Intra-Muslim Conflicts: A Linguistic Representation

The global Muslim community is multi-racial, multi-lingual, and multi-cultural. Over the centuries, religious groups emerged due to historical circumstances, political allegiances, interpretation of texts, cultural influences, and varied theological denominations. In some cases, the resulting intra-group rivalry has led to intra-Muslim conflicts characterized by various levels of violence, conflict, rhetoric, and verbal abuse. This article investigates the linguistic trends related to representing intra-Muslim conflicts, the factors and strategies of utilizing linguistic representation, and the classification of common terms within the context of such conflicts. It also analyzes the implications of certain vocabularies, structures, and discourse styles that represent the positions of opposing groups, perceptions of self and others, and how linguistic representation can help resolve intra-Muslim conflict. I use a pragmatic analysis to search for cultural and religious connotations in samples of common terms employed in the conflicts in question.

Although the global Muslim community is multi-lingual, Arabic terms are commonly used in intra-Muslim conflicts. Given this reality, I focus on Arabic terms and present only a few non-Arabic loan words that have been adopted.


The global Muslim community (ummah) consists of people who have different cultural, linguistic, and religious backgrounds. This phenomenon may result in minor or major intra-Muslim conflicts characterized by linguistic expressions designed to present, either overtly or covertly, opposing positions that may have a considerable impact on certain conflicts. Hence, there is a need for extensive research that analyzes the implications of such linguistic representations within the context of how language can influence the initiation, spread, management, or resolution of intra-Muslim conflicts. Its influence is also recognized in reconciling social affairs and rectifying broken relations.

Any investigation of this social phenomenon has to embrace the assumption that the use of specific words and structures within the context of a certain discourse reflects each group’s support of its own political interests, cultural norms, or theological beliefs and attempt to discredit those of the other group. It also presupposes that a linguistic investigation will provide an in-depth understanding of these conflicts and that a careful selection of linguistic expressions will contribute to the conflict’s management, resolution, and even avoidance.

The significance of this investigation lies in the fact that terms and expressions are strong weapons in any conflict and that opposing groups may misuse some expressions by endowing them with negative meanings or connotations in reference to others. Such a practice may be dangerous to social relations in a large religious community, such as the global Muslim community. Thus, studying how some intra-Muslim conflicts are portrayed linguistically will contribute to mutual understanding and foster peaceful intra-Muslim relations.

In this paper, I cover strategies of language usage in intra-Muslim conflict; the social, psychological, and religious factors that lie beyond it; the implications of linguistic representation as regards an opposing group’s position within this type of conflict, and how linguistic representation may help resolve such conflicts. I do not assume that the words’ religious origin guides the participants’ socio-religious thought in their conflicts, since it is practically impossible to make any generalized observation of this nature. One must remember that words, whether belonging to the language or loaned from another one, denote many things in different languages. In addition, varied social factors influence the use of words and expressions in any language, regardless of the existence of social similarities.

I have chosen a pragmatic textual approach to analyze samples of common expressions used in intra-Muslim conflicts. However, I give due attention to possible intended or unintended connotations in intra-Muslim conflicts by analyzing influential factors that surround language symbols used to communicate ideas, such as the context of the situation and the inter-relation of individuals and groups. Such an approach is considered appropriate for this type of study. For example, Allen Grimshaw uses it to analyze the expressions of interpersonal conflicts,1 and Bernard Lewis used a similar approach to study the terms and expressions of political Islam.2 Neither of them focused on intra-Muslim conflicts.

My analysis concentrates on the facts expressed about beliefs, persons, group identity, and cultural practices. Therefore, it is not based on structural features and meanings. In order to minimize long quotations, the expressions and terms are taken as the focus of analysis, while their textual contexts are used as a background to guide the analysis. This technique covers both the pragmatic use as well as the theological and political connotations and implications of the context.

I seek to indicate group affiliation and the expressions adopted by a particular group’s members or leaders to express their positions on certain conflicts. Members of the group frequently use or quote these expressions to convey their views and convictions concerning their opponents’ cause and the nature of their actions. The selection of such expressions is not intentional; rather, it is done purely for the sake of proving my assumption: like any other group, the Muslims’ use of language can initiate, prolong, or even end a given conflict.

The Linguistic Representation of Conflicts

Intra-Muslim conflict is expressed though physical combat, demonstrations, war, and other ways. Language makes its own contribution either through direct involvement (as an indicator of wider cultural and political conflict) or by serving as a means of conflict representation.

As a vehicle for interaction, inter-communication, and symbolic values, language represents a factor in social and national conflicts, which generally include linguistic conflicts. Such conflicts arise out of the language diversity that prevails in many societies and nations. However, according to Itmar Even-Zohar, the possibility of diversity leading to a conflict between speakers of different languages or remaining a recognized social fact depends upon the level of cultural, historical, and political interaction in a bilingual or multilingual society.3 For instance, Iraq’s Kurdish population struggles with that country’s Arab population in order to preserve its unique (non-Arab) identity and accord an official status to the Kurdish language, while their counterparts in Turkey view their existence as incomplete without Ankara’s official recognition of their right to use their native language in all socio-cultural and academic functions.4

Linguistic representation, in its capacity as a semantic symbol that conveys concepts, positions, and values, becomes a factor in both intra- and inter-Muslim conflicts among social groups. Its functions cover initiating enmity and turning a foe into an ally (and vice versa), thereby causing anarchy or war; stirring up social relations; and suspending, stopping, or avoiding anarchy. Ambiguous terms and slang may lead to conflict through a pragmatic interpretation or how the various linguistic groups or subcultural groups understand their connotations. Thus, a language of conflict emerges to represent action and reaction to the conflict in question.

The effects of linguistic representation upon intra-Muslim conflicts become clear when we analyze the role played by linguistic expressions in conflict situations. How the language of conflict is used, however, depends upon the situation and the positions of each group’s members. In addition, some aspects of linguistic expression may symbolize certain aspects of intra-Muslim conflicts.

Representing a conflict through language is not restricted to those who speak the same language, for it also exists among speakers of different languages. Such conflicts may be caused by clashes over regional cultural norms, conflicting religious beliefs, and conflicting political interests. Linguistic expressions of intra-communal conflicts among groups are fueled by intolerance, failure to reach a compromise, a conflict of interest, heightened tension in relations, or a state of war. The influence of linguistic expressions among rival groups extends to relations between individuals and nations, due to socio-cultural and religious factors. As a result, the ensuing reactions to expressions used to denote some groups, tribes, races, or members of certain religious sects reflects one group’s inner feelings and perceptions of other groups. Nasr bin Sayyar perfectly described the implications of linguistic expressions in pre-Islamic Arab intra-tribal conflicts in a beautiful simile5: “The fire is caused to blaze by two pieces of wood, as the speech, coming out within two jaws, precedes the war.”6

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