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Why We Need to Stop Calling Isil a Death Cult

Islamists have identified the West's attitudes to death as a weakness and put it at the core of their strategic use of terrorism. Offering a fully coherent ideological alternative to Isil requires us to address this.

Isil and other Islamist groups are repeatedly described by the West and themselves in terms of their relationship with death. This comes from the top with the Barack Obama branding Isil a 'brutal, vicious death cult' at a prayer breakfast earlier this year and at least once subsequently. David Cameron also uses this rhetoric, saying Isil has a 'cultish attachment to death' in an anti radicalisation speech in July. Since then Cameron has repeatedly used these terms, with 'death cult' his primary short descriptor of the group. This phrase has been repeated across the internet, especially by the hardline, and seems to be gaining further currency since Paris such as in Ian McEwan's viral facebook update. 'Death cult' has been used several times in today's debate on whether to bomb Syria.

Death cults are defined as 'any organization or group that indoctrinate members in devotion or worship of death, suicide or killing'. Calling Isil a death cult appears to function as shorthand for 'I despise and could not be any more different from them'. There has never been an officially designated death cult of the scale of Isil before, it is a description reserved for the marginal. Despite this language appearing in numerous headlines it has not drawn challenge, perhaps because the shock of the words chime with the outrage we feel at Isil's actions and reach.

It is surprising to hear Obama and Cameron define Isil in terms of their relationship with death as it was Islamists who initially self defined in this way. Osama Bin Laden told a Pakistani interviewer after 9/11: "We love death. The U.S. loves life. That is the big difference between us." These ideas date back to the Battle of Qadisiyya in the year 636, when the Caliph stated to the Persian commander stated: "If you don't [convert to Islam], you should know that I have come to you with an army of men that love death, as you love life."

The phrase has stuck around. In 2009 Major Nidal Malik Hassan who murdered 13 people at Fort Hood Texas gave an hour-long PowerPoint presentation to his colleagues, the final bullet point of one section read simply: "We love death more then [sic] you love life!" The same phrase was uttered in January 2010 when a Queens, NY man (Adis Medunjanin) tied to a suspected al Qaeda-trained terrorist said "We love death more than you love life!" in Arabic as he sped away from federal agents through local streets and crashed into another car in an apparent bid to martyr himself.

The regular repetition of Isil the death cult indicates western leaders acceptance of this paradigm i.e. the West representing life to Isil' death. The language frames the conflict between radical Islam and the West in a clash of civilisations terms, which seems to work for both sides. But this paradigm is deeply problematic for the West and must be avoided - because only by redefining our relationship with death will the West can truly defeat Isil.

Clearly death is at the centre of this conflict in more than a rhetorical way. The attacks in Paris, Boston, London, Madrid and New York have brought death and destruction to our cities. However the conflict has left a trail of death over a much wider area in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. But for the West the physical death toll is much smaller than the psychological toll we pay in terms of the anxiety and fear that such attacks cause, an anxiety that is rooted in our own fear of death.

This fear is compounded by the way each side fights. The West uses wealth and technology to be as absent as possible from the slaughter. For Islamists death by martyrdom is actively sought and the terrorist is willing to use their own body as a weapon. The message from attacks such as Paris is clear - I am willing to die for my cause and wish to take as many of you with me as I can. This willingness to die for one's beliefs acts as a direct challenge to the West's own value systems, where most of our institutions are either tarnished by scandal or diminished by time. How willing are we to die for them?

It is not Islamists terrorists who made us afraid of death. Rather they have identified this trait and use it as a weapon against us. Our latent fear of death is well documented and clearly evident in the way we have attempted to render death invisible in our society. The death that most of us have takes place behind closed doors in hospitals rather than in the community. Death is the domain of professionals such as doctors and funeral directors. It is not something most people want to talk about and it is rarely spoken of in any way that is not negative.

Some consequences of pushing death to the sidelines are clear, including huge variation in the cost and quality of funerals, most of us dying without a will and in a place we wouldn't choose, and 50% of hospital complaints concerning end of life. Despite this we consume violent, stylised or terrifying portrayals of death through news, films, tv and games in ways that can verge on the compulsive. These habits are working to increase our death anxiety in stark contrast with Islamists who self professedly love death.

Death continues to exert a pervasive influence over our day-to-day thinking as proponents of 'Terror Management Theory' have demonstrated. This has shown that death anxiety causes us to defend our cultural worldview and derogate other groups. Death anxiety is also linked to patterns of excessive consumption, environmental degradation and militarisation. 'Othering' death by calling Isil a death cult further embeds these attitudes. This in turn undermines the principles of tolerance and diversity, which need to be at the heart of an effective response to Isil. The results following the Paris attacks can be seen in both the need for a military response and hardening of attitudes towards refugees and Muslim communities.

Some of the West's achievements which show the West in it's best light are connected with death. A great example is the modern hospice movement, founded by Cicely Saunders in the 1950s in South London, which has spread throughout the world and helped thousands of people die peacefully and pain free. UK citizens should be proud of this compassionate work, as well as being a leader in natural burial and death conversations. However even in these areas the association of Isil with death has a negative impact. For example BBC Breakfast postponed and scaled back a week of content on bereavement in the wake of the Paris attacks, and #YODO or 'You Only Die Once', the key campaign message of the charity Dying Matters, is also identified as being an Islamist slogan.

Islamists have identified the West's attitudes to death as a weakness and put it at the core of their strategic use of terrorism. Offering a fully coherent ideological alternative to Isil requires us to address this. To beat Isil it is not sufficient for the west to be life to Isil's death - we have to be able to be both life and death. This involves establishing a better relationship with death. Stopping calling Isil a death cult would be a good place to start.

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