Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s Discourse for the Creation of the Ummah

March 8, 2015
Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s Discourse for the Creation of the Ummah
Amaryllis Georges
Amaryllis Georges Terrorism & Human Rights Researcher

On the 4 July 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi provided a sermon through which he formally declared the establishment of the ISIS Caliphate and himself as the self-proclaimed Caliph. The discourse utilized by al-Baghdadi during that sermon creates a new communal identity from a worldwide Muslim population (Ummah) who may have felt marginalized, stereotyped or depersonalized due to their religious beliefs and ethnic origins, in their countries of residence. This sermon was so potent, it has created an unprecedented surge of support within radicalized Muslims globally. The importance of such language and lexical choices employed in al-Baghdadi’s first sermon to the world has played and continues to do so an instrumental role in the wider ISIS propaganda of recruiting impressionable and alienated Muslims for jihad. In addition to calling for all those capable to fight and provide services to make the journey to the land of Islam, his rhetoric has been used to: 1) establish ISIS as the new threat to world order; 2) institute areas of Syria and Iraq, that are under ISIS hold, as a converted Caliphate; 3) reinforce al-Baghdadi’s claim as the Caliph of this Caliphate; but most importantly; 4) to create a clear demarcation between the West and the East, between evil and good, and between the nonbelievers (kufr) and the believers (mu’minin). Because language co-constitutes reality, knowledge regarding the existing global radicalization trend is impossible in the absence of a critical deconstruction of the semantics of jihad.

It is through this discourse that he reinvents and restructures the concept of an Ummah. Baghdadi’s version of the Ummah is different from that observed by the world’s Muslim population. The “Ummah of Islam[1]” he speaks of has been twisted and shaped in accordance to ISIS’s worldview. This Ummah’s loyalty to the Caliphate is structured in two ways: primarily, by summoning Islam to create a singular global Muslim body while speaking of broad Quranic calls to jihad and the establishment of a Caliphate; and then, via the structuring of an indiscriminate opponent, one that conflicts with the “camp of Islam and [of the] faith” – “the camp of kufr (disbelief) and hypocrisy”. Al-Baghdadi structures his rhetoric so that the camp of disbelievers is held responsible for worldwide Muslim alienation. He offers a narrative that is all-embracing and simplistic towards Muslims, making note of particular problems and conditions they may face and a sole solution: loyalty to the ISIS Caliphate; a utopia for all those who subscribe to their version of faith. The construction of the Caliphate in such a manner is a strategic step to intensify support and encouragement of ISIS gained territory as the sole and sacred point of reference amongst Sunnis, alluding to the group’s international aims. Utilizing the term kufr so as to describe anyone who does not ascribe to ISIS’s version of Islam is a tactical maneuver by Baghdadi as it is a concept that holds great meaning in Islamic belief and is evident in the Quran nearly five hundred times.

By drawing a clear line between who is a believer and a non-believer and redefining the meaning of “terrorism” and the actions a truthful Muslim can take, one that is loyal to ISIS’s dogmatic scheme, al-Baghdadi creates the confines by which ISIS deems one to be a proper Ummah – the brother or sister that is willing to show indifference to the laws of their country of residence and thusly be castigated as a “terrorist”.

“…either the Muslim pulls away from his religion, disbelieves in Allah, and disgracefully submits to the manmade shirk (polytheistic) laws of the east and west, living despicably and disgracefully as a follower, by repeating those slogans without will and honor, or he lives persecuted, targeted, and expelled, to end up being killed, imprisoned, or terribly tortured, on the accusation of terrorism. Because terrorism is to disbelieve in those slogans and to believe in Allah. Terrorism is to refer to Allah’s law for judgment. Terrorism is to worship Allah as He ordered you. Terrorism is to refuse humiliation, subjugation, and subordination [to the kuffār – infidels]. Terrorism is for the Muslim to live as a Muslim, honorably with might and freedom. Terrorism is to insist upon your rights and not give them up. But terrorism does not include the killing of Muslims in Burma and the burning of their homes. Terrorism does not include the dismembering and disemboweling of the Muslims in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Kashmir. Terrorism does not include the killing of Muslims in the Caucasus and expelling them from their lands. Terrorism does not include making mass graves for the Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the slaughtering of their children.”

He preaches within his discourse of the responsibility one has to migrate to IS-established territory and join the fight.

“O Muslims everywhere, glad tidings to you and expect good. Raise your head high, for today – by Allah’s grace – you have a state and khilāfah, which will return your dignity, might, rights, and leadership. It is a state where the Arab and non-Arab, the white man and black man, the easterner and westerner are all brothers. It is a khilāfah that gathered the Caucasian, Indian, Chinese, Shāmī, Iraqi, Yemeni, Egyptian, Maghribī (North African), American, French, German, and Australian. Allah brought their hearts together, and thus, they became brothers by His grace…standing in a single trench…and sacrificing themselves for one another. Therefore, rush O Muslims to your state. Yes, it is your state. Rush, because Syria is not for the Syrians, and Iraq is not for the Iraqis. The earth is Allah’s. The State is a state for all Muslims.”

The rationale behind this discourse is clear: al-Baghdadi formulates his sermon in a manner interpretive of religious discourse in order to link it to his plans for a Caliphate by inviting all dissatisfied Muslims to emigrate from around the world and to recognize themselves as its Ummah.

“O Muslims everywhere, whoever is capable of performing hijrah (emigration) to the Islamic State, then let him do so, because hijrah to the land of Islam is obligatory.”

In this instance, language serves as the instrument by which brutality is driven. We use language to construct our world. Not only does it define, normalize and reinforce our understanding of the world, but language also sets out the actions available for us to take, while rejecting and delegitimizing other worldviews. In this respect discourse serves as a mechanism of influence and control often used by groups striving for power to produce and preserve hegemonic regimes. The method of convincing and generating consent – of institutionalizing jihad – goes beyond propaganda; in fact it necessitates the formation of an entirely novel lexicon, a narrative that fosters support while concurrently quashing any singular qualms.

The objective of jihadists is to attract and recruit as many to their movement of bloodshed and disorder and to achieve that they produce cracks in lexical priming. ISIS produces such cracks in priming in order to target marginalized and easily impressionable Muslims. Framing Muslims as underdogs is a crucial element of Baghdadi’s rhetoric and one which he repeats a number of times.

“Indeed the Ummah of Islam is watching your jihad with eyes of hope, and indeed you have brothers in many parts of the world being inflicted with the worst kinds of torture. Their honor is being violated. Their blood is being spilled. Prisoners are moaning and crying for help. Orphans and widows are complaining of their plight. Women who have lost their children are weeping. Masājid (plural mosque) are desecrated and sanctities violated. Muslims’ rights are forcibly seized in China, India, Palestine, Somalia, the Arabian Peninsula, the Caucasus, Shām (the Levant), Egypt, Iraq, Indonesia, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Ahvaz, Iran [by the rāfidah (Shia)], Pakistan, Tunisia, Libya, Algeria and Morocco, in the East and in the West.”

This outlining of the underdog standing of the Ummah and the “other” is a commonly found component of any widespread movement’s recruitment tactic.  For a subset of this disenfranchised group such cracks develop into productive priming’s, which result in the subgroup persuaded to carry out violent acts. At times the call for violence is not blatant. Vis à vis language identities are shaped and preserved and as such particular words can be colored in negative or positive ways to create patterns of association. So, for example, the word peace is a projecting word with seemingly positive connotations, while victory and rise although also positive have a stronger priming to war, a word like path is neither positively nor negatively associated, whilst words like shackles, weakness and tyranny are colored in negative connotations. Vocabulary items laden with theological undertones are used throughout Baghdadi’s sermon. The terrorism itself need not be materialized lexically, with some words seeming moderately innocent. The violent meaning is inferred through word associations.

“So listen, O Ummah of Islam. Listen and comprehend. Stand up and rise. For the time has come for you to free yourself from the shackles of weakness, and stand in the face of tyranny, against the treacherous rulers – the agents of the crusaders and the atheists, and the guards of the Jews.”

Al-Baghdadi’s sermon was evidently designed to delineate the boundaries between the in-group and the out-group, namely the Muslims belonging to the Ummah of Islam and the kufr outside of it.

“Soon, by Allah’s permission, a day will come when the Muslim will walk everywhere as a master, having honor, being revered, with his head raised high and his dignity preserved. Anyone who dares to offend him will be disciplined, and any hand that reaches out to harm him will be cut off.”

The stressing of the differences of the two groups is essential to inscribe the necessary makings of insiders (the good guys) and outsiders (the bad guys). Pronouns like “them” and “they” are utilized to draw a clear line between “the camp of the Jews, the crusaders, their allies, and with them the rest of the nations and religions of kufr all being led by America and Russia, and being mobilized by the Jews” and that of “the camp of Muslims and the mujahidin” denoted by the “we” pronoun.

“So by Allah, we will take revenge! By Allah, we will take revenge! Even if it takes a while, we will take revenge, and every amount of harm against the Ummah will be responded to with multitudes more against the perpetrator.”

Discourse is made up of an elementary dualistic arrangement so that nearly all nouns, adjectives and verbs are paired with their opposites. This pairing of opposite terms indicates a depreciation of one and a preference for the other. Common examples of the manner by which this dual system works include: love/hate, good/evil, native/foreigner, west/east, new/old, and normal/deviant. Such binary arrangements can be found throughout al-Baghdadi’s discourse[2]:

“So let the world know that we are living today in a new era. Whoever was heedless must now be alert. Whoever was sleeping must now awaken. Whoever was shocked and amazed must comprehend. The Muslims today have a loud, thundering statement, and possess heavy boots. They have a statement that will cause the world to hear and understand the meaning of terrorism, and boots that will trample the idol of nationalism, destroy the idol of democracy and uncover its deviant nature.”

The self-appointed Caliph’s speech is colored with associations of Islamic pedagogy reinforcing why the hijrah and jihad are acceptable acts under the umbrella of ISIS. He legitimizes his words by selecting quotations from the Quran or Islamic education to rationalize his political project. By drawing discourse from the Quran however, Baghdadi also takes this responsibility of inculcating the Ummah. This is furthered by the manner with which he greets his listeners, as the “Amirul Mu’minin” (Commander of the Faithful), and in effect establishes himself as the leader and spokesman of the Muslim Ummah as a whole as well as of the Mujahidin.

While some, exposed to such rhetoric, may at first feel discomfort with al-Baghdadi’s sermon, they lack the language or standards of deciding how to express such doubts. Given time, and as the discourse becomes all the more engrossed by society, they may completely abandon doubt and view the abhorrent treatment of deviant Muslims and non-Muslims both reasonable and ethically warranted. Although the majority, if not all, Muslims long the genesis of the Ummah, it goes without saying that a miniscule fraction of them would subscribe to what al-Baghdadi is selling. His rhetoric and lexical choices are formulated in such a manner so as to cast a wide net and catch those frustrated and grieved few who, influenced by religious doctrine, embrace his ideology with the piety of newborn zealots.

By carefully selecting words laden with symbolism and religious meaning to dress his first sermon to the world al-Baghdadi effectively replaced Zawahiri as leader of the jihadist camp; he sought compensation for the decades of anger and shame felt by countless Muslims across the world and promised the restored Caliphate would reestablish pride and power to Islam and make it a safe haven for Muslims seeking solidarity; he afforded political leverage and religious validity to his project which has global aims. More ominously, as the caliph (even if self-proclaimed) Baghdadi has both traditional and legal authority and his edicts are supported by the eminence of rulings. As such, when Baghdadi invokes throughout his sermon that hijra (migration to Islamic land) and ba’yah (vow of loyalty) are responsibilities mandatory of all Muslims, such instructions, if violated, turn his enemies into enemies of Islam, believers (mu’minin) or non-believers (kuffār).

[1] All citations were obtained by Amirul-Mu-minin Abu Bakr Al-Husayni Al-Qurashi Al-Baghdadi’s sermon entitled “A Message to the Mujahidin and the Muslim Ummah in the Month of Ramadan”. Disseminated by ISIS’s media branch Al Hayat Media Center.

[2] Indeed both sides employ verb phrases and linguistic forms to arouse antithetical sentiments and legitimize their cause.