Soyinka image from
Thursday, July 7th 2016
“Far and above any other enemy I have ever recognized, [groups like ISIS and Boko Haram represent] something totally deleterious to humanity.” The Nigerian playwright, poet, and Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, offered this judgment as key to his decision to stop using the term “Islamic State.” “How do you fight such enemies except with everything you have, including language?” he asked.
While he was attending the Oslo Freedom Forum, Soyinka was interviewed by Uri Friedman, staff writer of The Atlantic. His article, “Does It Really Matter What People Call the So-Called Islamic State?,” was published on June 1, 2016. Here are some bullet points:
- “Art should expose, reflect, indeed magnify the decadent, rotten underbelly of a society that has lost its direction,” [Soyinka] wrote in 1977. In 2016, he sees that rotten underbelly stretching roughly from Raqqa in Syria, which ISIS claims as its capital, to the Sambisa Forest in Nigeria, where the group’s affiliate Boko Haram is active.
- . . . Soyinka’s message was to not underestimate the force of semantics. “Language is part of the armory of human resistance,” he said. “Rejection of the self-ascribed goals of an enemy is a critical part of the defense mechanism of the assaulted. Whenever an unconscionable claim is denied, rejected, openly derided, it erodes the very base of the aggressor’s self-esteem.”
- Nor is the enemy a state. It’s more like “a sadistic, morbidity-obsessed, irredentist group [that] indulges itself in destabilizing states—genuine states, that is—and extinguishing peoples, the Yazidis [in Iraq] most notoriously.” And yet, he continued, “we insist on respectfully referring to them as a state. Such proponents of spurious egalitarianism fail a crucial test of responsibility to truth and language. Yes, there’s freedom of expression, but there’s also freedom of choice of expression. And that does not cost much.”
- Soyinka criticized publications for their promiscuous use of the name Islamic State. “Those who live directly under the sword [of the group in Syria and Iraq] have no choice: They must call them by the name they choose for themselves. But what of the rest of us?” he asked. The media’s normalization of the term, he charged, is “an act of insidious cooperation with the agenda of unlimited violence.”
- Journalists are deluding themselves if they think they’re being impartial in calling the organization by its self-proclaimed name, Soyinka told me after his speech. “Language is hardly ever neutral. … [Journalists] have no choice but to make a choice.”
- “Far and above any other enemy I have ever recognized, [groups like ISIS and Boko Haram represent] something totally deleterious to humanity,” said Soyinka. “How do you fight such enemies except with everything you have, including language?”
- Soyinka is essentially calling for a new, more aggressive language for a new age of fear. “We must take on the duty of telling the enemy openly: It is not spiritual fulfillment that you seek, but power. Control. Power in its crudest form,” he said in a 2014 speech.
- “At this moment in the lives of communities across the globe, taking note of the havoc wreaked daily by the doctrine of religious impunity, there is far too much appeasement and toleration in the language we bring to each confrontation. There comes a time when our humanity accepts that there must be an end to an attitude that is best captured in that Yoruba expression: F’itiju k’arun. Literally that means, ‘contracting a disease through politeness.’”
- Soyinka isn’t just contributing an argument to the cluttered debate over what to call ISIS. He’s making a case for the primacy of words, the only weapon most people have against the group. To work with language, he contends, is to make choices. And referring to an organization by its preferred name is a choice, not some passive, neutral alternative.
- If journalists feel fidelity to language and truth, Soyinka suggests, they should recognize that while use of the term “Islamic State” brings clarity to the entity being discussed, it breeds confusion about the meaning of the term’s constituent parts: “Islamic” and “state.” They should recognize that while the group’s official name is one truth, its distortion of mainstream interpretations of Islam and its subversion of states are truths as well. They should recognize that politicians aren’t the only ones in the business of shaping public perception.