19 August 2014

Since the start of the crisis in Gaza, mass rallies and demonstrations have dominated the streets of many Western cities, as pro-Palestinian protesters march in their thousands chanting “free Palestine” and “end the occupation”. Despite efforts to peacefully convey messages denouncing Israeli military policy in the region, a handful of protestors have been seen carrying a flag with a solid black background with the basic Islamic declaration of faith in white Arabic writing as the emblem.

The presence of this flag at a Gaza rally in South Yorkshire recently angered local Kurdish residents, and David Cameron has called for those seen carrying the flag to be arrested. Although flags themselves are known to bear many different meanings, it is the most recent adoption of the flag by the jihadist group, Islamic State (IS) that is making a simple flag cause such a stir. To label everyone carrying the flag as a jihadist is reductive, though. Indeed, it is often difficult to determine whether those carrying the flags are staunch supporters of IS or merely carrying it because they believe it is an “Islamic flag”, a banner to symbolise causes affecting the lives of Muslim people.

The belief that flags with solid monochromatic colours containing elements of Muslim testimony of faith (shahadah) in contrasting shades are “Islamic”, is a common misconception made by many Muslims, non-Muslims and jihadist groups alike. Use of, or even partial use of the Islamic declaration of faith does not “Islamify” a flag – during Saddam Hussein’s rule, the Iraqi flag contained the words “Allahu Akbar” or “God is Great” in spite of the secular, Arab Nationalist ideology that dominated his office.

IS’ appropriation of the black flag with the shahadah written in white, symbolises a clear example of this misapprehension. This flag was originally inspired by the flag of the early Muslim Abbasid dynasty: a similar one was used in their battle to overthrow the Umayyad dynasty in 750CE. Furthermore, several Islamic traditions and some speculative hadiths make claims of armies arising from the East carrying black banners and flags in the pursuit of war. In a sense, these same hadiths – widely recognised as inauthentic – could be understood as war propaganda developed by the Abbasids against their rivals. In subsequent centuries, the use of the flag was readily abandoned by Muslims globally.

The flag was resurrected in the 1950s by extremist Islamist group, Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), reviving it based on the very same inauthentic hadiths, widely dismissed by Muslims all over the world. By following the logic of a white flag with black writing signifying a time of peace (dar al-salam) and a black flag with white writing symbolizing a time of war (dar al-harb), HT’s maintained that with their caliphate absent, the entire world is to be understood as in a state of war. So, in a sense, HT’s appropriation of the black flag has brought back its use in a mainstream sense. That said, only Islamist and Jihadist groups have raised it. Most recently – and famously – IS has co-opted this flag. The IS flag, which depicts the Prophet’s seal on black is unusual, and has been popularised widely as symbolic of the “Islamic State”, even though its iconographic style has no historic precedent.

Although the misconception of the existence of a single “Islamic flag” is relatively wide and far-reaching, it is important for those raising it to be fully aware of the symbolism and ramifications that come with it. Because of its corruption by war criminals and terrorist groups, carrying such a flag sends harmful and offensive messages, in particular when those carrying do not fully understand what they are conveying. Raising the IS flag – regardless of what the motivation for doing so is – symbolises nothing but support for the genocidal maniacs who are killing Sufis, Shias, Christians, Yezidis and anyone who disagrees with them in mass executions. Therefore, even when attempting to peacefully protest against an entirely unrelated matter, Muslims should ask themselves if they truly understand what the “black flag” actually represents.