July 23, 2015 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 49

Islamic Words That Kill

July 23, 2015 | By Amb. Alberto M. Fernandez*
MEMRI Daily Brief No. 49

Comedian George Carlin had the famous seven dirty words you couldn't say on television. Academia these days seems awash with hysteria about "trigger warnings" and "micro-aggressions" and the Charleston AME Church murders have led to renewed focus on banning symbols of the long-gone Confederacy. Words and symbols matter, except when they don't.[1]

When it comes to any sort of radicalization or mobilization, identifying the ultimate cause can be difficult. People are complicated and what moves one person towards violence may leave the next one cold. Individuals can clothe personal grievance in political language and vice versa. When it comes to jihadist radicalization, Maajid Nawaz has noted that getting an ordinary teenager to join ISIS is a huge step, but "it is a much smaller step for someone raised in a climate in which dreams of resurrecting a caliphate and enforcing a distorted form of Islam are normalized."


Abu Kumasi ÔÇÅ@ISlamwilRemain July 20
Retweet of Abu Musab Al Gharieb: "Kuffar even know its a Khilafah while Muslims think it's a group of blood thirsty barbaric gang of misguided Muslims"

Abu Kumasi added: "Abu Musab Al Gharieb @MusabGharieb18 Not my words but Cameron said we must destroy the caliphate system. Now every Muslim must know the khilafah is something important in Islam"


There certainly is a jihadist ideology that must be defeated, beyond crushing ISIS on the battlefield in Syria and Iraq, but in the volatile world of social media, what often marks jihadism is not so much an ideology fully formed and understood but a semi-digested revolutionary argot of highly symbolic words and phrases - jihadist shorthand mostly divorced from history and context, dumbed down for the zealous convert, and used as an ideological blunt instrument.

This jihadspeak in English is not so different from the slang common to any sub-culture, criminal or innocuous - a way of showing identity and belonging to a group or worldview, so that a member of the in-group can write a phrase like "reject MUNAFIQEEN who attack our DEEN," instead of just saying "reject hypocrites who attack our religion."

One such killing word (or phrase) stands out in a blogpost by Chattanooga killer Muhammad Abdelaziz. He praised the companions (Sahaba) of the Prophet Muhammad, noting that "every one of them fought Jihad for the sake of Allah."[2] This phrase, sometimes written online as Jihad fisabilillah, is indeed a signal of Islamist radicalization. It was Sayyid Qutub and later, Muhammad Abd al-Salam Faraj in the late 1970s, who promoted the idea that jihad was an individual responsibility incumbent on every Muslim rather than something which an established government or ruler does.[3]

Abdulaziz was wrong to imply that the Sahaba were somehow individuals doing jihad. They were early Muslim converts who were members of a movement, and then leaders of a state, and for them and for most of the history of Islam, jihad was declared by rulers and states who used holy war as part of state policy. But one of the hallmarks of the Salafi jihadism of ISIS and its rivals is its denigration of most of the lived experience of Islamic history for a simplified, skewed, and idealized vision of formative Islam's first decades. Salafi jihadists have not falsified this past period of formative Islam; they have mined it and repurposed it for a new age.

Two more "killing words" revived by ISIS are khilafa and jizya. Dreams of reviving the Caliphate are nothing new among Islamists, but they are an essential part of the ISIS project, the perfect end-state to be accomplished and for which jihad is to be waged. Even if ISIS is destroyed in the next few years, they have succeeded in reinvigorating the concept of the Caliphate for new generations.


Abu Abdallah Nigeri ÔÇÅ@aboabdN July 19
"If they refuse to accept Islam, demand from them the Jizya. If they agree to pay, accept it from them and hold off your hands. Sahih Muslim"


Ironically, the jizya, the poll tax intended to plunder and clearly humiliate Christians and Jews was abolished in 1856 by the khalifa of the day, the Ottoman Sultan-Caliph Abdulmajid I. But ISIS has given new purpose to a well-documented ugly Islamic tradition that Christians and Jews under Islam have three choices; conversion, death or the organized theft and discrimination epitomized by the poll tax. Whatever the historical reality of how non-Muslim minorities were treated by Muslim rulers through the centuries, the current goal is to codify and enforce the inferior status of despised religious minorities.

Taghut, like all these other words and phrases has a complicated history in the Islamic text, commentary and history, but is jihadist shorthand for "the other," for idolatry and unbelief. Taghut is the spirit of idolatrous tyranny that must be fought and completely eradicated, according to the jihadists. Anti-jihadist regimes in the Muslim world who should be overthrown are also considered taghut.


┘í Muslimah ÔÇÅ@_MuSLiMAH_o1 July 18:
"Arresting 431 Muslims radicalizes up to 4,000 other Muslims. The efforts are futile. So while the Taghut celebrate today, tomorrow they cry!"


Mushrikeen, those who "associate partners with God," is the traditional epithet used against Christians, the oneness of God in the Holy Trinity being something that the Koran clearly rejects. The practice of this, or shirk, is something Muslims would be enjoined to fight and defeat. Of course, this Koranic term of opprobrium is often used interchangeably with the word Salibi (Crusader), which is of much more recent origin and was not used by Arab Muslims when there were actual crusaders in the Levant in the 11th to 14th centuries. While Christians are usually the mushrikeen, not surprisingly Indian jihadists also use the term against Hindus.[4] Like all these terms, it often acquires a certain elasticity when used in extremist discourse.


Khalid Ibn Walid ÔÇÅ@_The_Ansar_4_IS  July 17
"If I'm angering the kuffar, coconuts, murtads, mushrikeen, and the munafiqeen than I know I'm doing something right!!"


Rafidah, like these two previous words, is a way of dehumanizing a whole category of people and making them fit for slaughter, oppression and any other villainy. Rafidah or rejectionist (plural is rawafid) is an early term used against Shia Muslims that is now gaining new currency as a derogatory word used by Sunni Muslims given ongoing sectarian conflicts in Syria and Iraq. Sunni jihadists also frequently call Shia Muslims murtadeen or apostates. Like all these terms, these are words used by a much larger pool of Muslims than actual ISIS members or supporters, which is part of the larger ideological problem.


  Abdullah Al Maghribi ÔÇÅ@foxy2life  July 18

"#IS is one of the most leading force against #Rafidah shia,Yet we have many "Sunnis" mocking them everyday instead of thanking them"


Kufar, or infidels, is of course one of those foundational terms for the jihadist movement. The practice of declaring someone to be a non-Muslim, or takfir, constitutes declaring open season on that individual or category or person. It is what allows jihadists to salve their conscience and kill a Muslim policeman or soldier with impunity. We talk of takfiri salafi jihadism because groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS go around declaring others, especially other Muslims, to be Kufar or fair game, but any country not ruled by the right Islamists can be considered to be ruled by infidels. The West, of course, constitutes the core of the lands of "unbelief" from which ISIS supporters should either flee to the Islamic State or attempt to do carry out some sort of terrorist act.

There are many other words one could add to the list; some are vaguer or more innocuous and some are highly technical or less popular. ISIS supporters have even made one Arabic word written in English,  baqiyah, ("here to stay") from the well-known ISIS Arabic motto of "here to stay and growing," into an Internet rallying cry:


"#Baqiyah family, just getting back from another suspension. plz follow n support"


This list is not meant to be exhaustive, but illustrative. But these terms are integral parts of the antechamber of Islamist violence. None of these terms alone mean that a user is a terrorist or violent, but they would mean that the user is buying into at least part of the discourse which give ISIS and Al-Qaeda power and allows them to mobilize some young Muslims into acts of horrific violence and hatred.

In fighting the ideological battle against ISIS, one challenge will be to redeem the language and to find answers and refutations to these words that function well among at risk populations. An important factor in our modern age is the democratization of religious knowledge, in fact of all knowledge, where the individual thinks they know best. On social media especially, everyone is an expert, everyone is seemingly equal and has an opinion, and a prolific ISIS fanboy can drown out the most credentialed clerical voice.

How one can simplify, propagate, and "dumb down" positive and authentic concepts which can mitigate against these terms of hate is a task that Muslims of good will - aided by the international community - are going to have to take on. Some already have, with Canadian activist Mubin Sheikh using ancient Islamic warnings about a violent, apostate sect emerging out of Syria to turn the rhetorical tables online against ISIS supporters.[5]

But much more is going to be needed if we are to reach a reality where being an infidel or rejectionist or a polytheist can be something that a certain specific type of Salafi Muslim can strongly disagree with without seeking to kill. These highly charged terms, and the powerful, abiding ideological constructs behind them, will have to be reconstructed, reimagined, or demolished by Muslim opinion-makers themselves. Independent and innovative Muslim voices are already doing so, such as the videographer known as Abdullah X who is speaking in the language of UK Muslim youth.[6] And for non-Muslims, how can we all, in our fractured, hyper-sensitive and easily offended West, find common ground, where we can differentiate between words that hurt, unpopular and offensive discourse that is an essential part of protected free speech, and words that kill?


*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice-President of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).     


[1] New Republic, June 25, 2015.

[2], July 13, 2015.

[3], May 5, 2004.

[4], June 22, 2013.

[5], June 15, 2015. 


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