December 19, 2014

Islamic extremists have created a successful narrative…

A displaced woman, who fled from Islamic State violence in Mosul, makes bread in refugee camp on the outskirts of the Kurdish city of Arbil December 1, 2014.
A displaced woman, who fled from Islamic State violence in Mosul, makes bread in refugee camp on the outskirts of the Kurdish city of Arbil December 1, 2014.

… because we are helping to tell it. While looking for a narrative for Estonia is something philosophical, and everybody has a different vision of it, the radical and violent Islamic extremist group lately known as ISIL or ISIS went all out and cunningly started to call itself the Islamic State in various media channels. In media terms, “the Islamic State” is more quotable and substantially more memorable, and found widespread use immediately.

The group, which is skilled in warfare and uses social media effectively, has a strategic goal in attaching this particular word pair—grandiose and important to Muslims—to itself. This gives importance and gravity to its fighters and is a part of ideological warfare.

What is the Islamic State to Muslims and why is it so important?

In the 6th century, the prophet Muhammad created a territory based on a politically united religion, located in what is now Saudi Arabia. The unification of this previously rather complex, conflict-ridden region, the forcible unification of warring tribes and the rapid acceptance of the new religion led to a period of expansion, success and prosperity for the caliphate or Islamic state, while its territory expanded from North Africa to the Middle East, Central and Southeast Asia. After the death of Muhammad, the caliphate expanded to Europe as well, but processes had already begun due to which the state started to collapse.

Even today, most Muslims proudly affirm that the Islamic state created by prophet Muhammad—with its laws, human rights, religious freedom and progressive nature—surpassed the early Middle Ages in Europe in science, trade, human rights and other fields. The Koran, as well as the hadiths—the actions and activities of the prophet during his lifetime, which also serve, for example, as the basis for the modern-day Sunni Islamic traditions and organisation of life—describe the Islamic state, its essence and ways of ruling.

There have been repeated attempts to create a similar Islamic caliphate; the Ottoman caliphate came closest to it in terms of size and legislation. Every new attempt to create a caliphate has mainly come up against the challenges created by the differences between Islamic sects, political problems and questions of power. But Muslims still have a dream of a single ruler, who will come and unite Muslims in his powerful and unconquerable state once again.

Without going into detail, the Islamic state—in other words the caliphate—is an extremely important term for Muslims, whatever their sect, and the greatest goal of political Islam. Even today, it is not easy to propagate secular Islam, as most Sunni Muslims, for example, follow the ideals of Muhammad’s other communal activities in addition to the visions sent to the prophet.

Is ISIS the Islamic state?

We should take a closer look at the history of the radical group that we obligingly call the Islamic State. Its roots can be found in the late 1990s when, originally linked to al-Qaeda, it started cooperating with Osama bin Laden. The name of the organisation at that time was Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fi bilad al-Rafidayn—a real tongue-twister for a westerner. Its leaders were either killed or replaced, and in 2006 its current leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, took charge.

He declared the previous undertaking the “Islamic State in Iraq”, in accordance with its region of activity, but the power vacuum created by the Syrian uprising and the struggle against Bashar al-Assad gave the group the opportunity to start operating on Syrian territory as well. Syria was quickly added to the name (as ISIS), and later also the Levant (ISIL), the general name for the cultural and geographical area that includes Jordan, Israel, Cyprus, Syria and Palestine, among others.

Using “Levant” in the organisation’s name illustrates the scope of its ambitions, determined by the extremists’ leader (regarded by many Muslims as a megalomaniac), who hastily declared himself the caliph of the “Islamic State” he had created.

The quotable name “Islamic State” implies even more: it is a vision of a global jihad, a territory of unlimited size ruled according to Islamic law.

The growing power of the group relies, first and foremost, on the popularity of the pan-Islamic way of thinking and its skilful military tactics. According to need, ISIS transforms either into an army with a chain of command or groups committing widespread acts of terrorism, being hard to attack due to their mobility. The group had sharp disputes over questions of power and religion with a number of other extremist groups, e.g. the al-Nusra Front and al-Qaeda. These disputes have now been overcome and the organisation is growing; there is a danger that another Western intervention will lead more and more Islamic radical groups, large and small, to bury their old disputes with ISIS and join them in the fight. The narrative works and, every time we call ISIS the “Islamic State”, we help to strengthen its importance in someone’s mind.

Neither Islam nor a State

Extremist groups do not emerge from nothing—a number of different social, economic and political factors produce extremism. It has been said that one of them is the (clumsy, not to say ignorant) policy of continuous intervention by the Western countries in the Middle East, due to which we are witnessing the greatest wave of formation of Islamic extremist groups in history. Especially in the case of ISIS, the media (and social media) are contributing to this. No longer are the extremist groups led by men who studied in the West and converted to Islam, but by a new generation of local “players”.
We should keep in mind that ISIL does not represent even a fraction of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, who make up just under a quarter of the planet’s population. The roots of Islamic extremism go back to the late 19th century, but during the Cold War the Wahhabi and Salafi movements were encouraged and supported by the US and the UK, hoping that they would resist Soviet expansionism. Overthrowing the Shah of Iran and helping Ayatollah Khomeini to power signalled the beginning of an era when extremist groups became military units but still received financial aid and weapons from the US and Britain.

There are many conspiracy theories circulating in the Middle East about ISIS, of which the most popular is that it was created by the US and Britain, and provided these states an opportunity to intervene (once again militarily) in an economically strategic region to “divide and rule”. If we look back to history, we can see that conspiracy theorists are, in fact, often correct.

There have been large demonstrations against the actions of ISIS in various Muslim countries and there are numerous groups on social media that organise campaigns against it. The most well-known of them is perhaps the campaign #notinmyname, which made it into the news in Western media and calls upon the world’s Muslims to confirm that this group does not represent their views.
Many of my moderate Muslim acquaintances despise ISIS’s actions, supposedly carried out “in the name of Islam”, and fully condemn them. “It is neither Islam nor a State,” is a way of thinking widespread among normal people, and is understandably the most fiercely repeated by the Kurdish minority in Turkey.

What to call ISIS?

Many Muslims believe that the name of the extremist group does not correspond at all with its content. In dozens of interviews, we can see the disappointment of people who went to Iraq and Syria to fight for the so-called Islamic State, but on arrival met not the just creators of a prosperous Islamic state, but brutal and desperate radicals whose vision of Islam is to suppress personal freedoms and commit all kinds of crimes against humanity. The local communities are more likely to accept ISIS’s power because recent years have brought only chaos and instability to Syria and Iraq. “Let there be ISIL with its strict laws, but at least we are not attacked and our property is safe. If we do not do anything wrong, they will not touch us,” say the locals, choosing the lesser evil.
Experts who know the region confirm that it is not possible to fight ISIS by military means alone; it is also a political, social and ideological battle, in which the name plays its part.
It is clear that taking the name of the Islamic State was a cunning strategic move designed to recruit as many followers as possible. On the other hand, the group’s actions combined with the name cultivate an irrational fear of Islam and dislike towards Muslims everywhere. Muslims rightly feel that they do not deserve to have terrorists shaping the image of Islam in the world.
Would we like, for example, the Ku Klux Klan, which claims to represent Christian values, shaping the image of all Christians?
Several anti-ISIS imams living in the West have suggested for this reason that the international name for the group should be the ironical UIS (Un-Islamic State); the chief religious leader of Egypt suggested QSIS (al-Qaeda Separatists in Iraq and Syria).

Da’esh, an abbreviated form of the Arabic al-Dawlah al-Islāmīyah fī al-ʻIrāq wa-al-Shām, is often used in the Turkish media. “Da’esh” sounds quotable, and the abbreviation does not directly point to either Islam or a state in our linguistic space. In Turkey, “terrorist group” is sometimes used before Da’esh.

When Laurent Fabius, Foreign Minister of France, announced at a press conference that he would thenceforth call ISIS “the cut-throats of Da’esh”, a myriad of threats from the fighters was published on social media, among other things to cut off the minister’s tongue, have him killed, etc. Using “Da’esh” in the international media does not suit the extremists because it diminishes their importance, and they express it loudly. This is understandable—who would want to join the unknown Da’esh cut-throats, when the alternative is to be present at the creation of the Islamic State?

Western media and opinion leaders have accepted the Islamic State’s narrative out of convenience. Solving the crisis in the Middle East cannot only involve military action; political, economic and social factors have to be taken into account. Social involvement is a long and complex process, but naming things correctly is a start and explains why the situation developed into what it now is in the first place. The significance of a media campaign with the goal of diminishing ISIS’s importance cannot be underestimated, and we, too, have the chance to participate in the fight against the Da’esh cut-throats on a daily basis.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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