The West appears so far to be losing the public relations battle against the extremist ideologists operating in Iraq and Syria. Politicians, academics and other commentators have not understood the extremists’ propaganda campaign and are unwittingly reinforcing the extremists’ propaganda objectives. The extremists’ aim is to establish a caliphate in the form of a radicalized and barbaric ideology, and they seek legitimacy and credibility through their propaganda and actions.
Every public use of the term IS, ISIS or ISIL, particularly when stated in full, serves to give credibility to this extremist organization, and legitimacy to their objectives. Essentially the extremists’ objectives are being reinforced with the legitimacy commentators are ignorantly providing them.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has said these extremists are not a State and they are not Islamic, and as such he says he won’t be calling them so. More commentators should be following his lead. But this issue goes further, in that every time a commentator uses the term ‘Islam’ in the context of these extremists, it builds pressure on our Islamic communities. You only have to listen to any of our local Islamic leaders, and those working with them to begin to understand how an uninformed use of language is building pressure on the people of these communities, primarily through a perception of association. Such pressure enhances the efforts of extremists to radicalize individuals in these communities.
The extremists seek to build pressure on these communities that have been living harmoniously within western nations. The extremists’ aim is for these law abiding communities to fracture and become isolated. Thus enabling greater opportunities to generate a base of sympathizers to their cause, from which the extremists would hope to produce a subset that are willing to provide some form of support, from which the extremists would seek to radicalize a further subset of individuals to the point of taking action for their cause.
Our society at all levels needs to assist where ever it can to prevent such fracturing of these communities and show support for them. Usage of language is critical to such an effort.
Language usage has impacts across our society and such impacts must be understood by those who speak, comment and report in the mass media, in all its current forms. All those who speak in the public domain; politicians, academics, media commentators and reporters, must take responsibility for the language they use. They therefore need to make an effort to be informed of the impact of their usage of language.
In France, where there have been very serious concerns of the fracturing of their communities, they have switched language usage to the term ‘Daesh’ (sometimes written as Daash) to refer to the extremist organization in Iraq and Syria. Daesh is essentially an Arabic acronym for ISIS and has a slightly derogative connotation. Daesh is already in wide usage in Arabic media. Certainly ‘Daesh’, ‘Daeshists’, ‘Daeshism’, Daesh terrorists’, and Daesh militants’ is terminology, if used across the rest of the Western World outside France, would assist in the prevention of our communities feeling pressure and being put at risk of fracturing. Such language usage would be an informed and deliberate attempt to show support for and solidarity with all our local communities against the Daesh threat to them.
More importantly, getting language usage correct is the first step in also building a narrative for all communities to further counter Daesh propaganda. Such a counter narrative needs to expose the realities of the Daeshist’s radical, extremist and barbaric ideology. But further, the narrative needs to provide an alternate ideology. An ideology that is an alternate to Daeshism, gives communities a goal to work toward and build a cohesion and strength of purpose. Most of us will accept the alternate ideology should be built on such vales as the fundamental principles of human rights, a rules based system based on democratic principles, and such tenants as freedom of speech and freedom of association.
The challenge for us all, particularly those who have a voice in the mass media, is to describe such an ideology in the form of a narrative, that not only articulates its aspirations and benefits, but also its building blocks of values and requirements such as universal education and human rights.
Without such a narrative and a careful use of language, we will continue to lose to the Daesh propaganda, and in the worst case give legitimacy to the Daesh and their ideology.
This is an edited version of an article originally published in The Age.