Naming the unspeakable: ‘So-called’ Isis and Harry Potter syndrome

This post was contributed by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros, Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication

No Name Road (2988366432)It seems that we now have a terrible enemy who cannot be named – or rather whose naming causes a major headache. For many months now, on hearing the term ‘Isis’ we have not thought about a certain Egyptian goddess, or about the river that flows through Oxford. The name is now indelibly associated with one of the most evil organisations of modern times, which adopted the acronym of ‘Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’ (or sometimes ‘Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant’, ISIL).

Because of fears that calling the organisation by this name may legitimise it, some politicians and other public figures in the West have been calling it ‘so-called’ Islamic State, using the verbal equivalent of the two-fingered “scare quotes” gesture which has become part of our gestural vocabulary. There is also a move to call it ‘Daesh’ instead, another acronym which the organisation itself is said not to like.

This is how we in the West shake our tiny fists at the evil monster, even though, to paraphrase Shakespeare, a terrorist by any other name would smell as rank. Ah, the power of names! How can a simple label mean so much? And how do names acquire their symbolic power?

The power of names

The power of names is a recurrent theme in religions, myths and fairy tales. For example the issue of how to name God is an important issue in many religions. In Exodus 3:13-15, Moses asks God who he should say has sent him, and God replies ‘I am who I am’. It is as if God himself did not want to share an actual name with humans, because knowing someone’s name gives you a certain power over them.

In the Odyssey, after Odysseus has got the Cyclops drunk, he tells the monster that his name is ‘Nobody’’ When Odysseus later blinds the Cyclops in order to escape his clutches, his fellow Cyclops come to their brother’s rescue, but when they ask who has hurt him, the Cyclops replies ‘Nobody’ and the other Cyclops understandably lose interest and shuffle off.

Names are important also in traditional fairy tales. Those brought up on Grimm’s tales will remember Rumpelstiltskin, the evil dwarf who loses his power to harm people if they guess his name. And then of course there is Harry Potter, and the villain Voldemort who cannot be named for fear of conjuring him up. He is known throughout as ‘he who cannot be named’.

Marking changes in style, identity and allegiance

But back to ‘so-called’ Islamic State. Radicalised European or American Jihadist fighters change their names from their bland-sounding European ones to Arab ones that make them sound like the holy fighters they profess to be, the change of names marking a clear change in identity. If they return and are deradicalised, their names change back too. Many of us with less sinister motives make minor or greater changes to our names to mark changes in style, identity or allegiance.

We encourage or discourage nicknames and abbreviations at different stages in our life, reflecting how we wish to be seen – remember for example when Kate became Catherine? When we marry, we may change – or resolutely not change – our surnames – if of course this is allowed or encouraged in our culture (in some countries, such as Iceland, the issue does not arise and names are not enmeshed in a patriarchal system).

In Britain we might use our second name rather than our first; but this would not work in a country such as Russia where the second name is invariably a patronymic, i.e. your father’s first name, regardless of your gender. You may even be known by different names in different places – such as Jack in town and Ernest in the country.

Magic? Perhaps not. But certainly another facet of the power of words.

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The British jihadis in Syria might be driven by more than just religion

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This article was written by Professor Joanna Bourke from Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology. It was originally published on The Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free’.

Reyaad Khan and Nasser Muthana sound like typical British young men. They are educated, mad about sport, and were raised in a loving family in Cardiff. When, a few days ago, they were seen in an Isis film urging British Muslims to join insurgents in Syria and Iraq, the shock was palpable. How could this have happened? Are their actions symptomatic of religious fundamentalism? Or are they simply an extreme form of youthful angst? After all, one had told his mother before disappearing that he was going to a friend’s house to revise for a maths examination.

For some commentators, these young men represent a crisis unique to British Muslims and are a justification for a further extension of surveillance of Muslim communities. Religious radicalism in the UK and throughout the world is a serious problem, but blaming religion alone takes us only so far. The problem is much wider. It includes the glamorising of violence: a fascination with armed conflict permeates male sub-cultures, crossing religious, ethnic, and class boundaries, while remaining very rooted in masculinity.

At the most general level, there is a quaint assumption in Britain that we are a peaceable people, engaging in armed conflicts half-heartedly and only when threatened by aggressors. Our role as perpetrators of violence is often overlooked. There is still considerable reluctance to acknowledge the atrocities committed during the age of empire. There is a similar reluctance to admit the role British policies have played in creating the political and economic environment that has helped foster terrorism in the Middle East.

But the problem is more complex. The glamorising of violence and military culture has effects beyond any particular group. It is not unique to young Muslim men – or, indeed, young men in Cardiff – to be excited by the prospect of combat. War is often seen as a rite of passage for young men – finally able to prove themselves as adults, not only to their parents but also to their peers. In all armed conflicts, men are heard boasting about the exhilaration of fighting, often neglecting to acknowledge their fears of dying.

This attitude is bolstered by war films, one of the most popular genres. Indeed, for many, war isn’t hell; it’s entertainment. Some of the most popular computer games are based on conflicts in the Middle East. They depict the thrills of battle taking place in “exotic” environments replete with scimitars, camels, caliphs, djinns, deserts, belly dancers, minarets, bazaars, and harems. Games such as Call of Duty and Medal of Honor typically cast “insurgents” as faceless, scruffy fighters, in contrast to the clean-shaven, uniformed “good guys” who are fond of cracking jokes and have a strong sense of loyalty to their comrades. Depictions of both “us” and “them” generate a sense of shared excitement and mission. War-play is seen as such an important recruiter for armed groups that Hezbollah has developed its own games, Special Force and Special Force 2, to provide an alternative fighting perspective.

The language used in public to discuss war has become extraordinarily distorted – and not only among radicalised communities. Combat is routinely described in the media as though it were a form of sport: combatants are “silent hunters” or “duellists”; they “score a try”. Making a kill is a “good shot placement”. Enemy combatants are described as having “received” a bullet. Last year, when the British army introduced a new combat sidearm, the Glock 17, which replaced the long-standing Browning Hi-Power pistol, the weapon was described without any sense of irony, as a “lifesaver”. The people that Glock 17s would maim and kill did not truly possess “lives”.

All this is not to discount the importance of cultural alienation and religion in the decisions of Khan and Muthana to join Isis. Clearly, faith and ideology are important. It is to point out, however, that they have been influenced by wider cultural forces that valorise militarism. These effects should be discussed alongside other contributing factors.

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