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What’s in a Name? Scholars Disagree on How We Should Talk About the Islamic State

The world has scrambled to keep up as the group has changed names, but at least one Muslim voice of authority would like us to stop adjusting.
Photo by VICE News

In the battle against religious extremism, there seems to be no unified front among Muslim voices of authority as to what the PR strategy is and how best to execute it.

Egypt's Grand Mufti Shawki Allam — one of the world's most widely respected authorities on Islam — has made strong statements condemning the group that calls itself The Islamic State. The world has scrambled to keep up as the group has changed names along its path of destruction, but Allam would like us to stop adjusting. Egypt's religious body Dar al-Ifta, Arabic for House of Rulings, launched an online campaign last week to try and weaken the group's power to associate itself with the Muslim faith, and to encourage media outlets not to call it IS, or ISIL, or ISIS — but QSIS, short for Al Qaeda Separatists in Iraq and Syria.


The mufti's senior adviser, Dr. Ibrahim Negm, told VICE News what prompted the initiative. "We felt that it would not be fair for the religion of Islam to be described through this inhumane type of violence," Negm said. "And it would further deepen the stereotypes that are already on the rise recently, especially after the decapitation of the American journalist [James Foley]."

Video reportedly shows Islamic State beheading of American Journalist Steven Sotloff. Read more here.

The response so far has been lukewarm. With less than 10,000 likes on its Facebook page and short of 500 signatures on a petition, it isn't clear if the campaign will gain much traction, or even that it has the potential to pry the power of messaging out of the group's hands. President Obama has consistently referred to the group as ISIL, short for Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.

"We are aware that changing the name would not do much," Negm said. "But that's not where their efforts stop. "We have started deconstructing the thoughts of these terrorist groups - we've started [relaying] the correct information, regarding what jihad is all about, [and] regarding the treatment of women."

Someone with more hands-on experience isn't optimistic about these efforts. Dr. Tawfik Hamid is an Islamic thinker and a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy. More than 25 years ago, he was a member of Egypt's terrorist organization Jamaa Islamiya (JI) alongside Dr. Ayman Al Zawahiri, who later became Al Qaeda's second in command. "The reality is that its name is IS —Islamic State. It's better to confront this reality rather than try to hide it and call it by another name," Hamid told VICE News.


Hamid argues that the group's actions have illustrated a singular aim, to fight against non-Muslims and furnish three options: convert to Islam, pay jizyah (which he calls a "humiliating'" tax), or be killed. "Without confronting this principle and offering a different interpretation for it," he said, "the grand mufti is just sugarcoating the situation."

The Islamic State. Watch the VICE News documentary here.

To Hamid, the only way to salvage the image of Islam is to face the underlying issue of radicalism. "These people aren't inventing things," he said. "I don't think overall this mission will succeed without clearly and honestly addressing the root of the problem, which is the violent teachings that are provided in some traditional, old-style Islamic books. Islamophobia will disappear if we provide alternative teachings."

Hamid says moderate Muslims should use their social media accounts to complain that they aren't able to defend their religion, and to appeal to religious scholars who still promote archaic interpretations of the faith. "The more scholars see this, [the more they] would be under enough pressure to start making a change at the highest level of Islamic authorities."

The Dar al-Ifta website attempts to debunk myths on Islam in the West, and Negm says in addition to educating the masses, the hope is that it will steer Muslims away from being brain-washed into joining groups like the Islamic State.


"We answer questions in 10 languages," Negm said. "We're trying to reach out to all the major Muslim organizations [in the West] to give them this type of information. We visit Europe and North America and Africa and Asia in caravans to correct the image of Islam and to answer all sorts of questions that Muslims and non-Muslims have in mind."

The Islamic State is targeting Iraq's minorities in a "wave of ethnic cleansing." Read more here.

International media outlets can lend a hand in this battle. Negm argues that the way they have covered the Islamic State, whether intentionally or not, has given credence to what the militants say and do, in turn deeming them spokespeople of Islam for those who don't know any better.

"My advice to the western media - Number 1, is to marginalize the extremists and terrorists," Negm said. "Don't give them a chance to spread their rancor and corruption and bad image of faith."

Hamid agrees that western media has had a tendency to generalize when reporting on Islam. But he praises the press for shedding light on a movement he says is "threatening the future of our world," and says now is the time to "focus on the cause of the disease rather than its symptoms."

"Qualitatively, the barbarism is the same," Hamid argues. But he believes that quantitatively, radicalism is on the rise, and he urges the media to focus more airtime on the efforts to bring about real solutions.

Follow Dina Elshinnawi on Twitter: @dinamotion