Naming ISIS: Rhetorical Framing and Social Action



Over the last several weeks, the 24-hour news cycle has honed in on the newest apparent threat to national and global security.  Whatever you might call it, “ISIS,” “ISIL,” or simply “the Islamic State” seems to have left most Americans somewhat bewildered as to its “true” nature.  On one hand, in the wake of President Obama’s recent national address, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll finds that more than 60% of the respondents “think that taking military action against the Islamic militant group ISIS is in the nation’s interest.”  At the same time, however, 68% of Americans admit to having “very little” or “just some” confidence that these military efforts will succeed.

Of course, this begs the question: why would so many Americans approve of military action against ISIS even if they consider such actions futile?  While such views might seem irrational, I think that such contradictory views actually demonstrate how the practices of identification frame public debate and subsequently authorize/de-authorize specific modes of social action.

Consider, for instance, the media’s struggle over these last few months to make sense of ISIS.  At one time seen as little more than a regional insurgency group like any other, ISIS quickly began to coalesce into something more akin to an organized state.  An article in Slate from earlier this summer pondered whether ISIS was now a “real” country, a “proto-state, an unrecognized but de facto sovereign entity.”  In this article, it is the “realness” of statehood at issue: What makes a particular social formation a state? Political and military domination? ISIS has certainly wrested control from its neighbors.  Or is it recognition from other legitimate (i.e. Western) states that renders it “real”? After all, Iraq and Syria emerged as states only in the wake of the Ottoman collapse after World War I with the British and French mandates in the region.

For nation-states to be legitimate, they must be possessed of a body of citizens, and the multinational demographic of ISIS further confounds identification.  The composition of ISIS fails to conform neatly to a narrative about “the other.”  It is not simply “those” people “over there” but “us” who are fighting for ISIS, as thousands of British and American expatriates have joined the fray.  Such incongruities have left the media’s talking heads stumbling over their words to comprehend how an American citizen, like Douglas McArthur McCain (with a “Western sounding name” I should emphasize), could give his life for ISIS.  With the recognition that American citizens are presently fighting for ISIS comes the possibility that these individuals are not simply insurgents, but rather should be classified as “criminals,” as Attorney General Eric Holder suggested when he launched an investigation into the beheading of journalist James Foley in late August.

Conservative pundit, Michelle Malkin, finds Holder’s characterization of ISIS dubious, but her criticism illuminates how identification practices authorize particular modes of action. She writes the following: “Let this send a message to terrorists who brutally murder Americans: The US Justice Dept. will find you, fly you back to America, supply you with a taxpayer-funded attorney, and put you on trial in a Manhattan civilian court.”  Malkin prefers the moniker, “terrorist,” for ISIS, which conjures a different picture and convenes an alternative set of actions.

While questions of statehood or citizenship, terrorist of criminal continue to muddy the waters of public discourse, perhaps the most contested issue concerns the religious identity of ISIS.  Is the Islamic State inherently religious, as its name suggests?  Countless Muslim groups declare ISIS as utterly against the essential virtues of Islam, preferring to pathologize them as “crazy.”  Others, like popular atheist Sam Harris, assert that these kinds of Muslim apologetics only obscure the true “religious” motivations of the actors.

Harris was directing his attack specifically at Obama, who in his address last week, boldly declared that ISIS is not “Islamic.”  “No religion condones the killing of innocents… ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple.”  When the President identifies ISIS in this manner, however, he is doing much more than merely rejecting its inherent “religiosity.”  He is conjuring a particular set of historically produced narratives that authorize certain kinds of action.  The acts of ISIS are neither criminal nor religious, but terroristic. Therefore they cannot be rectified through law enforcement or inquisition, or through negotiation.  Recent history authorizes a single strategy for dealing with “terrorist” organizations: limited military action.  Thus, even if failure is the inevitable outcome, as two-thirds of Americans believe, it remains that only sensible option left.


Some thoughts on Labor Day, Mythic Origins, and Narratives of Decline

Every Labor Day, I can always count on several news articles that will remind people that the annual holiday “really” exists to honor the contributions of workers to the economy, the nation, and to posterity.  These pieces inevitably trace the holiday back to its roots in organized labor’s struggle for the eight-hour work day and the violence that accompanied much of these efforts.  Without fail, they will mention the Haymarket Affair, where in 1886 Chicago police killed several demonstrators after a bomb was thrown at them, as the event that galvanized popular support for a national “Labor Day” celebration.  Of course, this yearly lesson in labor history usually intimates a few “friendly reminders” to readers.  First of all, Labor Day is not simply the last day of the summer season before children return to school, or the day after which to be seen wearing white would suddenly becomes a profane act.  Secondly, Labor Day is not an excuse to BBQ and celebrate the beginning of the football season (college or professional, whatever your preference).  No. What these articles tend to draw our attention to is the fact that a holiday created to give workers a day off the job to relax with families and receive the recognition of their communities for their efforts has become a day, ironically, when the majority of wage earners in the retail industry (by far the largest segment of the workforce) still go to work to meet the needs (well, okay, let’s call them consumer desires) of the rest of us, for whom the day was not created.  It is the salaried white-collar world that has coopted the holiday to suit its own interests, at the expense of the working class.  They honor workers by requiring them to work in their stores (usually for time and a half, admittedly) for longer than usual hours so that those with the greater buying power might be enticed away from their homes to engage in consumption, be it for a cup of coffee at the local Starbucks or a new laptop for a new school year. 


While, on one hand, I do think that it is important to recognize how the range of meanings and practices associated with Labor Day has shifted significantly over the last century, such polemics against the holiday’s contemporary orientation rely on the assumption that in the origin narrative one will find the “true” meaning of Labor Day.  It is a narrative of declension that these stories signal to the population, imposing a particular set of moral claims that need to be acknowledged.  It claims work as a virtue and yet decries acts of conspicuous consumption as vicious.  By declaring the original meaning of the holiday as pure, it portrays current cultural configurations as illegitimate.  In depicting the past as pure, they present the today as corrupt.


However, such origin narratives obscure what can be said of the past, and indeed the present, as much as they might reveal.  They erect a picture of the past as a time when laborers actively fought and won their place of honor in the order of things, while failing to recognize that Labor Day, from its inception, was always in part a strategic retreat of the powerful with the eventuality of pacifying a workforce that was rapidly becoming an unpredictable force for the emerging captains of industry of the late nineteenth century.  The first weekend of September was chosen precisely because it was divorced from International Labour Day that occurs on May 5th every year.  Labor Day was decidedly NOT to be associated with its international cousin May Day, and its affinity to international communism.  In this light, Labor Day itself might be understood as a “false” reproduction of the “true” original worker’s day, and that from its inception, was intended to serve moneyed interests.  Could it be that Labor Day was always about everyone else but the leisure classes and that as consumer culture matured, it would simply evolve along with everything else?  I suppose it all depends on the particular stories of origins to which one appeals.