Robbie Travers – Executive Director
David Browne – Guest Contributor
David Cameron got rather angry with the BBC because they reported on Islamic State. What incensed the Prime Minister so much to publicly condemn the BBC? Was it the lack of interventionist perspective? Was it the suggestion that the UK was incompetent and had tarred its reputation with inaction? Was it a lack of balance in the reporting on IS? No, it was because the BBC had dared to call ISIS the Islamic State. Cameron issued an edict suggesting they should henceforth be known as ISIL. Obviously, Cameron must be aware that ISIL stands for Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, but recently in the West, there have been increasing calls from segments of commentary that we should not to refer to the Islamic State group as Islamic State or even using Islamic in conjunction with the group. In the UK and France it has been suggested that we refer to it as “Daesh”, for instance, which is a particularly incoherent suggestion also, because Daesh is the Arabic equivalent
As a matter of fact, anything but calling them the Islamic State has been suggested. What harms the case for calling them the Islamic State is that it is often used by a segment of commentary determined on insinuating that Islamic State is the true nature of Islam. We suggest that we should call them Islamic State, but we should not do so to somehow garner momentum against Islamism. We insist that such a move to not call Islamic State by their name would be intellectually dishonest, and moreover we should be deeply suspicious of the motives of those prominent in calling for us to do so.
The most common recommendation on the IS name issue is that we should not refer to the group as ‘Islamic’. Many commentators are quick to denounce Islamic States “Islamic credentials.” However, doing so would firstly be very ill-advised precisely because IS can fairly be described as Islamic. Question: What makes a group Islamic? Surely, it is belief in a monotheistic religion with a supreme god called Allah, whose will and his law is articulated by the holy text that is the Qur’an. We struggle to find a basis on which to disqualify IS from identifying as Islamic on the basis that they do believe in the aforementioned conditions and practice them.
Considering IS’s case more deeply, one could argue that they follow the word of the Qur’an as literalists, which can hardly be said to be un-Islamic, possibly at best archaic, but following the judicial suggestions of the Qur’an to the letter is certainly not “un-Islamic.” Moreover, the Qur’anic literalism of IS is mirrored in some ways by Christian Identity groups, and indeed by Creationism, in the West today. Just as nobody would argue that a Creationist is not a Christian – even though the fair majority of Christians in the West do not interpret the book of Genesis literally – we cannot argue that the Qur’anic literalism of IS means that they are not Islamic.
But many would object to this, but we would point out that as many religious books have elements of contradiction, how can we disqualify those who kill from being Islamic, when surely we don’t disqualify moderate Muslims who tolerate LGBT marriage from being Muslims. As these texts are full of contradictions, it seems odd that with IS we pick out small elements which mean they are not Islamic, yet we would not do the same with moderate Muslims.
Moreover, we do not get to pick and choose members of a religion simply because we consider their interpretations to be dangerous or extremist and alarmingly the call to do just that in the West in Islamism often comes from those who otherwise support an absolute right – insofar as such a right can exist – to freedom of identification, and often accept it without questioning despite the decision of those identifying as controversial in some areas.
We must also remember that calling IS un-Islamic will ironically aid the narrative they are trying to establish, namely that the rest of the world – including other Muslims – have turned against Allah and therefore deserve to be treated as less than human, justifying to IS the atrocities that they continue to commit in the Middle East and inspire across the world. Again, calling IS Islamic does not entail arguing that it is the one true version of Islam any more than calling the LRA a Christian group does the same with Christianity. There is no one Islam, like there is no one Christianity. The Russian Orthodox Church varies from the Methodist Church as the Sufis differ from the hardcore Salafists. We must remember that no one group therefore has a mandate to claim that they are true Islam; whilst they can say so, it simply is not accurate to accept such subjective claims grounded in a text full of contradictions and open to many interpretations.
Furthermore, arguing that Islamist is a wrong title for ISIS and tars all Muslims is incorrect. Being a Muslim means belonging to the Islamic faith whereas being an Islamist is strongly emphasizing and call for the implementation of Sharia (Islamic law) on all citizens, Islamic and apostate alike. Islamism also believes, ironically, in pan-Islamic political unity, despite the political infighting it often demonstrates; and of the selective removal of non-Muslim, particularly Western military, economic, political, social, or cultural influences in the Muslim world that they believe to be incompatible with Islam. Islamism, of recent, has also developed the wish to be expansionist, and spread the influence of Islam and Allah’s fiefdom. These are completely different sets of beliefs to Islam, and clearly not all moderate Muslims believe in the interpretation of Sharia and such views.
We must also rebut the accusation levelled at us that calling IS either Islamic or Islamist is somehow about creating a bogeyman around an Islamic state, and moreover that those such as Douglas Murray that call for us not to avoid the term IS are actually Islamophobic.
We would rebut this notion in the most fervent way possible, as for instance, we have no problem condemning Christian extremism and supremacism in Africa in places like the CAR, where Muslims are being slaughtered. And more importantly, we have no problem condemning it for exactly what it is: Christian extremism. Does this mean we are suggesting all Christians wish to extinguish non-believers with machetes and commit genocide against Muslims? No. In the same way, criticising Islamic state is not criticising Islam. Moreover, people’s minds are not so impressionable that the acceptance of the name will either encourage more anti-Muslim attacks, nor more emigration to IS territory; the kind of people likely to act on such words are those who are already prejudiced either way. People are well aware of the distinction.
We must also ask ourselves why we should deceive ourselves when IS openly call themselves Islamic State. We need to have an open discussion on IS, not one in which we cannot even address them by their name, nor one which we can have in terminology which the people of this country do not understand, hence referring to IS as “Daesh” instead will be useless in the West. Doctrinaire referral to IS by acronyms such as ISIS or ISIL also shows a deep unwillingness to have much-needed conversations about topics such as Islam’s relationship with violence (the biographies of Jesus and Muhammad, for instance, are starkly different), and indeed what the characteristics of an Islamic state are; just because IS identify themselves as an Islamic state does not mean that they have the right to definitively tell us what these characteristics are, and in recognising that we must similarly recognise that we lack this right.
Beyond playing into suspicion as to why we are unwilling to deconstruct the acronyms which we may use as a substitute for the Islamic State name, it is actually IS themselves that benefit from the climate of fear necessarily produced by the Voldemort Effect. Despite the fact IS is up against a US-trained army of superior size, the Iraqi army continues to flee from IS before a shot has even been fired (as did the Peshmerga in the early stages of the conflict), precisely because of the terrifying reputation that IS has built for itself much like the Mongol armies of Genghis Khan before it. IS relies on creating societal tension and fears of attacks to be seen as having a significant influence. Being unafraid to recognise IS and call it what it is (namely, an interpretation of what an Islamic state is) will be an essential step to deconstructing this narrative of fear and terror IS has constructed around itself, which will be needed not only to defeat IS militarily, but also to engage with and defeat the ideas which continue to attract some Muslims to give up their lives in the West and join IS. If we cannot even discuss groups that have links to Islam and link the problems of radicalisation, Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism, then how can we even hope to have a constructive dialogue and beat them?
We must also turn to whether IS can factually be called a state, even though it is unrecognised. We do not claim we should officially recognise IS as a state, however, it is most certainly a statement of fact that IS remains the de facto government and sole administrative authority of a territory equivalent to a nation slightly larger than the size of Belgium. We may not like that this is the case, and we certainly don’t, but despite our admission that we would certainly never admit them to organisations such as the UN, that doesn’t change the fact that they do mainly function as a government and a state, in the same manner as Hamas does in the Gaza Strip. Therefore, it would be most dishonest to deny that the name Islamic State is an appropriate one.
We do not deny that Iran and Saudi Arabia are Islamic states, and they also practice beheadings, the death penalty for the LGBTIQ* and the suppression of the rights of women, for instance. Why then, we must posit, are certain sections of British society so keen to deny that IS are in any way Islamic or even connect to Islam, even when in some cases they actually write pieces defending the Saudi justice system, minimising the spread of terrorism by Iran, or even sympathising with Hamas? Perhaps the ‘non-interventionists’ and moral relativists of the left and right today are afraid that recognising IS as Islamic will force them to think more critically at the actions of regimes such as Iran – who they often support against US sanctions – and realise that behind the traditional trappings of statehood lies the same barbarism from the same source.
However, even if we were to disavow the idea that IS can factually be called a state, and instead merely conceptualise them as a terror group, the above still stands when we talk about the right to call IS Islamic. Both Hamas and IS are genocidal, Sharia terror fronts and should surely be treated alike, yet few would deny that Hamas was Islamic. Ironically, those on the left who wish the Voldemort Effect upon us when we discuss IS often support Hamas in the Arab-Israeli context. Perhaps said supporters of Hamas are so unwilling to recognise IS as Islamic because they are a prouder and even more naked version of the atrocities sanctioned by Sunni Islamism than their terror group of choice. To call IS Islamic would mean either having to defend IS as Hamas is defended or be exposed as having a hidden agenda behind their own defence of Islamic terror, which in the case of Hamas is often anti-Zionism or even outright anti-Semitism.
More generally on the above point, we must remember that those keenest to deflect the charge that IS is Islamic are those with agendas of outright apologism for Islamic terrorism; in the case of Russell Brand and Chomsky, for instance, recognising the roots of IS as being Islamic fundamentalism and Wahhabism – a force which has been in existence since at least the 19th century and the 1960s in its modern form – immediately casts aspersions on the idea that ‘Western foreign policy’ (particularly after 9/11) created IS and its ideology, and therefore the attacks and threats which we now face are our own fault. In fact, its religious ideology already existed. To give but one example, it is interesting to note that al-Qaeda’s grievance with the West in East Timor was not the support, to varying degrees, of various Western nations for Indonesia as it committed genocide, but was in fact with its eventual U-turn in facilitating the majority-Christian East Timor’s independence referendum and admission to the UN, on the grounds that this reversed the spread of Islam. Were Islamic fundamentalists like IS actually concerned with the grievances of the West rather than rooted in their theology, we would expect the opposite. Rather, this in fact shows that Islamic fundamentalism like that of IS is actually an autonomous and dynamic force, and one which we apologise for, or even deny outright, at our own peril.
Once we have recognised IS and its theology as such, we must also recognise that it must be proactively defeated both militarily and politically – to do otherwise is to condemn the vast majority of people in areas which it controls and in which it burgeons to oppression and often death – and that this is something that can only be done when we recognise our enemy and plan our response accordingly. With this considered, it is perhaps unsurprising that those seeking to cast the IS name as a slur towards Muslims, or IS as a product of our own policies, are those who argue that military intervention is always wrong, or perhaps even go as far as to argue that we must learn to live alongside IS. These contentions are no more than masochism offered by sadists, even beyond the sheer indifference we would show to the suffering of those living under IS rule by resolving not to defeat IS. Furthermore, if we wanted to “live alongside” IS without fear of constant attack, we would have to give up the values of the Enlightenment. There would be no more right to self-determination (ask Israel, and remember the death of Sérgio Vieira de Mello), nor freedom of expression (cast your mind back to the cold-blooded murder of Charlie Hebdo’s staff) to name but two rights we would lose, all because of misguided fears of tarring all Muslims with the same brush by recognising IS for what it is, fears which have adequately been dealt with above. To give up such freedoms, and the very values of the Enlightenment which spawned them, is surely an intolerable trade-off.
Ultimately, the fight with Islamic State and associated radical Islamist and theocratic fronts will be the defining battle of our time, and one in which the forces of secularism, tolerance, anti-totalitarianism and Universal human rights must triumph, and one which we can’t afford to lose. The cost of capitulation and appeasement are too awful for us to consider, and hence we should not even dream of backing down on standing in defence of our values. But to tackle our enemy, we must be able to have an honest discussion about their nature, appeal, strengths and origins, and to do that, we must at least, be able to call them by name.