The Language of Jihad in the Media – Who’s Setting the Agenda?

In a recent media foray commemorating 9/11 in New York, Tony Blair decided to further blur the lines between the terrorist violence currently rocking the Middle East and the various communities of Muslims across the globe:  “the conspiracy theories which illuminate much of the jihadi writings have significant support even amongst parts of the mainstream population of some Muslim countries”. He hardly needed have troubled himself. The insidious amalgamation of the terrorist and the Muslim is well-rooted in the public consciousness. The most common such instance is the use of the terms ‘jihad’ and ‘jihadists’ to describe the actions of individuals who identify as Muslims and engage in acts of political violence.

There are perhaps two key reasons this label is so attractive. It simplifies the enemy, plastering over sociological differences that exist within and between terrorist groups. Thus, bombs placed by groups in southern Thailand, the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, the printing of currency by Daesh in the Levant, the attack on a gas plant in Algeria, and the Charlie Hebdo murders in France can all be neatly pigeon-holed in the media as jihad. The term also appears exotic to the western public. This reinforces the notion that the enemy cannot be understood within our cultural framework, which is worrying because the enemy is inherently irrational, but also reassuring in so far as it places the burden of responsibility for modern terrorism outside the western cultural sphere. Even when s/he is British or French or Dutch, the jihadist is either an ethnic import or has been infected by an imported ideology.

Language has a role in human society: to help us understand the world, communicate ideas, and work collaboratively. The misuse of language hampers these fundamental social functions. If a doctor uses the word ‘scalpel’ to designate every piece of surgical equipment in the operating room, the result is a bloody mess. Referring to Muslim terrorists as ‘jihadists’, and to political violence enacted by Muslims as ‘jihad’ is similarly dangerous: using broad labels for an assortment of distinct events serves to fence off further knowledge, amalgamate diversity within a single word, and simplify complexity. It does not help us understand these movements, nor to discuss them in a rational manner, nor to work collaboratively to combat them. It just makes us shifty when we get on the train next to a bearded man. It makes us prejudiced in the etymological sense of the word: a judgment made prior to the acquisition of knowledge.

There’s another reason that the language of jihad in reference to contemporary political violence is misguided. Many of these violent groups and individuals like to think of themselves as Muslim warriors engaged in holy war. But they’re not – or rather, there is no valid justification for recognising them as such. They’re angry men and women using the veneer of religion to justify their violence. To his credit, Tony Blair has made this point and it would be helpful for him to use his prominent platform to focus on that message rather than co-opting the internal language of the Islamic faith.

It is an intellectual capitulation on the part of the media and public figures to acquiesce to that mis-use of Islamic language. There is a plethora of publications on the Islamic tradition of jihad and its various interpretations within the faith. The topic raises challenging questions about how to live as a person of faith in society and the just role of violence.1 Millions of Muslims consider themselves to be actively engaged in jihad and are not violent and not terrorists. If the media want to report on violent interpretations of jihad, then it is incumbent upon them to also report on how the majority of people of faith understand and live this duty. If they want to report on political violence, then they should use the language of politics. But people who engage in acts of terror should not be setting the agenda of how Islam is portrayed in the Western media.

1 An excellent historical case study of this debate: Babou, Cheikh Anta. Fighting the Greater Jihad : Amadu Bamba and the Founding of the Muridiyya of Senegal, 1853-1913. Athens, Ohio University Press (“New African Histories Series”), 2007.


Alexis Artaud de La Ferrière is a post-doctoral fellow at the Groupe Sociétés, Religions, Laïcités (CNRS) in Paris. He is currently working on an ethnographic study of Christian-Muslim relations in the context of faith-based migrant support initiatives in France. Previously, Alexis conducted his doctoral research on the sociology of education in Algeria at the University of Cambridge, and has also worked in Tunisia and Afghanistan.


Freedom of speech: political tool, empty signifier or meaningful concept?

The November Paris attacks have lead President Hollande to change considerably France’s foreign policy in Syria by issuing an “act of war” against the perpetrators of the attacks, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), as well as France’s domestic policy by amending the constitution through a tightening of security powers. These include: a request to extend a state-of-emergency up to three months, allowing house searches without previous judicial approval, broadening surveillance powers, the dissolution of “radical mosques,” and the withdrawal of the French nationality for individuals who are charged with attempting to endanger the nation-state with terrorism. Unfortunately, this resonates too well with G.W. Bush’s declaration of the “War on Terror” and the Patriot Act, which resulted in the lengthy and costly wars of Afghanistan and Iraq, the continuous use of drones in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan and a sense of fatigue and distrust from American citizens for emergency security measures, not to mention a dramatic increase of religious hate crimes.

In the UK, some initiatives of the new counter-extremism bill have been revealed by Theresa May, the UK Home Secretary. “Supressing extremist activity,” the goal of the bill, will be pursued by measures launched against what has been termed “entreyist,” the infiltration of an extremist agenda in schools, universities, charities and businesses. For instance, the strategy sets to evaluate universities’ speakers to prevent the radicalisation of students and to give a full review of public sector institutions, which has been criticised by the Muslim Council of Britain as possessing “McCarthyism undertones.” One reason for this is that the government seems to be engaged in a political hunt for extremists and to some extent, has created threats where there are none, thereby producing self-fulfilling prophesies. The Trojan Horse row in Birmingham schools illustrates the dangerous hunt for extremists that has governed much of our thinking about extremism. The definition of extremism has changed in the process, from one of violent action to one of religious conservatism.

Here lies one of the main difficulties with the new counter-extremism bill, that is, that the definition of extremism clamps down on freedom of speech. The new bill defines extremism as a “vocal opposition to fundamental British values.” If extremism is equated to voicing anti-British values, this poses significant problems for the democratic scene and the accusation of McCarthyism would reveal to be quite relevant. Yet, David Cameron has reassured the country that “it is not about oppressing free speech or shifting academic freedom, it is about making sure that radical views and ideas are not given the oxygen they need to flourish.” It has also been said that this bill is to “protect vulnerable Muslims” from extremism by working with Muslim communities directly, as if “Muslims” were naturally more receptive than others to the extremist message, and thus in need of protection. The “vulnerability” logic of the bill strips the agency of individuals, condemning them to unlimited government “protection.”

Another problem with the rhetoric surrounding the new bill is that the restraints on freedom of expression are placed within an exceptionalist logic. In effect, because of the “unprecedented level of the threat,” unprecedented and extraordinary measures are necessary, Theresa May argues. The exceptionalist discourse thus gives legitimacy to extraordinary measures such as a restriction on voicing “anti-British values”. But the problem is that exceptionalism has now become the norm. Questions can and should be raised regarding the longevity of this exceptionalism and the subsequent measures adopted.

The core and new focus of the bill lies in a governmental “partnership” with public institutions such as universities by banning “extremist” speakers and by reporting students and professors with “extremist views”. This is because universities “sometimes fail to see the creeping extremism on their campuses,” according to David Cameron. However, what does this really mean in terms of what we, teachers and students, are able to say publicly? Certainly, this brings fear of repercussion for expressing one’s belief about, for instance, British foreign policy in the Middle East, which is a subject of most courses in international politics, foreign policy, or international relations. Given that “democracy” is viewed as an “essential” British value, would criticising the process of democratisation in the Middle East and the UK’s involvement in Iraq be considered as vocalising anti-British values? And should this be condemned?

More importantly, there is an inherent contradiction between the new counter-extremism bill and the government’s discourse on freedom of expression when it is viewed, for instance, in light of the Charlie Hebdo attacks last January. Following the attacks, David Cameron has repeatedly backed up and supported the right to publish the cartoons of the prophet Muhammad and in the process, the right to offend. This reflects the success in reforming Section 5 of the Public Order 1986 earlier in 2014. Originally, “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour” were viewed as an offence and punished by law. Following weeks of campaigning, the Act removed the word “insulting” from Section Five, a success for the reformers, “legalising” the right to offend.

The Prime Minister, accompanied by world leaders such as the Prime Minister of Israel, Netanyahu, defended this right during the Paris rally on January 11, 2015. What is hard to come to terms with, is that hate speech, or the right to insult, is granted one way, having the freedom to offend religious Muslims, but not the other, vocalising (anti-) or offending British values. The contradiction exposes so clearly the double-standard position of the government on freedom of expression that it will be difficult to engage in a serious debate about countering extremism and simultaneously maintaining freedom of expression.

Further, it seems that both France and the UK are bugged down in a somewhat meaningless debate about identity and what it represents to be French or to be British. In France, it has lowered to such reductionist views of French identity that some schools canteens have been asked by the council not to serve pork-free options for lunch, leaving Jewish and Muslim children who don’t eat pork, to “eat pork or nothing.” There is an urgent need not to define identity in such fixed (and honestly meaningless) categories, but perhaps the triviality of these debates highlights that the concept of identity, whether British or French, is an empty signifier, a concept without any agreed-upon meaning. The term freedom of expression is heading towards the same direction. Every time freedom of speech is used as a rhetorical device and used as a tool to advance one’s political agenda (at the same time, what isn’t?), freedom of speech loses any potential meaning valuable for a constructive dialogue, and becomes an empty signifier. But perhaps this is a good thing, for it is by making this term “bare” that we can start re-constructing it.




Dr Clara Eroukhmanoff is a Research Associate at the University of Cambridge. She has completed her PhD at the University of St andrews in 2015 on the securitisation of Islam in the US post 9/11. You can read her most recent article, published by the Journal of Critical Studies on Terrorism, here.






Risking insult for freedom to insult? A winning campaign to reform the law

In January 2014, section five of the Public Order Act 1986 was reformed. It originally stipulated that an individual who “uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour” was guilty of an offence. Following a sustained and well-supported campaign the term “insulting” was removed from section five of the Act, with the new law coming into force in 2014.

This campaign brought together MPs, public intellectuals, think tanks and NGOs. Its supporters in Parliament and the House of Lords lobbied at the highest possible level. The campaign’s aims and activities were published on a website on which there appeared the stories of the victims of section five, a list of supportive MPs and their statements, banner downloads for members of the public, and even merchandise bearing the slogan ‘Feel free to insult me!’

The campaign to reform the act exposes the tension between freedom of religion and freedom of expression. Moreover, it raises important questions about the dichotomy between the right of freedom of express an opinion that is insulting and the right not to be insulted, and who chooses which and why.

The participants in the campaign for the reform of section five were an eclectic mix, as indeed were the many “victims” of the Act. The National Secular Society joined the Christian Institute, and Nigel Farage (UKIP) stood with Caroline Lucas (Green) to protest its wording. Gay rights campaigners had been arrested alongside those accused of homophobia, atheists alongside preachers.

Coming from such a range of backgrounds, the common motivation is not easy to discern. This is notwithstanding the claim that a broad commitment to ‘free speech’ underpinned the engagement of the many participants. The literature for the campaign asked whether “we really need the police and the courts to deal with insults? Should we not just accept that the risk of insult is a fair price to pay for living in a society which values free speech?”.

In fact, it seemed that this was particularly the case given that the courts had a clear directive: “Even where an individual did not himself consider his words or behaviour to be insulting, so long as the tribunal of fact subsequently [found] that they were, and the individual concerned was aware they might have been, that [was] sufficient to prove guilt”, as the former Director of Public Prosecutions, Lord Macdonald of River Glaven, noted in his submission at the time. Yet, a broad-based commitment to an abstract principle of ‘free speech’ (or even more so, “a society which values free speech”) is, in some respects, a second-order motivation. A first-order motivation may lie elsewhere. Perhaps more attention needs to be paid to the “risk of insult”.

The interplay between freedom to insult and freedom from insult – that is, whether or not to accept the risk of being insulted – is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this case. It is notable because of the varied make-up of those supporting the campaign. There is, of course, a clear push-pull as noted by Saba Mahmoud, associate professor of anthropology at the University of California, namely that which is “manifest in how freedom of religion often conflicts with the principle of freedom of speech, both of which are upheld by secular liberal-democratic societies”. Yet, as Clive Anderson, the TV and radio presenter and former barrister, noted at the time of the campaign, “[F]or centuries people’s religious beliefs have been protected by the blasphemy laws. In more modern times things like people’s sexuality have become an area where we have tried to avoid causing offence. But where the two collide we have a problem”.

What does he mean? In our more complex and interconnected era, identity based rights of all kinds – from beliefs to race, ethnicity and sexual orientation – have become protected. People can be and practise what they like under the law. However, they do so at their own risk, for laws ensuring they are not insulted for being, and practising, what they like have been more difficult to put into place. The reason? Because the same law that protects the right to be and do also protects others’ right to insult and offend. Freedom of expression, if it is to be protected as a positive right, has to cut both ways. It must be a negative right as well. Or at least that is what the campaign to remove insult from section five argued.

The question is: Why did the campaign draw together activists from such extreme ends of the political and cultural spectrum? There is, naturally, a tension between the freedom to express an opinion that is (potentially) insulting and the right (now revoked) not to be insulted. But in the campaign to reform section five, we saw Christians working with secularists and politicians from opposite ends of the spectrum united in a common goal. The fact is, these campaigners were willing to work with groups to whom their opinions might be insulting and whose opinions in turn might insult. And why? Because the real motivation could have been this: To protect their right to insult rather than the right not to be insulted.

This means that the campaigners probably were aware that some of their opinions were (or might be) insulting to others – and they wanted to protect their right to hold and express these views freely and without restraint. It is now clear that it was so important for these participants to be able to express what they believed that they would even risk insult from others to be able to do so.

Why would an individual or group feel this way? Let’s consider why one would not support such a campaign, or indeed, campaign against the reform. This might stem from either a belief that none of one’s own opinions are insulting (or might be), and/or a desire to avoid any risk of being insulted – and thus, be willing to give up the right to express one’s opinions, in the event they might insult others – and risk generating insults in return. Since few intelligent people could seriously believe that none of their opinions could ever be insulting to anybody, it is the latter logic that is of interest. It is important to note that such a non-reformer’s opinions are likely to be as important to her/him as the reformists’ opinions are to them. Thus, it exposes a tension between a tolerance for the risk of social conflict and aversion to that risk. The fact is, mutual freedom to insult will, inevitably, lead to some level of conflict (albeit, bounded by law).

At this point, we must ask why a group or individual would accept the risk of some level of social conflict. It is not necessarily a case of the powerful (willing to take this risk), versus the weak (who don’t). One might initially come to this conclusion, on the basis that the powerful are most likely to triumph in social conflict. Equally, however, they have the most to lose. As the leader of the British branch of the Islamist organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir says, “[E]xtremist is the secular word for heretic. It means that you don’t subscribe to certain political and social norms”. Certainly, an extremist – or a heretic – expresses something in contradistinction to certain norms. And s/he expresses it because s/he wants change – and usually, from a position of weakness. But change and conflict are two sides of the same coin. It is perhaps those who do not wish to change the status quo that would rather avoid the risk of insult, and those who seek change to the existing dominant political and social norms who would accept such risk.

In other words, those who wanted to reduce conflict supported the law as it was. The reformists were willing to countenance more conflict – as a ‘fair price’ to protect their right to express their beliefs – and lawfully insult others.

In this case, the reformists triumphed. We are all now freer to insult and to be insulted, with all that entails for social conflict and change.


Michael David Clark is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge. He is undertaking a comparative analysis of the relationship between identity and foreign policy in the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iraqi Sadrist Movement, in particular towards the ‘Arab Spring’ and the Syrian Civil War. More broadly, Michael’s interests cover the politics of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.