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

Posted by ap507 at Aug 26, 2016 11:10 AM |
Dr Saeeda Shah discusses how Islamic symbols are distorted through extremism

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Religious resurgence or religious revival is a post-modern phenomenon emphasised by many recent research studies. It is also evidenced in the enhanced engagement with religious identities and the use of religious symbols across different faith groups, as well as in the increasing power and influence of religious discourses and symbols.

Historically, religious discourses and symbols have exercised influence on societal structures, practices and cultural patterns of behaviour. If on the one hand, religion has been used as a technology of power by those in positions of power to control and influence individuals and communities, on the other hand the suppressed communities have also availed it as a tool for resistance, thus deploying these for their advantage.

With the development of technology, the power of religious and cultural symbols and discourses has become more widespread, and political exploitation of religions and associated symbols by different groups and individuals is becoming increasingly evident. Even those 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. For example, the beard has been considered a symbol of maturity, piety and religious scholarship in Islam but violation of these elements by some bearded Muslims have provoked comments from among some ordinary Muslims such as ‘the longer the beard, the bigger the crook’. It is not that Muslims with no beards are better Muslims, but the expectation from those observing religious symbols is to observe the religious values. When they violate those values and teachings, even if they may be very few, then the symbol is sullied and people from within as well as outside the community develop negative views.

More recently, 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 burkinis (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 and very recently 'Allahu Akbar' was even shouted by the fake 'suicide bomber' during Trafford Centre training exercise organised by the Greater Manchester Police.

Although they later admitted that ‘the use of the phrase was unacceptable’ and apologised to anyone who was offended; however, this serves as an example of how religious symbols may become distorted contrary to their original use. A Saudi Princess Amerah Al Taweel also pointed to this hijacking of Allah Akbar during a recent speech saying that ‘it has sadly been contaminated by terrorists and extremists who shout it when committing their horrendous, violent crimes … Terrorists shout Allahu Akbar before destruction, but we say it before celebrating our occasions, during every prayer, whenever we see beauty, and when we are weak, scared and happy’.

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 extreme 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.

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