Odds and Ents
“The Holy Roman Empire is neither holy nor Roman nor an empire” — Voltaire
If you were a politician attempting to make sense of the following:
- A rise in horrific attacks on unsuspecting people around the world
- Significant deterioration in ground conditions across a particular region
- Worsening rhetoric from various talking heads in that region
- Increasingly disturbing atrocities perpetrated by extremist forces
- Sinister forces attempting to subvert legitimate governments
The above scenario, if set in JRR Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’, would see our hobbits (a nice metaphor for today’s lay person) wandering about the enchanted forests and encountering the Ents – the mythical tree herders; nature’s opposite of the trolls (of which the internet boasts some particularly virulent varieties).
Today’s Ents – primarily good natured and sensible politicians around the world – are a confused lot though but much like their Tolkien counterparts, would spend the first few hours trying to grapple with the most important question: just what does anyone CALL these things?
That’s right – European politicians have been debating the important subject of whether the terrorists who style themselves the Islamic State should be accorded this name; or should they be called by other names ranging from the abbreviation ISIL (Islamic State In the Levant), ISIS (Islamic State In Syria), Daesh (the Arab acronym of the above names) or perhaps a new moniker like ‘Marauding Murderers, Molesters and Rapists’. Okay, I may have made that last one up although not by much.
How very Ent-ish of the politicians. I mean, quite literally the entire Middle East threatens to go up in flames and here are these chaps sitting around in panel discussions on the right name with which to address the central menace of our times.
“A rose by another name” and all that.
Still, this is a useful exercise in ways other than the mundanely pedantic because what we have here is a discussion on how to address an entity that could well be seen as a dishonorable enemy or just a foolish friend. Or both.
If we break down the words comprising the name, one usually gets to understand whether the entity is appropriately described. For example, ‘United States of America’ is a perfectly good description for the union of multiple states, located in the continent of America.
The notion that these are ‘states’ implies that a certain leeway exists for definitions of life and liberty; while the ‘united’ moniker confers a certain minimum standard for debate and discussion between the states.
In contrast, the name ‘European Union’ means little as it essentially confers a notion of a voluntary combination in Europe but fails to specify – beyond the obvious geographical moniker – any notion of values or principles.
Evaluated from pure semantics, ‘Islamic State’ is a head scratcher. First the word ‘Islamic’ itself – what does it mean when you append the suffix ‘-ic’ to a noun, in this case Islam? This means more than it first appears because the word Islam itself could connote any number of the following meanings:
- A religion of people who follow the teachings of the Holy Quran
- A religion of people who follow the principles and teachings of the Quran along with other bodies of works including the Hadith
- A religion of people who believe themselves to be Muslim because of cultural and historical affiliations
Each of these potential sub-definitions is problematic because of course, no religion is ever observed in its entirety (or at least not plausibly); but more usually in the context of its shadow on modern life.
Thus a man can be Jewish or Christian if he broadly follows the precepts of the Torah and the Bible but doesn’t stop being Jewish or Christian if he doesn’t observe one of the key teachings (e.g. not stoning homosexuals to death just because this is prescribed in some books).
The trouble with that more Catholic way of thinking though is that the specific intention of the people coining the phrase ‘Islamic’ is precisely the opposite, namely that they lay claim to an absolute dogma, without doubt or deviation, that seemingly originates from a single standardized source.
This absolutism that is claimed is also to the exclusion of anyone else claiming to be the rightful followers of the same – essentially, to be Muslim you’d need to be part of the Islamic State – or so they aver.
People of the alarmist persuasion tend to side with the logic that since the terrorists of the Islamic State claim to uphold the values of traditional Islam, and their aim is not questioned by other authorities, the definition of ‘Islamic’ does work here. This though excludes the hundreds of millions of Muslims who do not follow these principles, and who would be aghast at being classified alongside these terrorists.
To be sure, I am not in any denying the signature appeal that the terrorists of Islamic State seem to possess in attracting hundreds of new recruits from the disaffected youth of the UK, France and other countries into their ranks of bloody murderers; nor am I diminishing the very real threat of expansion that this dogma poses for the semi-stable nations such as Pakistan and Indonesia where economic disaffection and rampant corruption have helped to radicalize vast sections of the population.
That though is a battle for another day (in the not too distant future, just in case you were getting comfortable) but as of today, the application of these radical tendencies espoused by the Islamic State does not seem far enough or deep enough to warrant the use of the name ‘Islamic’.
The second word in the name is equally problematic – ‘State’. In no classic sense of the word does it apply to this situation – especially as it does not encompass a particular people (by stated objective the state is an ‘emirate’ that seeks to expand its borders across the known world).
It does not meet the Max Weber definition either: “any human community that successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory”.
The trouble here is not the monopoly on violence (that the Islamic State thugs appear to possess and deploy in great measure) but the pre-requisite of ‘legitimate’.
The people overrun by these thugs did not vote for them, and certainly did not invite them to park over there either. Instead, they were victims of violence from another regime (Syria) that saw those soldiers being displaced by another group of thugs – thus the community is correctly described as prisoners of war rather than a functioning community of like-minded people.
It is also to be borne in mind that barring references to the barbaric executions of innocent journalists and taxi drivers, the Islamic State is not recognized as a functioning government by any other State, at least not officially.
Thus to paraphrase Voltaire on the Holy Roman Empire, the Islamic State is neither Islamic nor is it much of a State. If it is then not what it claims to be, can we then call it by what it IS?
Therein lies the problem – we do not see what it is beyond the more obvious or stated intentions of turning into an army of soldiers who are bent on defending a particular version of Islam, but more importantly wreak havoc on the non-believers and perhaps more pertinently, the “innovators”.
This word is particularly dangerous in Arabic, as it refers specifically to the non-Salafist branches of Islam that includes the Shia and other communities as well.
Hence the violence during the holy month of Ramadan that concluded a week or so ago: a large portion of the terrorist acts were directed at Muslim communities that are not within the Salafist mode; such as the attack on a Shia mosque in Kuwait that was carried out by a Saudi member of the Islamic State.
Other acts of terrorism claimed by the Islamic State targeted such global threats as British beachgoers in Tunisia and the manager of a small factory in France. The only uniting factor seems to be the sense of revulsion that these acts elicit from the general population.
So what are the exact characteristics of these people who want us to call them by the moniker of ‘Islamic State’?
- Violent occupation of lands mainly in the formerly Ba’athist states of Syria and Iraq — commonly referred by moronic news anchors as the Levant even though classic definition of the Levant excludes Iraq and includes other parts of the region including Israel, Lebanon, Greece and Cyprus; thus rendering the moniker of ‘Levant’ useless as in the case of ‘Islamic State of Syria and the Levant or ISIL’
- Murders of innocent volunteers, journalists and aid workers
- Instigation of terrorist acts in countries such as France
- Attempted de-legitimization mainly through the media of regimes in the Gulf including those of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE
- Mass rapes and appalling treatment of captured women especially those belonging to ethnic minorities
- Destruction of pre-Islamic sites of archaeological interest across the Levant
- Financing of the above activities through the sale of oil and antiques
The only uniting factor for the above is that all are crimes against humanity. Perhaps then the best name for this mob is ‘Inhuman Criminals’, although that is too generic as well. The search continues.
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