Countering ISIS’s Propaganda Is a Way of Reclaiming the Middle East’s History

Faisal Al Yafai

Words matter. That was both the starting point and the slogan for a campaign last week reminding the media to use more care when reporting on terrorism. In a series of short films published on social media, the campaign, backed by the Global Coalition Against ISIL, the political and military coalition of 79 countries that are attacking ISIL, also known internationally by its other acronym, ISIS, in Iraq and Syria, highlighted that words like “soldier,” “lone wolf” and “mastermind” only serve to glamorize terror groups like ISIS – and could even help them gain recruits.

The coalition issued guidelines when reporting on ISIS – or Daesh, as Arabic-language media usually calls the group, using an acronym with derogatory connotations – which included not using words like “caliphate,” referring to terrorists as fighters rather than as “generals” or “commanders,” which implies a certain legitimacy, and preferring the word “Islamist” to “Islamic,” which could imply some link with the faith.

Using accurate language allows the media to reclaim words and ideas from the terror group. But that accuracy goes beyond describing ISIS’s messages. It can also be a way of countering its propaganda, and of reclaiming ideas.

In the West, where Islam as a faith has been less a part of public culture, it is a way of reclaiming the faith from narrow, and often negative, views. But for the Middle East it is even more important. Using accurate language is a way of taking back the Middle East’s very history.

For consumers of Western media, reports about ISIS, and before them Al Qaeda, were often their first encounter with Islamic terms like “caliphate.” But in the Middle East, judicious use of such language matters even more, because so many of the terms used by militant groups are rooted in terms that have historical and religious meanings. “Caliph,” “emir,” “jihad,” “mujahid” and others all have specific definitions, and to use them to apply to something as brutal as ISIS lends the group undeserved legitimacy.

Using the right language in this context, then, is really an act of reclamation, a way of taking back some of the language and ideas of the faith that have been debased by ISIS but that are still in current usage. Unlike in the West, where such Islamic terms are in themselves exotic, in the Middle East these are regularly used words.

This isn’t, by the way, a task limited to Muslims. Religious groups across the region use the Arabic language and so communicate their religious ideas using similar words. Many Arab Christians, after all, use the word “Allah” to refer to God. And the concepts that underpin the Islamic idea of “jihad,” the “struggle” to live a religious life, have precise parallels in Christianity, Judaism and other Middle Eastern faiths.

Using accurate language also makes it easier for those most susceptible to indoctrination to be able to distinguish between mainstream and fringe ideas. ISIS regularly misuse concepts that exist in the Islamic world today, like “fiqh” and “sharia.” Many young people across the Islamic world simply do not have the tools to distinguish between sharia interpretations by serious scholars from seats of learning like Al Azhar and ad hoc ones tweeted out by under-educated butchers in Raqqa.

ISIS’s propagandists are highly skilled at weaving together a narrative of violence and faith. Even now, this potent mixture still brings recruits. That is one of the reasons why it is so important to go beyond merely accurately describing ISIS’s ideas – and actively counter them.

Counter messaging, such as that used by the Sawab Center, the Abu Dhabi-based joint UAE-US communications hub that specializes in attacking ISIS’s ideas on social media, is so important because it highlights the reality behind the ISIS image. Showing those susceptible to the propaganda what the real textual wording says, how recruits actually live and what life is like for the victims of ISIS’s occupation, all in language they can understand and in the spaces, mainly social media, where they gather, is vital.

ISIS’s propaganda, with its use of military motifs and videos of young men playing with tanks and guns, can be enticing to some. The more potential supporters can see the brutal reality behind it, the more they can understand how people of the region actually enacted some of the ideas that ISIS claims, the more they will be able to see through the propaganda. The same language that glorifies them can also be used to expose them for what they are.

As a British woman, Figen Murray, whose son Martyn was killed in a suicide bomb attack at a concert in Manchester in 2017 – an attack claimed by ISIS – says in one of the campaign’s videos, ISIS “are not a state. They’re just a group of people doing awful things. They’re not important people, they don’t deserve to be given the status of a state.” That can’t be said enough.

ISIS imposed its own reality on the Middle East. Its recruits, Europeans and Arabs, Russians and Chinese, made their way to Iraq and Syria and sought to obliterate history with guns and warped ideas. Language is a tool to take back the history, and similarly obliterate its warped interpretations.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.