How Daesh talks about the world: Central points of Daesh discourse

If I said you were aligned with the Sahwat (الصحوات), would it mean anything to you? Would you be insulted, proud, or maybe just confused? ُ Even if you were an Arabic speaker, the insult might not immediately make sense  because the term as it is used here is actually a fairly recent and esoteric thing. Or, for example, imagine someone began referring to President Sisi of Egypt as a “Taghut”. Muslims might likely know what the word means as it is present in the Quran, but non-Muslims would likely be perplexed. To shed some light on what’s going on here,  we have to do a bit of discourse analysis, focusing on key terms used by Daesh and their supporters. We’ll see how these two terms- Sahwat and Taghut/Tawagheet are central to the Daeshi understanding of the world. Examples from the statements of Daesh leaders, as well as normal twitter users will highlight the discourses in practice.

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We should actually start with the fourth and final tweet.  It links the term Sahwat back to its recent roots in the war in Iraq. The first tweet also explicitly deals with the history, mentioning Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. During the years of horrible violence and instability that Iraq suffered through (and continues to suffer through) after the US invasion, the precursor to Daesh, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, already existed (it became the Islamic State in Iraq in June 2006- Lister 39, 2015). Zarqawi was its leader and he pushed them to be as brutal as necessary- anyone, even Sunni Muslims, who didn’t go along with the group’s dictates  was targeted. This found the group actually clashing with many Sunni parts of Iraqi society who didn’t support its extremist, jihadist vision. The group practiced takfir, or labeling people apostates. This exacerbated the problems it had with local Sunni Muslims, not to mention others who weren’t even Sunni like Daesh in the first place.

In response, local tribes in the Anbar Province of Iraq rose up to challenge ISI and reclaim their regions. These mobilizations are known as the Sahwat. These Sunni groups collaborated with US forces to fight against Zarqawi and the AQI to push them out of Iraq. AQI had already started imposing a very strict interpretation of sharia law in areas it managed to control, and locals were getting fed up. The US troop surge paralleled this, attempting to not only crush the Al-Qaeda presence but also to bring levels of violence down, as 2005 and 2006 were very bloody years. Thus rebellions formed by coalitions of tribes against the early form of Daesh (first as AQI then ISI) are now just understood to be Sunni traitors. While those clashes largely ended by 2009, the experience shaped Daesh and they came to use this term- Sahwat- to refer to Sunnis more broadly who do not support Daesh and actually fight against it. Arguably, the Sahwat in Iraq were the most potent force to mobilize against Daesh and they came very close to eliminating them at that time. Despite it having the specific context of the groups being local tribes, it seems many don’t only use it in that way now. The quote below helps show how this discourse was mobilized several years later:

“Verily Al-Qaeda today is no longer the Qaeda of Jihad and so it is not the base of jihad. The one praising it is of the lowest and the tyrants flirt with it and the deviants and the misguided attempt to woo it. It is not the base of jihad that entrenches itself among the ranks of the Sahwat and the secularists. Verily Al-Qaeda today has ceased to be the base of Jihad, rather its leadership has become an axe supporting the destruction of the Islamic State and the coming Caliphate.”
Abu Muhammad al-Adnani- al-Furqan Media 17 April 2014, cited in Lister 2015.

The selection above from a speech given by Abu Muhammad al-Adnani (a leader in Daesh) places context around the term, presenting it alongside “secularists”. The statement is rich in subtle context from the war in Syria; the speaker is condemning Jabhat al-Nusra, which is effectively Al-Qaeda in Syria,  for forming alliances with other rebel groups with whom it shouldn’t align because they’re secularists (read FSA) or Sahwat. This took place at the tail end of vicious fighting between Daesh and a coalition of other rebel groups that flared in late 2013 and early 2014. Fears had been increasing among Daesh supporters and members in this same period that a new Sahwa movement was coming to challenge them. There is a second angle to the use of the term Sahwat here; if we stick with the definition of the Sahwat as referring to the uprising of Sunni tribes against Daesh rule with help in the form of money and weapons from the USA, one can see why Daesh would see parallels to the situation in Syria where the USA was giving money and weapons to some, but not all militias among the Syrian rebels. Especially given the common view (whether well-founded or not) that the USA has been doing far more behind the scenes to support jihadis and destabilize Syria to overthrow Assad, this fear makes sense.

The tweets above highlight another angle of the discourse surrounding the term  Sahwat, this time in Arabic-language tweets. They both add the word “al-ridda” to Sahwat, explicitly linking the idea that Sahwat are people who have left Islam. This can be understood as a fight for the right to speak in the name of Sunni Islam. Are Muslim critics correct in saying that Daesh does not act in a manner consistent with Islam? For Daesh and their supporters, the answer has to be no, and the Muslim status of the speaker must be called into question. For some above, the term Sahwat was enough to convey this meaning, while another here felt it necessary to add “al-ridda”. In either case, Daesh is policing Islamic discourse. They also link the Sahwat with the USA or the West more broadly.

The Tawagheet: Tyrants Run Amok
Let’s jump back up to the quote I included from Muhammad al-Adnani at the top. The second major element of Daeshi discourse I’d like to highlight appeared in that same excerpt. In the second line, the author complains about Al-Qaeda, saying “the tyrants flirt with it…” Here, tyrants is an English translation of the Arabic word “Taghut” or طاغوت. The word goes back to the Quran, where its meaning was actually somewhere between “tyrant” and “idol”.

I was surprised to stumble on a tweet like the one above which explicitly tries to define the word Taghut. The thing is, it’s not an accurate reflection of the meaning. Notice it does not  really fit in the idea of a tyrant or an idol, and the word radical is used in a manner that immediately makes one suspicious. Turns out, this account is actually devoted to hating jihadis, and is therefore not someone who actually uses the term taghut because they see the world that way. The tweet below is a better reflection of the way the term is used by a Daesh supporter:

This use here is clearly in line with the definition of a tyrant ruling in a manner inconsistent with Islam. This has many precedents in the modern Middle East, especially after WWI. Many postcolonial states fell under monarchies which paid some lipservice to Islam (Morocco, UAE, Bahrain, etc), or under military dictatorships (Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya).To Daesh and their supporters, all of these men were Tawagheet. The history of this period from the 1970s on shows many different groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and others challenging these rulers, often violently. Anwar Sadat of Egypt was assassinated, Hosni Mubarak survived a failed attempt to kill him, and there were large uprisings against Hafez al-Assad in Syria (1982) and Saddam Hussein in Iraq (1991) though the last one isn’t exactly like the others. I talk at length about this subject in my lecture, readers can skip to the video here if they want.

In the end, these terms are important for understanding Daesh because they show how the group sees the world- how its discourse is shaped. Discourse which polices group identity and casts competitors out isn’t limited to Daesh- one finds very similar kinds of terms in many groups (think RINO– Republican in Name Only, a term common among Donald Trump Supporters but not exclusive to them). This is the power of discourse, for it shapes (and is shaped by) people’s views and understandings of reality. These examples show just that, across languages.



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