates, not what the words it abbreviates mean. For them, it functions as a simple label, and so using it would not communicate to them that the group is authentically Islamic or entitled to rule.
What about Arabic speakers, for whom the term does function (at least in part) as an abbreviation? ‘Daesh’ all the same remains the preferred term of Arabic speakers who are opposed to the group, partly because it is phonetically similar to the Arabic words ‘Daes’, ‘one who crushes something underfoot’, and ‘Dahes’, ‘one who sows discord’. For the same reason members of the group themselves disapprove of the term. As such, using ‘Daesh’ does not carry any message of implicit acceptance of ‘Islamic State’ to these speakers either, and in fact conveys solidarity with the predominantly Arabic speakers who are giving their lives to defeat this global enemy.
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