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.


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