Meaning massacred

July 07, 2015


The writer is a former minister and author of Pakistan — unique origins; unique destiny?
The writer is a former minister and author of Pakistan — unique origins; unique destiny?

RECENT slaughters of tourists in Tunisia and Shia worshippers in Kuwait represent only the latest killings by those claiming to be Muslims even as their actions prove they have no right to be in the fold of Islam. By being entrapped into using the same words that perpetrators of violence use to disguise themselves, we, and media, become parties to the massacre of what words mean.

Is the term ‘Islamic State’ worthy of use merely because a well-organised group of terrorists has named itself so? De facto, the usage is equivalent to calling this violence-based entity the ‘peace state’ for peace is the ultimate value espoused by Islam. The least we can do is refuse to spell out the misnamed entity because it deserves no more than the abbreviation of ‘IS’. This would deprive the sponsors of daily, direct association with a faith that enjoins fraternity, mercy, compassion and love, exactly the values antithetical to IS.

In 2015, about five and a half billion out of seven billion people on this planet are of faiths other than Islam. For them to hear and read on a daily basis that the name of a major religion is also the first name of a devilish league of callous individuals is to further distort perceptions about Islam, already misrepresented and misunderstood in the non-Muslim parts of humanity.

For the overwhelming majority of Muslims, it is painful to everyday hear the name of their beloved faith linked with a group that revels in murder. Not of non-Muslims alone, which is bad enough. But also of fellow Muslims, if they happen to be Shia or of any non-Sunni mainstream sect.

Is the term ‘Islamic State’ worthy of use?

In their new book, ISIS: the state of terror, Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger informatively and comprehensively record the emergence of this entity but inadvertently reinforce the use of the inappropriate nomenclature.

Among the various sources cited, one is a principal text that shaped the eventual formation of IS: The management of savagery: the most critical stage through which the ummah will pass. This is the English title of the original 113-page compilation in Arabic put together for Al Qaeda under the pseudonym of Abu Bakr Naji in 2004, translated in 2006 and propagated through various Internet fora.

Purporting to learn from past experiences of violent jihad and defining future directions, this text vigorously advocates visible ultra-violence. So that both enemies and allies get the point: wilful, wanton cruelty conducted regularly and widely publicised is the critical instrument for ‘victor’. The title says it all.

To dignify such a group by using the same appellation which it uses is to inadvertently help it move closer to its aims: optimal name-recognition and the right to be perceptually linked with all adherents of Islam.

IS is somewhat like old non-state networks of drug traffickers, human smugglers, illegal weapons traders and currency manipulators which have long possessed capacity for coordination across state and geographical barriers.

Notwithstanding the subsequent attacks in the Sinai, or catalysing lone wolf acts by others elsewhere, given the advantages that IS has curiously been able to sustain, the spread of its destructive mission may impress, but should not surprise. Incidentally: who buys the oil, and how, from the supplies that IS controls? The book referred to earlier, otherwise a detailed study of the use of digital media by IS, omits examining its financing.

As regards the second word of the hijacked name, occupation of territory by force and even its continued administration for some time, does not make an organisation eligible to be called a ‘state’.

There are numerous examples of armed insurgencies, in South and Central America, in Africa, in Asia, in East Asia, some of them still ongoing, that have occupied territory for several years, have proclaimed rulership, have enforced their own writ over people and land but have neither called themselves ‘states’ nor have been bestowed the privilege of being called ‘states’ by formal states, or by the media. So the semantic surrender to IS by parroting the full tag it has chosen is virtually unprecedented and untenable.

Massacres of human beings and massacres of the meanings of words have occurred throughout history. Most recently, the nobility of jihad — whose preferred application should be to the conquest of self — has been twisted into a synonym for bloodshed. Often, the takeover of words has come before the take-down of lives.

Race, tribe, clan, honour, loyalty, faith, nation and God: they are made to mean precisely what the wielders of violence want them to mean as they spew hate and kill. Without detracting from the supreme sanctity of life, words too are as invaluable because humanity is subject to both the tyranny and the beauty of language. So let the letters ‘IS’ stand for, say, “Implausible Scheme” and certainly not for the realms which word thieves covet.

The writer is a former minister and author of Pakistan — unique origins; unique destiny?

Published in Dawn, July 7th, 2015

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