ISIS misusing ancient religious symbols


Tony Abbott holding ISIS/Australian flag before dismayed Muslims

Rumour has it that we're living in a global village. I grew up in the 1980s, and used to see my global village once a year at national Muslim youth camps. We were a motley bunch of Aussie kids – blonde-headed Yugoslavs (as they called themselves) from Mt Gravatt, fair-skinned red-headed Lebanese from Doncaster, Fiji-Indians from Condell Park and this Mongolian-looking Indo-Pakistani from St Andrews Cathedral School.

When we weren't gas-bagging and poking fun of our 'uncles' at camps, we were running up our parents' phone bills on STD calls. We had no email or social media in those days. The massive black bricks known as 'mobile phones' hadn't yet been invented. And far from being bombed from a great height, jihadis were meeting President Reagan at the White House.

Muslim kids these days can talk with their interstate and overseas friends on their mobiles for no cost, on Skype, on Viber and even on Facebook. They can hide their identities for innocent and not-so-innocent purposes. They live in a cosmopolitan world where national and nationalist boundaries are supposedly becoming meaningless.

But if they use the Kalima Shahada (the generic Muslim creed of 'there is no god but God and Muhammad is God's Messenger') in white Arabic letters on a black background as their ID, they receive a notification that their ID is considered offensive and must be taken down.

One Sydney tabloid reported some weeks back that an ISIS-type flag was being auctioned at a fundraiser for a Western Sydney mosque. In a flight of populist fancy, the devout Anglican premier threatened to ban the flag.

Perhaps the Premier wasn't at a national conference of the Australian Liberal Students Federation (ALSF) back in the early 1990s when the pre-Apartheid South African flag was auctioned off to great cheer by the delegates. Under that flag, millions of black and 'coloured' South Africans were excluded, oppressed, bashed, imprisoned, tortured and murdered in a systemic program of state-sanctioned racial supremacy. Liberal students were commiserating the end of a system of state terrorism.

But why would state Premiers and Facebook moderators want to ban a religious symbol? Must the misuse of a generic symbol used by almost one quarter of humanity become a cause of offence because it is misused by a tiny group of violent nutjobs?

Islam has had its days of violence and no doubt will continue to do so. Just as Christianity Hinduism and Buddhism. Some of the highest positions in the Indian government are held by Hindutva extremists accused of involvement in sectarian violence against Muslims and Catholics. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees languish in camps in Bangladesh, victims of terror and ethnic cleansing by Buddhist extremists.

But the violent deadly calls of monks in Myanmar are a far cry from the peace one feels inside the ancient Lukang Lung-shan Temple in Western Taiwan. This medieval Buddhist shrine includes a host of Chinese and Indian Buddhist symbols including the Swastika. The same symbol is used in more modern Buddhist structures across Taiwan and other parts of Asia to identify Buddhist places of worship. True, it isn't the same swastika as the Nazi flag. But it can still prove confronting to those unaware of the swastika's original meaning.

The Kalima Shahada may be misused by extremists, but it is also recited billions of times each day by pious and not-so-pious Muslims. In the five daily prayers, devout Muslims recite it in when in the qiyam (seated) position. Sufis repeat the phrase over and over again during their dhikr (remembrance) circles.

Indeed it is hard to imagine anything that unites all the different sects and denominations of Islam. The Kalima Shahada is to Muslims what the cross is to Christians. That same cross struck terror into the hearts of Jews, Orthodox Christians and Muslims when the Crusaders entered Jerusalem in 1099 and shed enough blood that it came up to their knees. The same cross struck terror into the hearts of Jews, African Americans and Catholics when used and burned by the Ku Klux Klan. That same cross has been used by the Lord's Resistance Army.

Today the Kalimah Shahada is being used on flags of groups whose mission is to kill Sunni and Shia Muslims. Imagine how it must feel to be a Sunni Kurd or a Shia Iraqi or an Alawi Syrian and seeing that black and white flag with its familiar letters being raised in one's street. Imagine how it must feel to be an ordinary Shia or Alawi or Sunni Australian walking around in a Sydney shopping centre and being treated by one's neighbours as an ISIS fighter.

We must not allow the true meanings of ancient religious symbols – the cross and the shahada – to be defined by the violent actions of sectarian and political and cultural fanatics who misuse them.

Irfan Yusuf headshotIrfan Yusuf is a lawyer and blogger of Muslim Indian heritage who recently moved from Sydney to Melbourne.

Topic tags: Irfan Yusuf, Islam, ISIS, Kalimah Shahada, religious symbols, Sunnis, Shiites, fanaticism



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Existing comments

Yes Irfan - Imagine what it is like to be a Christians today in Iraq being confronted with the barbarism of Islamic state. We associate barbarism with years gone by - but why now in 2014 must ISIS kill Muslims it does not like or Christians and Jews and other minorities? Irfan, I am glad to read of you sympathy for victims of ISIS. I have not heard one such word from Waleed Aly. Please may there be a reaching out of hands from all sides to condemn the barbarous acts of ISIS>
Skye | 22 September 2014

Irfan yet again you have provided a reasoned and calm plea for understanding-something that is sadly lacking from our political leaders.
Joe Cauchi | 22 September 2014

Well, I think the task of showing up the Islamic State and its crazy killers lies squarely in the Muslim court, Irfan. You, among others, have taken it up. There is a similarity between the Wahhabi creed of Saudi Arabia and the Deobandi madrasas of the Indo-Pakistan area with that of the Islamic State. Bob Baer, a former CIA operative and commentator on the Middle East, has warned the US and West about the dangers of this Saudi connection. Most money coming from overseas to assist Australian Muslims to build mosques and fund teachers comes from Saudi Arabia or similar states in the Gulf with strings attached. Saudi Arabians were and are the key financial supporters of Al Qaida. Australian Muslims and Australian universities need to eschew any funds from these sources. Muslim scholars in the West are the freest to critique Wahhabism and whether it really is authentic Islam. That work needs to continue. It will be a long slog but worth it.
Edward Fido | 22 September 2014

Mr Yusuf, the flag in question may have deployed Muslim symbols, but it was an distinctive ISIS flag in its colouring and configuration. Moreover you do no service to harmony between Muslims and the rest of our community by verballing the NSW Premier. He talked of banning that ISIS flag, not generic Muslim symbols. For my part, he was right to do so. If nutjob Christians had effectively misappropriated a Christian symbol for their murderous cause, I, a Christian, would support a ban in that case, were it an effective counter-measure.
HH | 22 September 2014

Well done!! Thank you for such a clear and honest account of the misuse of symbols for the dishonest use of power - by all religious and political extremists. Ordinary people in Australia, of all faiths, have the right to be treated with respect and friendship. Terrifyingly, the Press and the Australian government are, like the scare-mongerers in pre-war Nazi Germany, giving power to a Police State in order to distract us from even more sinister actions. Let us unite to get rid of the bigots and the power-hungry in our own State and Federal parliaments. Aren't we supposed to be living in a democratic society where our civil rights are protected, not abused as they have been this past week.
Annabel | 22 September 2014

Surely nutjobs is not the way these violent murderers should be labelled?
Bros | 22 September 2014

Irfan Yusuf:- "groups whose mission is to kill Sunni and Shia Muslims." Are you trying to muddy the water here? What then is the bond between those that find expression as ISIS? Is it made up of Arabs who are Sunni Muslims? Do they kill Sunni Muslim Kurds because they are not Arabs? And kill Iraqi Shia because they are not Sunni? And anyone else who is not a Sunni Muslim Arab? Please elucidate. It is true that, in Ireland, Christians indulged in violence as Catholics and Protestants fought each other, but that is now largely gone, and never did reach the depths of the Middle East atrocities.
Robert Liddy | 22 September 2014

Thank you for this thoughtful and compassionate analysis, which rightly reminds all of us of the many crimes committed in the name of religion - and why the great faiths have value despite the follies of some of their adherents.
Joanna Mendelssohn | 22 September 2014

ISIS not only is misusing ancient Religious symbols, are confusing and are blasphemic because use religion for "build a tyranny" !
ricardo gustavo espeja | 22 September 2014

Fascinating article of comparisons, yet not once a condemnation of the criminal acts committed in the name is Islam. With estimated funding of two billion dollars, that is $2 billion, a description of “Nut jobs” is quaint indeed. “Political and cultural fanatics” is quite an understatement for beheadings and other criminal atrocities. I think Muslims in Australia have a pretty good life compared with Christians in Syria who have no life at all. A link to ABC News worth listening to
Jane | 22 September 2014

Thank you for this very good article. Very timely indeed.
megan taylor | 22 September 2014

Good analysis Irfan. The Muslims of the ISIS are like the Christians of the KKK or the Nazi Party in Germany. They use religion as a figleaf to hide their purpose. Sunni scholars have not done enough to expose the heretical theology of these Wahhabi nut jobs. It is Muslim equivalents of Christian Senator Lambi who support them but they do it from ignorance I believe.
Bilal | 22 September 2014

Well said Irfan. Keep the good fight alive and promote the righteous as you always do. I agree that Terrorists in our day and age should be disbanded and brought to justice. That should also apply to unlawful invaders and conquerors and the politicians who make those decisions to invade other lands and destroy at will their very country, decimate their people, infrastructure, cause mayhem that is unfolding today due to the removal from power of one unifying Leader, Saddam Hussain on a pretext of Weapons of Mass Destruction. Will AG Brandis arrest John Howard now please for Crimes against Humanity and for Illegal Wars against an enemy which had never declared any hostilities to Australia or Australians.
Noor Dean | 22 September 2014

Thank you for your very meaningful articlle Irfan. Do you feel that for many people today that many Muslims are losing credibility because of their determined silence
Mary Maraz | 23 September 2014

While I support what I interpret as the intent of your article, Irfan, I do think you have under-emphasise the difference between two distinct symbols. You correctly and necessarily defend the Kalima Shahada against misuse and against banning, but you appear to also defend the ISIS flag because it includes in its design that fundamental statement of faith. You ask "But why would state Premiers ... want to ban a religious symbol?" There is no clear evidence they would want to. It is the other symbol, the ISIS flag, which is considered for banning. You also ask, "Must the misuse of a generic symbol used by almost one quarter of humanity become a cause of offence because it is misused by a tiny group of violent nutjobs?" No, but it is an excellent reason why the misuse of that sacred text should be extremely offensive to all other Muslims, just as the KKK misuse of the Christian symbol, the cross, was extremely offensive to all other Christians.
Ian Fraser | 23 September 2014

I don't think there any 'true' meaning for a religious symbol. Various groups appropriate and decide how they will use them. The same thing with words.Words are not defined by etymology or origin. They are defined by usage. The simple fact is that no one can claim exclusive ownership of a religious symbol. It has no 'true' meaning.
Name | 26 September 2014

No one has exclusive ownership of a religious or any other symbol unless it is under copyright. There is no 'true' meaning of a symbol. Buddhists and Nazis have an equal right to use the swastika. Like words the meaning of a symbol is determined by usage not by its origins.
David Fisher | 26 September 2014

An empathic and reasoned piece; if only pieces like these saturated mainstream media!
lisa french | 26 September 2014

Irfan you make some great points with your analogies. Any radical religious or otherwise group can be dangerous either physically or socially but we become so bombarded with stereotypes that we blame anyone who is different from us. We need to get smart and stop aiming at other good people and turn on the radicals whether they are from our religion or culture or some other. Their fear tactics are working in our society and bringing about conflict and unjust hatred they need for their organisations to grow. Lets stop looking at colour, race and religion as the problems and start looking at what bad people as individuals are doing. Take a step back and think before speaking or acting and groups such as ISIS can be defeated.
Jamie Chappell | 26 September 2014

According to a 2009 Pew Research Poll in Pakistan: "78% favour death for those who leave Islam; 80% favour whippings and cutting off hands for crimes like theft and robbery; and 83% favour stoning adulterers.” Just wondering: does the term "nutjob" apply here as well?
HH | 01 October 2014

It would be inappropriate to ban a profession of faith. Ban the black Shehada flag though. It is as offensive as the Swastika. A similar flag on a yellow background would be far more appropriate.

Doubtful John | 02 January 2015


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