Expert comment: ‘Hijacking’ of religious symbols by extremists intensifies rifts and tensions

Posted by ap507 at Aug 26, 2016 11:46 AM |
Dr Saeeda Shah from the University of Leicester discusses how Islamic symbols are distorted through extremism

Issued by University of Leicester Press Office on 26 August 2016

An image of Dr Shah is available here:

An interview with Dr Shah discussing the burkini ban is available here:

The ‘hijacking’ of religious symbols – such as beards, clothing and phrases - by extremists sullies their original use and intensifies rifts and tensions, according to an expert from the University of Leicester.

Dr Saeeda Shah from the University of Leicester School of Education has written an article for Think: Leicester, the University’s platform for independent academic opinion, highlighting how political exploitation of religions and associated symbols by different groups is becoming increasingly evident – and causes people to associate these symbols with negative messages.

In the article she writes: “Religious symbols which for ordinary people may serve as identity-markers and basis of self-esteem are being hijacked by vested interests, sullying their original use and associating negative signals and messages with them.

“The same is happening with Islam and its religious symbols. The beard has become associated with extremist Muslims, and not only the terrorists’ images are often bearded but even the society looks at bearded people as extremists, and many bearded Muslims have complained of receiving strange looks and expressions.

“The same is happening with Muslim women wearing dresses covering the head and body. The recent ban on wearing burkinies (female swimwear used by some Muslim women that covers the body and the head) on some beaches in France also highlights how a culturally and religiously appropriate way of dressing for some has become associated with negative signals.

“Another example of distortion of religious symbols is association of Allah Akbar with violence. Allah Akbar is Arabic phrase that means ‘God is Great’ and for Muslims it is an acknowledgement of God’s greatness used in prayers as well as when seeing or experiencing anything that reminds of God’s greatness, which can be even a beautiful flower. However, extremists’ use of it in association with acts of violence has given it negative associations.

“When cultural and religious symbols are ‘hijacked’ by extremists, they often become associated with the messages and signals for which they are being deployed, which sullies their original use to the extent that it is almost obliterated. Once they are used for extremist views, these symbols are effectively ‘ruined’.  The popular negative associations become powerful through media and all rational efforts to explain these are unfortunately often destined to fail, intensifying the rifts and tensions.”

Read the full article ‘‘Hijacking’ of religious symbols by extremists intensifies rifts and tensions’ hosted on Think: Leicester here:

Throughout history a number of cultural symbols have been misappropriated by extremist groups, including the Celtic Cross by white supremacists, the swastika by the Nazis and the Union Jack by football hooligans.


Notes to editors:

Dr Shah is available for interview on

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