domenica 12 ottobre 2014

[ANALYSIS] Recent trends in Islamist discourse: The importance of words in jihadi propaganda and narrative

Cover page of Dabiq, the official IS magazine, calling to Hijra
(in this context, hijra is the migration journey to the Islamic State)

In recent years the great amount of jihadi social networks users and media exploiters made it possible to recognize some changes in jihadi rhetoric and its key-words. The most striking example of this shift is the one given by IS insiders, as well as by its detractors.

Wahhabism and Kharijism - Saudi Arabia officials and more generally Wahhabis, for instance, are trying to distance themselves from the Islamic State, since scholars and Muslim moderates have been debating about the ideological involvement of Wahhabism as a source of extremist groups’ tenets.  Because of westerners’ distrust towards Saudis, notwithstanding the effectiveness of the country in countering terrorism in the region, Saudi imams and journalists argue that IS ideologues are Kharijites, i.e. from another branch of Islam having nothing to do with Wahhabism or Salafism. Kharijism originated from the civil war between ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib and Mu’awiya, when the two of them wanted to govern after the killing of Uthman, the 3rd caliph. While it is true that Kharijism was born as an extremist movement, declaring unbeliever every Muslim who sinned, and that it lead to the killing of Ali (this Quilliam Foundation’s paper refers to Kharijism as the first example of extremism in Islam), it must be said that there is no proof for Saudi Arabia’s claim. As a matter of fact, before the split between AQ and IS, AQIM defended ISIS against the parties claiming that IS members were Kharijites, and al-Adnani, the Islamic State spokesman, refused his Kharijite identity. More recently, IS has even distributed ibn al-Wahhab books across its territory.
The claims from Saudi Arabia must be seen as a way to forestall internal turmoil against the idea, broader and broader in the country, that its religious education and ideological identity is a boost for extremism and violence spill-over. In addition, according to experts, when Kharijism references are issued by Da’esh insiders, the term Kharijism (or Khawarij, in Arabic) must be understood in its etymological and historical meaning, i.e. the idea of “splitting” from mainstream Islam and laying the foundations of a new rendering of it.

Same old words, new meaning -  One peculiar thing I noticed while analyzing the discourse of new jihadism and islamism is its tendence to follow the traditional narrative in matter of form and style, while there is a great innovation in meaning and context.

Look at these lines, by Abu Bakr the 1st caliph, at the time of his election as new leader of Muslims:
 أيها الناس فإني قد وليت عليكم ولست بخيركم، فإن أحسنت فأعينوني، وإن أسأت فقوموني، الصدق أمانة، والكذب خيانة، والضعيف فيكم قوي عندي حتى أريح عليه حقه إن شاء الله، والقوى فيكم ضعيف حتى آخذ الحق منه إن شاء الله، لا يدع قوم الجهاد في سبيل الله إلا ضربهم الله بالذل، ولا تشيع الفاحشة في قوم قط إلا عمهم الله بالبلاء، أطيعوني ما أطعت الله ورسوله، فإذا عصيت الله ورسوله فلا طاعة لي عليكم

Here’s their meaning:
O people, I took over the rule over you while I’m not any better than you. If I behave well, help me; if not, guide me. Obey me as long as I am obedient to Allah; otherwise, you won’t need to obey me. The weak shall be strong for me until they get what is due to them, and the strong shall be weak for me until they have yielded to the rights of others. Obey me as long as I follow the orders of Allah and His Messenger, if not, you don’t not have to obey me, perform your Salah, may Allah have mercy upon you. (both texts by

Now take a look at the following video, showing Muhammad Mursi, from the Muslim Brotherhood, giving his first speech as the new Egyptian President. Listen to his words from minute 15:03.

You can tell that President Muhammad Mursi almost repeated the same words from Abu Bakr in 632 A.D.

That's not all. Here's another example: watch the following video. It’s the popular first official appearance of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, amir of the Islamic State. Listen to his words from minute 03:30.

Once again, the same words are repeated.

Another great shift of context is the one sneakily orchestrated by Rashid al-Ghannushi, leader of al-Nahda (allegedly the Muslim Brotherhood in Tunisia) in the following video (until minute 2:01).

I uploaded a transcript of his words:

Rashid al-Ghannushi's words in the video above (from the beginning to minute 2.01)

During his khutba, Ghannushi is trying to persuade his audience about the similarity between the new Tunisian constitution and the “Medina constitution”, which was essentially a tribal agreement. Ghannushi used history to justify the necessity of implementing Islam in national law and constitution, and sees the Koran as the basis for every future constitution.

Nasheeds – It’s also quite unbelievable to notice the great amount of nasheeds (or nashids) on Youtube nowadays. A nashid is a psalm, or a chant, used by extremist groups as soundtracks for their jihad or the group’s anthem. It is a recent trend in jihadi rhetoric, but its seeds were planted in the 70’s: during this period, Islamists in Syria and Egypt locked horns with their respective authoritarian governments. The struggles included a culture war where nasheed songbooks, records and cassettes were weapons to change the public’s interpretation of Islam. At the same time, in Saudi Arabia, exiled Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood members set up youth camps where attendees sung nasheeds.

This is an example of a recent nashid:

It is called “My Ummah, Dawn has appeared” and it includes verses such as
The Islamic State has arisen by the blood of the righteous,
The Islamic State has arisen by the jihad of the pious,
They have offered their souls in righteousness with constancy and conviction,
So that the religion may be established in which there is the law of the Lord of the Worlds

Scholars have debated about the role of nashids in Western countries, coming to the conclusion that these hymns have a great radicalizing potential. Here is an exhaustive analysis about nashids carried out by Thomas Seymat.

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