Only one day after so called ISIS over ran Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, routing the Iraqi army and bringing their menace to world attention, our family cat died. “Our cat” had a name and it is painful for us to remember her just as “our cat”, particularly as she was a beloved family member for almost 17 years.
But the reason we don’t say her name is that she was called “Isis”, a name that was given to her by our son when he was a child. He was enthralled with the history of ancient Egypt and when we asked him to give her a name, he immediately said: “Isis”. Isis was an Egyptian goddess of love, magic, and healing among others. And naturally our “Isis” brought love and magic to our lives, like all cats do.
“Our cat” died on 11th June 2014 and the day after the terrorist group ran over large swathes of Iraq and their name “ISIS” or “ISIL”, an acronym of their longer name, had promptly become a household name, almost desecrating the memory of our cat and denying us the privilege to mourn her as we knew her. It was like we lost her twice.
Names are vehicles for evoking memories, emotions and reflection. And all of a sudden, we had become dumbstruck about how we should mention “our cat’s” name. We couldn’t say her name even in private without remembering this extremist group which has pirated her name and we couldn’t mention her name in our communications for obvious reasons. At least in our private conversation, our calamity is less as we all know who we are talking about when we mention her name. But still the bad taste of “our cat’s” name violated and vulgarized lingered in our minds before we finally took solace in the words of Rumi, the 13th C Sufi: “She loved him so much she concealed his name in many phrases, the inner meanings known only to her.”
Now, this is about a cat, but imagine your religion, your personal name and your whole existence robbed from you every day not only by people who commit the most heinous of crimes in your name but also by unassuming politicians and the media who just regurgitate such names as “Radical Islam” that only serve the goals of the extremist killers. The religious extremists claim to have the sole ownership of the name of Islam, a religion followed by 1.6 billion people, or 23.2 % of the world population according to Pew Forum Research Organization. This is why every extremist group who fights for a deviant goal adds the word Islam to their name to seek legitimacy and to use it as a trap to drag the whole world into their agenda of denigrating Islam and Muslims by default.
This makes it incumbent upon politicians and people of influence to understand that language, and particularly names, is at the forefront of any war, any action, or indeed any understanding of who your real enemy is. Names and words help us in concept formation. So if someone wants to rob you of your normal way of understanding things, they will force you to accept new words and names for concept formation; meaning they will attack your language, rip your words asunder, then force feed you with a new language. Colonial powers used this method to strip the colonized of their identity. “In my view language was the most important vehicle through which that power fascinated and held the soul prisoner. The bullet was the means of the physical subjugation. Language was the means of the spiritual subjugation,” wrote the Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiongo Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. (1968)
The purpose of fabricating new names is to confuse the target audience and kill their confidence in the meaning of words. And once they rob them of the meaning of things, they enforce them to accept their own meaning. This is what George Orwell called “Newspeak” in his novel Nineteen-Eighty-Four as one character describes how totalitarian parties rob people of their personal consciousness and expression, saying: “Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thought crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten.”
Therefore, what we see today is a battle raging on between Western politicians as to how to correctly name extremist groups. Some public figures like Donald Trump insist on using the name “Radical Islam”, thus blindly falling into the language trap of extremists who love to see them entrapped by their propaganda. When politicians say “Radical Islam”, they are not only grappling with an abstract idea, but they are also accusing a religion and not specific individuals of being the perpetrator of crimes.
President Obama, however, is right in calling things by their correct names when dealing with terrorist acts whose perpetrators claim to have committed in the name of Islam. Instead of serving the agenda of the extremist groups in making a blanket accusation against a religion, he carefully picks his words to not only explain the situation with precision but also to win the hearts and minds of the 1.6 billion Muslims around the world who are the real victims of the actions of such murderers. And as Confucius pointed out in his advice of the rectification of names, there are a lot of things that could go wrong including the dispensation of justice if names were not correct. Therefore, let us pray that we all name the enemy correctly so justice can be dispensed correctly as well.