Daesh or ISIL or Islamic State and the BBC

When the term “Islamic State” entered our everyday conversation a year or so ago I wondered then if it was wise to describe the extremist group as Islamic. “Islamic” it patently is not but using the term confers on the group a sense of legitimacy.

This is my take on why we should not use the phrase “islamic state” – neither on its own or with the prefix “so-called” or suffix “group”.  The word “Islamic” must be offensive to a vast majority of British Muslims. Why do we persist in offending them? Why does the BBC now have an official policy of doing so?

That, however, may not be the real issue. Western governments and media, which have the power if not to form opinion to reinforce it, must recognise that many , if not most, westerners are simply not taught enough about Islam to empower them to understand what the religion stands for.

Studies show that many young people who are destined to become tomorrow’s politicians and community leaders, and who have received the benefit of a multicultural education, mistrust Muslims. Clearly the constant reinforcement of negative views of Islam by today’s community leaders cannot be clever. It must surely be counterproductive. Of course today’s community leaders harbour negative stereotyping because of their own education, which essentially bypasses the subject.

Elsewhere on my blog I talk about our understanding of halal animal welfare and food hygiene rules. As with kosher rules most people presume they arbitrary and divined by an “imaginary friend” or a “false God”. The majority assumptions could not be more wrong on several counts yet community leaders, who really should know better, refuse to challenge the assumptions.

In the west our community leaders either passively allow misconceptions to fester or actively promote them. Take the response of the Bishop of Southwark, Christopher Chessun to Canon Giles Goddard’s allowing Muslims to pray to their shared God in the St John’s Church in Waterloo. It was very public and was designed to create division.

These examples are necessary to frame my concerns.

Muslims in the UK or Britain are expected under our “British values” system to absorb and mop up any criticism of Islam. Any challenge of the “British values” ideology is usually sidelined, typically by ignoring the issue in the hope that it will go away. Of course it won’t and cannot be allowed to.

Enter the social media networks, such as Twitter, and you will encounter frank hostility to Islam and Muslims. Many contributors promote the view that if Muslims do not like it here they should “go back” to a Muslim country – their being British notwithstanding. Interestingly some Muslim families seem to be taking them at their word. On June 15th The Daily Telegraph ran this headline online:

Three British sisters feared to have gone to Syria to join brother

Who in their right minds, we ask, would ignore the reports in the British media of life in Syria under the terrorist group styled as, in English “islamic State”? Have they been groomed?

Why should disaffected Muslims believe what they read and hear in our media, especially when those same media are not exactly welcoming of Muslims?

The problem for me is that western cultures are at least “institutionally” Islamophobic. They allow fear of Islam to fester and doing so leads to hate. While most people probably accept or tolerate Muslims around them a few turn to active hate and some engage in physical hate crime. This is typically targeted at women wearing distinctive headscarves. Little is done to counter anti-Muslim narratives. Secular community leaders do not robustly challenge the use of our national emblems as rallying standards for right-wing people to congregate under. The Church of England does not challenge the use emblem with very obviously Christian origins to be used to attack Islam. On the contrary when a local vicar stepped out of line by accommodating Muslims in his local church the Church of England hierarchy pounced.

With all this institutionalised hostility towards Islam and Muslims it cannot be any surprise to British community leaders, secular and religious, that the overwhelming majority of British Muslims simply cannot want to be identified with what is commonly referred to as “Islamic state”.

Last week 120 MPs, not government as such, invited Lord Hall of Birkenhead, Director General at the BBC, to consider adopting the acronym “Daesh” in place of “Islamic state”. The response was clear. We are neutral {and if this means offending the majority of British Muslims and if it risks disaffection, so be it}.

The unwritten BBC style guide regards the acronym “Daesh” derived from the Arabic name of the terrorist group’s name as a pejorative term.

The Arabic name used by the terrorist group transliterates to Al Dawla Al Islamiyah fi Al Iraq wa Al Sham. I learned recently that while the use of acronyms is common in English this is not so in other languages – even in Europe. Are acronyms used Arabic? If they are not the nearest actual word in Arabic may be “dash” meaning “to tread underfoot, trample down, crush.

If my assumption is near accurate the ideological leaders of Daesh may indeed be offended by the use of a word that is not what, at least in their minds, they intend.  They may well be offended by its use.

The BBC’s reason for not wanting to use “Daesh” is based on its understanding that the term is pejorative and not an acronym.

That the BBC now has an unwritten understanding of this meaning in its style guide was confirmed in its edition of the “Now Show” broadcast on Friday 10th July at 18:30 hrs. There was complete disdain for those Muslims who are desperately trying to disassociate from a terrorist group that is clearly not Islamic.

Frankly it really does not matter which acronym we use, IS, ISIL, ISIS or Daesh, because all derive from “Islamic state”. The key issue is that using an acronym deprives the group of the legitimacy that the words “islamic” and “state” confer on it. The key point is that it does not repeatedly and overtly force our “institutional Islamophobia” down the throats of British Muslims.

The choice for Lord Hall is whether the BBC retains the  unwritten but accepted rationale in its style guide that “daesh” is a pejorative term and at the same consciously sets out to offend its Muslim customers, or incorporates and unequivocal explanation of why Muslims have the right to be offended by the continued use of “Islamic state” so that directors, editors and producers are left in no doubt that they will cause offence when the term is used.

Of course we would not be in this position if our “Establishment” were not as “institutionally Islamophobic” as it is.


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