North Africa, West Asia

The Islamic State that isn’t

Why do western media call a barbaric terrorist group the ‘Islamic State’ when it is neither Islamic nor a state?

Hamid Alkifaey
11 December 2015

Demotix/Stefano Montesi. All rights reserved.“The Islamic State has taken the Iraqi city of Ramadi” … “The Islamic State beheaded British aid worker Alan Henning” … “The Islamic State beheaded American Journalist Steven Sotlof” … “The US discusses with its allies how to respond to the Islamic State” … “Russia is taking a tough stance against the Islamic State”.

These are not made up phrases. They are headlines in British and western media. While other terrorist groups, such as Boko Haram and Al Qaeda, were referred to by their foreign names, this notorious group was given the honour of becoming both ‘Islamic’ and a ‘State’. The question is why have the western media decided to brand a barbaric terrorist group first and foremost as ‘Islamic State’ when it is neither Islamic nor a state?

I do not subscribe to any conspiracy theory. Nor am I one of those who believe the west is innately anti-Islamic. On the contrary, I think the west, and Britain in particular, has tolerated extremist groups for too long and offered many of their leaders, such as the notorious Abu Qatada and Abu Hamza, among others, safe sanctuary, to the dislike, if not horror, of most Muslims.

I am also secular and have always advocated western-style democratic rule in Muslim countries because I believe it’s the only way forward, for those countries to progress economically and socially, as well as technologically and scientifically. As a journalist I worked for and contributed to several western media organisations. As an academic, I taught the subject of ‘Islam and Modernity’ at a renowned British university, so I know what Islam is or isn’t. On top of that, I spent most of my time over the last decade or so touring the Middle East and living in it. Throughout the last four decades of my life, I have been following western as well as Arab media reports, debates, news bulletins, commentaries and articles, be they liberal or conservative.

With this background, I still wonder why western media use the phrase ‘Islamic State’ when referring to a detested criminal terrorist group that has illegally and through violence taken control of parts of Iraq and Syria? Why do they make so much of this dangerous terrorist group that has been committing abhorrent violent acts every hour of the day since its creation ten years ago? Calling it Islamic is a form of recognition that this group never dreamed of and which no Muslim country, not even the governments perceived to ‘sympathise’ with it, has ever bestowed on it. Calling it a ‘state’ is another recognition that is totally out of place and surely outright illegal when the world has stopped short of granting this status even to longstanding countries such as Taiwan.

The two recognitions are both bizarre and harmful to the interests of the west as well as to long-term Muslim-western relations. Yes, it calls itself the ‘Islamic State’ in order to draw legitimacy from the religion of Islam which over a billion people across the globe embrace willingly and happily, but is it really Islamic? Does it subscribe to any heavenly value? Can any religion on earth condone or tolerate the barbaric acts that ISIS perpetrates every day? If such a religion exists, then it’s the duty of the international community to uproot it urgently since it’s a danger to mankind.

Many Muslims feel that referring to ISIS as ‘Islamic’ is an insult to them and their religion.

There are at least a billion Muslims across the world, millions of them live in the west, and they are peace-loving, law-abiding human beings who detest and abhor the actions of ISIS and all terror groups, from the Taliban in Afghanistan to Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al Qaeda, ISIS and the Nusra Front in Iraq and Syria. This is not a claim in defence of one sixth of humanity—and I would not shrink from doing so if defence was due—but a fact that can be verified and ascertained by globe-trotting western journalists who cover events around the world. Many Muslims feel that referring to ISIS as ‘Islamic’ is an insult to them and their religion which preaches peace and fear of God.

As for calling it a ‘State’, this flies in the face of international practice and conventions at a time when the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) are not given this honour even though they have been seeking it for decades. The world has not called them states, even though they both possess all the necessary components needed for a modern state, such as land, people, army and police; they abide by international law, hold elections and have international trade relations. The world doesn’t recognise them as states because it would upset China, in the case of Taiwan, and Greece and Cyprus in the case of the TRNC. Yet, the western media don’t mind upsetting Muslims across the globe by calling a terrorist group ‘Islamic State’ without any qualification such as ‘the self-proclaimed’ [or “so-called”].

It’s time the world recognised that terrorism committed in the name of religion must be confronted on all fronts, the first of which is theologically. Those terrorists have not come out of vacuum. There are clerics out there who provided them with the necessary theological justification to go out and recruit young and inexperienced youth to perpetrate atrocious terrorist acts. Those theologians who slap a gloss of religious legitimacy over such acts must be held to account and sanctioned; and this must be enacted in international law through a binding resolution passed by the UN. Those who condone terrorism or apologise for it, must also take their share of the blame and pay for their actions.

The second front would be the media. We live in a dangerous world and the media is the number one source of information for most people. Ordinary people take anything they hear in the media as true. Therefore, the media must act responsibly. They must use the right terminology for events and concepts. I am not calling on them to be specialists in everything, but they can consult specialists and learn more about the effects of, and subliminal messages conjured up by, any term they intend to use.

People in the west have been suffering unnecessarily due to the mistakes made by their governments and the media which they have trusted and paid for. It’s time both acted responsibly and served those who placed their trust in them. Muslim people have for too long been at the receiving ends of terrorism in the name of their religion. They, too, need to do something urgently to claw back Islam from the terrorists. This has now become imperative; in fact, it is overdue.

One way to do it is to hold an international convention for senior Muslim theologians and intellectuals, from all countries and sects, regardless of the views they hold about each other. This convention should denounce all violent acts perpetrated in the name of religion unequivocally and emphasise the values of peace, tolerance and co-existence. It must also create a supreme body which can prevent any person trying to preach violence from using the cover of religion for their violent actions. This would be the beginning of a long road to pacify religion and stamp out violence from Muslim societies. The status quo is neither acceptable nor workable.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData