Challenging Unpeaceful Metaphors on Faith and Ethnicity: A Strategy to Promote Effective Diplomacy, Development and Defense


This keynote address seeks to challenge the unpeaceful metaphors that have been and continue to be used in our discourses on faith and ethnicity as one way to promote effective diplomacy, development and defense. This is essential because metaphors are not just “more picturesque speech.” The power of metaphors hinges upon their ability to assimilate new experiences so as to allow the newer and abstract domain of experience to be understood in terms of the former and more concrete, and to serve as a basis and justification for policy making. We should therefore be horrified by the metaphors that have become the currency in our discourses on faith and ethnicity. We hear again and again how our relations mirror Darwinian survivalism. If we are to accept this characterization, we would be quite properly justified in outlawing all human relations as brutal and uncivilized behavior that no person should have to tolerate. We must therefore reject those metaphors that cast religious and ethnic relations in a bad light and encourage such hostile, uncaring and, ultimately, selfish behavior.


During his June 16, 2015 speech at the Trump Tower in New York City announcing his campaign for the presidency of the United States, Republican candidate Donald Trump stated that “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending the best. They’re not sending you, they’re sending you people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists and some, I assume, are good people, but I speak to border guards and they’re telling us what we’re getting” (Kohn, 2015). Such an “us-versus-them” metaphor, argues CNN Political Commentator Sally Kohn, “is not only factually dumb but divisive and dangerous” (Kohn, 2015). She adds that “In Trump’s formulation, it’s not just Mexicans who are evil—they are all rapists and drug lords, Trump asserts without any facts to base this upon—but Mexico the country is also evil, deliberately sending ‘those people’ with ‘those problems’” (Kohn, 2015).

In an interview with NBC’s Meet the Press host Chuck Todd for broadcast on Sunday morning of September 20, 2015, Ben Carson, another Republican candidate for The White House, stated: “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that” (Pengelly, 2015). Todd then asked him: “So do you believe that Islam is consistent with the constitution?” Carson responded: “No, I don’t, I do not” (Pengelly, 2015). As Martin Pengelly, The Guardian (UK) correspondent in New York, reminds us, “Article VI of the US constitution states: No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States” and “The first amendment to the constitution begins: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” (Pengelly, 2015).

While Carson could be forgiven for being oblivious to the racism he endured as a young African American and that since the majority of the Africans enslaved in the Americas were Muslims and, thus, it is quite possible that his ancestors were Muslims, he cannot, however, be forgiven for not knowing how Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an and Islam helped to shape the views of the American Founding Fathers on religion and the consistency of Islam with democracy and, therefore, the American Constitution, given the fact that he is a neurosurgeon and very well read. As Denise A. Spellberg, a professor of Islamic History and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, using impeccable empirical evidence based on groundbreaking research, reveals in her highly regarded book titled Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders (2014), Islam played a crucial role in shaping the American Founding Fathers’ views on religious freedom.

Spellberg relays the story of how in 1765—i.e. 11 years before penning the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson bought a Qur’an, which marked the beginning of his lifelong interest in Islam, and would go on to purchase many books on Middle Eastern history, languages, and travel, taking ample notes on Islam as it relates to English common law. She notes that Jefferson sought to understand Islam because by 1776 he imagined Muslims as future citizens of his new country. She mentions that some of the Founders, Jefferson foremost among them, drew upon Enlightenment ideas about the toleration of Muslims to shape what had been a purely conjectural argument into a heuristic bedrock for governance in America. In this way, Muslims emerged as the mythological basis for an epoch-making, distinctively American religious pluralism that would also include the actual despised Catholic and Jewish minorities. She adds that the vitriolic public dispute concerning the inclusion of Muslims, for which some of Jefferson’s political foes would disparage him to the end of his life, emerged decisive in the Founders’ subsequent reckoning not to establish a Protestant nation, as they might well have done. Indeed, as suspicions about Islam endure among some Americans like Carson and the numbers of American Muslim citizenry grow into the millions, Spellberg’s revealing narrative of this radical idea of the Founders is more urgent than ever. Her book is critical for comprehending the ideals that existed at the creation of the United States and their fundamental implications for the present and future generations.

Furthermore, as we demonstrate in some of our books on Islam (Bangura, 2003; Bangura, 2004; Bangura, 2005a; Bangura, 2005b; Bangura, 2011; and Bangura and Al-Nouh, 2011), Islamic democracy is consistent with Western democracy, and the concepts of democratic participation and liberalism, as exemplified by the Rashidun Caliphate, were already present in the medieval Islamic world. For example, in Islamic Sources of Peace, we note that the great Muslim philosopher Al-Farabi, born Abu Nasr Ibn al-Farakh al-Farabi (870-980), also known as the “second master” (as Aristotle is often dubbed to be the “first master”), theorized an idealized Islamic state which he compared to Plato’s The Republic, albeit he departed from Plato’s view that the ideal state be ruled by the philosopher king and suggested instead the prophet (PBUH) who is in direct communion with Allah/God (SWT). In the absence of a prophet, Al-Farabi regarded democracy to be the closest to the ideal state, pointing to the Rashidun Caliphate as an example in Islamic history. He identified three basic features of Islamic democracy: (1) a leader elected by the people; (b) Sharia, which could be overruled by ruling jurists if necessary based on wajib—the obligatory, mandub—the permissible, mubah—the indifferent, haram—the forbidden, and makruh—the repugnant; and committed to practicing (3) Shura, a special form of consultation practiced by Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). We add that Al-Farabi’s thoughts are evident in the works of Thomas Aquinas, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant and some Muslim philosophers that followed him (Bangura, 2004:104-124).

We also note in Islamic Sources of Peace that the great Muslim jurist and political scientist Abu Al-Hassan ‘Ali Ibn Muhammad Ibn Habib Al-Mawardi (972-1058) stated three basic principles upon which an Islamic political system is based: (1) Tawhid—the belief that Allah (SWT) is the Creator, Sustainer and Master of everything that exists on Earth; (2) Risala—the medium in which the law of Allah (SWT) is brought down and received; and (3) Khilifa or representation—man is supposed to be the representative of Allah (SWT) here on Earth. He describes the structure of Islamic democracy as follows: (a) the executive branch comprising the Amir, (b) the legislative branch or advisory council comprising the Shura, and (c) the judicial branch comprising the Quadi who interpret the Sharia. He also provides the following four guiding principles of the state: (1) the aim of the Islamic state is to create a society as conceived in the Qur’an and the Sunnah; (2) the state shall enforce the Sharia as the fundamental law of the state; (3) the sovereignty rests in the people—the people can plan and set up any form of state conforming with the preceding two principles and with the exigencies of time and environment; (4) whatever the form of the state, it must be based on the principle of popular representation, because sovereignty belongs to the people (Bangura, 2004:143-167).

We further point out in Islamic Sources of Peace that a thousand years after Al-Farabi, Sir Allama Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938) characterized the early Islamic Caliphate as compatible with democracy. Arguing that Islam had the “gems” for an economic and democratic organization of Muslim societies, Iqbal called for the institution of popularly elected legislative assemblies as a re-ushering of Islam’s original purity (Bangura, 2004:201-224).

Indeed, that faith and ethnicity are major political and human fault lines in our world is hardly a matter of dispute. The nation state is the typical arena of religious and ethnic conflicts. State governments often try to ignore and suppress the aspirations of individual religious and ethnic groups, or impose the values of the dominant elite. In response, religious and ethnic groups mobilize and place demands upon the state ranging from representation and participation to protection of human rights and autonomy. Ethnic and religious mobilizations take a variety of forms ranging from political parties to violent action (for more on this, see Said and Bangura, 1991-1992).

International relations continue to change from the historic predominance of nation states toward the more complex order where ethnic and religious groups compete for influence. The contemporary global system is simultaneously more parochial and more cosmopolitan than the international system of nation states we are leaving behind. For example, while in Western Europe culturally diverse people are uniting, in Africa and Eastern Europe bonds of culture and language are clashing with territorial state lines (for more on this, see Said and Bangura, 1991-1992).

Given the contestations on the issues of faith and ethnicity, a metaphorical linguistic analysis of the topic is therefore essential because, as I demonstrate elsewhere, metaphors are not just “more picturesque speech” (Bangura, 2007:61; 2002:202). The power of metaphors, as Anita Wenden observes, hinges upon their ability to assimilate new experiences so as to allow the newer and abstract domain of experience to be understood in terms of the former and more concrete, and to serve as a basis and justification for policy making (1999:223). Also, as George Lakoff and Mark Johnson put it,

The concepts that govern our thought are not just matters of the intellect. They also govern our everyday functioning, down to the most mundane details. Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around the world, and how we relate to other people. Our conceptual system thus plays a central role in defining our everyday realities. If we are right in suggesting that our conceptual system is largely metaphorical, then the way we think, what we experience, and we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor (1980:3).

In light of the preceding excerpt, we should be horrified by the metaphors that have become the currency in our discourses on faith and ethnicity. We hear again and again how our relations mirror Darwinian survivalism. If we are to accept this characterization, we would be quite properly justified in outlawing all societal relations as brutal and uncivilized behavior that no society should have to tolerate. Indeed, human rights advocates have effectively used just such descriptions to push their approach.

We must therefore reject those metaphors that cast our relations in a bad light and encourage such hostile, uncaring and, ultimately, selfish behavior. Some of these are quite crude and explode as soon as they are seen for what they are, but others are much more sophisticated and built into every fabric of our current thought processes. Some can be summarized in a slogan; others do not even have names. Some seem not to be metaphors at all, notably the uncompromising emphasis on the importance of greed, and some seem to lie at the very basis of our conception as individuals, as if any alternative concept would have to be anti‑individualistic, or worse.

The major question probed here is therefore quite straightforward: What types of metaphors are prevalent in our discourses on faith and ethnicity? Before answering this question, however, it makes sense to present a brief discussion of the metaphorical linguistic approach, since it is the method through which the analysis to follow is grounded.

The Metaphorical Linguistic Approach

As I state in our book titled Unpeaceful Metaphors, metaphors are figures of speech (i.e. the use of words in an expressive and figurative way to suggest illuminating comparisons and resemblances) based on a perceived similarity between distinct objects or certain actions (Bangura, 2002:1). According to David Crystal, the following four kinds of metaphors have been recognized (1992:249):

  • Conventional metaphors are those which form a part of our everyday understanding of experience, and are processed without effort, such as “to lose the thread of an argument.”
  • Poetic metaphors extend or combine everyday metaphors, especially for literary purposes—and this is how the term is traditionally understood, in the context of poetry.
  • Conceptual metaphors are those functions in speakers’ minds which implicitly condition their thought processes—for example, the notion that “Argument is war” underlies such expressed metaphors as “I attacked his views.”
  • Mixed metaphors are used for a combination of unrelated or incompatible metaphors in a single sentence, such as “This is a virgin field pregnant with possibilities.”

While Crystal’s categorization is very useful from a linguistic semantics standpoint (the focus on a triadic relation among conventionality, language, and to what it refers), from the perspective of linguistic pragmatics (the focus on a polyadic relation among conventionality, speaker, situation, and hearer), however, Stephen Levinson suggests the following “tripartite classification of metaphors” (1983:152-153):

  • Nominal metaphors are those that have the form BE(x, y) such as “Iago is an eel.” To understand them, the hearer/reader must be able to construct a corresponding simile.
  • Predicative metaphors are those that have the conceptual form G(x) or G(x, y) such as “Mwalimu Mazrui steamed ahead.” To understand them, the hearer/reader must form a corresponding complex simile.
  • Sentential metaphors are those that have the conceptual form G(y) identified by being irrelevant to the surrounding discourse when literally construed.

A metaphorical change then is usually manifested by a word with a concrete meaning taking on a more abstract sense. For example, as Brian Weinstein points out,

By creating a sudden similarity between what is known and understood, like an automobile or a machine, and what is complicated and perplexing, like American society, listeners are surprised, forced to make the transfer, and perhaps convinced. They also gain a mnemonic device—a catch phrase that explains complicated problems (1983:8).

Indeed, by manipulating metaphors, leaders and elites can create opinions and feelings, particularly when people are distressed about the contradictions and problems in the world. In such times, as exemplified immediately after the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, DC on September 11, 2001, the masses crave for simple explanations and directions: for example, “the attackers of September 11, 2001 hate America because of its wealth, since Americans are good people, and that America should bomb terrorists wherever they are back into the prehistoric age” (Bangura, 2002:2).

In the words of Murray Edelman “internal and external passions catalyze attachment to a selected range of myths and metaphors which shape perceptions of the political world” (1971:67). On the one hand, observes Edelman, metaphors are used to screen out undesirable facts of war by calling it a “struggle for democracy” or by referring to aggression and neocolonialism as a “presence.” On the other hand, adds Edelman, metaphors are used to alarm and enrage people by referring to members of a political movement as “terrorists” (1971:65-74).

Indeed, the relationship between language and peaceful or un-peaceful behavior is so obvious that we hardly think about it. Everyone agrees, according to Brian Weinstein, that language is at the core of human society and interpersonal relations—that it forms the basis of civilization. Without this method of communication, Weinstein argues, no leaders could command the resources that are needed to form a political system extending beyond family and neighborhood. He further notes that, while we admit that the ability to manipulate words in order to persuade the voters is one approach people employ to gain and hold on to power, and that we admire oratorical and writing skills as gifts, we, nevertheless, do not perceive language as a separate factor, like taxation, which is subject to conscious choices by leaders in power or by women and men who desire to win or influence power. He adds that we do not see language in the form or capital yielding measurable benefits to those who possess it (Weinstein 1983:3). Another critical aspect about language and peaceful behavior is that, following Weinstein,

The process of making decisions in order to satisfy group interests, shape society in accordance with an ideal, solve problems, and cooperate with other societies in a dynamic world is at the heart of politics. Accumulating and investing capital are normally part of the economic process, but when those who own capital use it to exercise influence and power over others, it enters the political arena. Thus, if it is possible to show that language is the subject of policy decisions as well as a possession conferring advantages, a case can be made for the study of language as one of the variables pushing open or closed the door to power, wealth, and prestige within the societies and contributing to war and peace between societies (1983:3).

Since people employ metaphors as a conscious choice between varieties of language forms that have significant cultural, economic, political, psychological and social consequences, particularly when language skills are unevenly distributed, the major purpose of the data analysis section that follows then is to demonstrate that the metaphors that have been employed in our discourses on faith and ethnicity entail different purposes. The ultimate question then is the following: How can the metaphors be systematically identified in the discourses? For an answer to this question, Levinson’s treatise on tools used to analyze metaphors in the field of linguistic pragmatics is quite profitable.

Levinson discusses three theories that have undergirded the analysis of metaphors in the field of linguistic pragmatics. The first theory is the Comparison Theory which, according to Levinson, states that “Metaphors are similes with suppressed or deleted predications of similarities” (1983:148). The second theory is the Interaction Theory which, following Levinson, proposes that “Metaphors are special uses of linguistic expressions where one ‘metaphorical’ expression (or focus) is embedded in another ‘literal’ expression (or frame), such that the meaning of the focus interacts with and changes the meaning of the frame, and vice versa” (2983:148). The third theory is the Correspondence Theory which, as Levinson states, involves “the mapping of one whole cognitive domain into another, allowing the tracing out or multiple correspondences” (1983:159). Of these three postulates, Levinson finds the Correspondence Theory to be the most useful because it “has the virtue of accounting for various well-known properties of metaphors: the ‘non-prepositional’ nature, or relative indeterminacy of a metaphor’s import, the tendency for the substitution of concrete for abstract terms, and the different degrees to which metaphors can be successful” (1983:160). Levinson then goes on to suggest the use of the following three steps to identify metaphors in a text: (1) “account for how any trope or non-literal use of the language is recognized”; (2) “know how metaphors are distinguished from other tropes;” (3) “once recognized, the interpretation of metaphors must rely on features of our general ability to reason analogically” (1983:161).

Metaphors on Faith

As a student of the Abrahamic connections, it behooves me to begin this section with what the Revelations in the Holy Torah, the Holy Bible, and the Holy Qur’an say about the tongue. The following are examples, one from each Abrahamic branch, among the many tenets in the Revelations:

The Holy Torah, Psalm 34: 14: “Keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips from speaking deceitfully.”

The Holy Bible, Proverbs 18:21: “Death and life (are) in the power of the tongue; and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof.”

The Holy Qur’an, Surah Al-Nur 24:24: “On the Day their tongues, their hands, and their feet will bear witness against them as to their actions.”

From the preceding tenets, it is evident that the tongue can be a culprit whereby one word or more can wound the dignity of highly sensitive individuals, groups, or societies. Indeed, throughout the ages, holding one’s tongue, staying above petty insults, exercising patience and magnanimity have deterred devastations.

The rest of the discussion here is based on George S. Kun’s chapter entitled “Religion and Spirituality” in our book, Unpeaceful Metaphors (2002) in which he states that when Martin Luther King, Jr. launched his civil rights struggle in the early 1960s, he used religious metaphors and phrases, not to mention his famous “I have a dream” speech delivered on the steps at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC on August 28, 1963, to encourage Blacks to remain hopeful about a racially blind America. At the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, Blacks often held hands and sang, “We shall overcome,” a religious metaphor that united them throughout their struggle for freedom. Mahatma Gandhi used “Satyagraha” or “holding onto truth,” and “civil disobedience” to mobilize Indians in opposing British rule. Against incredible odds and often at great risks, many activists in modern freedom struggles have resorted to religious phrases and language to rally support (Kun, 2002:121).

Extremists have also used metaphors and phrases to advance their personal agendas. Osama bin Laden established himself as an important figure in contemporary Islamic history, cutting into the Western psyche, not to mention the Muslim one, using rhetoric and religious metaphors. This is how bin Laden once used his rhetoric to admonish his followers in the October-November, 1996 issues of the Nida’ul Islam (“The Call of Islam”), a militant-Islamic magazine published in Australia:

What bear [sic] no doubt in this fierce Judeo-Christian campaign against the Muslim world, the likes of which has never been seen before, is that the Muslims must prepare all possible might to repel the enemy, militarily, economically, through missionary activity, and all other areas…. (Kun, 2002:122).

Bin Laden’s words appeared simple but became difficult to deal with spiritually and intellectually a few years later. Through these words, bin Laden and his followers destroyed lives and properties. For the so-called “holy warriors,” who live to die, these are inspiring achievements (Kun, 2002:122).

Americans have also tried to comprehend phrases and religious metaphors. Some struggle to use metaphors during peaceful and non-peaceful times. When Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was asked at a September 20, 2001 news conference to come up with words that describe the kind of war the United States was facing, he fumbled over words and phrases. But the President of the United States, George W. Bush, came up with rhetorical phrases and religious metaphors to console and to empower Americans after the attacks in 2001 (Kun, 2002:122).

Religious metaphors have played a crucial role in the past as well as today’s intellectual discourse. Religious metaphors assist in understanding the unfamiliar and extend language far beyond its conventional limits. They proffer rhetorical justifications that are more cogent than more accurately chosen arguments. Nonetheless, without accurate usage and appropriate timing, religious metaphors may invoke previously misunderstood phenomena, or use them as conduit to further delusion. Religious metaphors such as “crusade,” “jihad,” and “good versus evil,” used by President George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden to describe each other’s actions during the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States prompted individuals, religious groups and societies to take sides (Kun, 2002:122).

Skillful metaphorical constructions, rich in religious allusions, have enormous power to penetrate the hearts and minds of both Muslims and Christians and will outlive those who coined them (Kun, 2002:122). The mystical tradition often claims that religious metaphors have no descriptive power at all (Kun, 2002:123). Indeed, these critics and traditions have now realized just how far-reaching language can go in destroying societies and pitting one religion against the other (Kun, 2002:123).

The September 11, 2001 cataclysmic attacks on the United States opened many new avenues for the understanding of metaphors; but it surely was not the first time society has grappled to understand the power of unpeaceful religious metaphors. For example, Americans have yet to understand how the chanting of words or metaphors such as Mujahidin or “holy warriors,” Jihad or “holy war” helped usher the Taliban to power. Such metaphors enabled Osama bin Laden to make his anti-Western passion and plans several decades before gaining prominence through a frontal assault on the United States. Individuals have used these religious metaphors as a catalyst to unite religious extremists for the purpose of instigating violence (Kun, 2002:123).

As the Iranian President Mohammed Khatami admonished, “the world is witnessing an active form of nihilism in social and political realms, threatening the very fabric of human existence. This new form of active nihilism assumes various names, and is so tragic and unfortunate that some of those names have resemblance to religiosity and self-proclaimed spirituality” (Kun, 2002:123). Since the September 11, 2001 catastrophic events many people have wondered about these questions (Kun, 2002:123):

  • What religious language could be so cogent and powerful to sway a person to sacrifice his life to destroy others?
  • Have these metaphors really influenced and programmed young religious adherents into killers?
  • Can these unpeaceful metaphors also be passive or constructive?

If metaphors can help bridge the gap between the known and the unknown, individuals, commentators, as well as political leaders, must use them in such a way as to avert tension and communicate understanding. Failure to bear in mind the possibility of misinterpretations by the unknown audience, religious metaphors can lead to unanticipated consequences. The initial metaphors used in the wake of the attacks on New York and Washington DC, such as “crusade,” made many Arabs feel uncomfortable. The use of such unpeaceful religious metaphors to frame the events was clumsy and inappropriate. The word “crusade” has its religious roots in the first European Christian effort to dislodge the followers of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) from the Holy Land in the 11th Century. This term had the potential to revamp the centuries-old revulsion Muslims felt against Christians for their campaign in the Holy Land. As Steven Runciman notes in the conclusion to his history of the crusades, the crusade was a “tragic and destructive episode” and “the Holy War itself was nothing more than a longer act of intolerance in the name of God, which is against the Holy Ghost.” The word crusade has been endowed with positive construct by both politicians and individuals due to their ignorance of history and to enhance their political objectives (Kun, 2002:124).

The use of metaphors for communicative purposes clearly has an important integrative function. They also provide the implicit bridge between the disparate tools of redesigning public policy. But it is the time during which such metaphors are used that is of prime importance to the audience. The various metaphors discussed in this section of faith are not, in themselves, intrinsically unpeaceful, but the time during which they were used provoked tensions and misinterpretations. These metaphors are also sensitive because their roots can be traced to the conflict between Christianity and Islam centuries ago. Relying on such metaphors to win public support for a particular policy or action by a government unreflectively risks primarily misconstruing the classical meanings and contexts of the metaphors (Kun, 2002:135).

The unpeaceful religious metaphors used by President Bush and bin Laden to portray each other’s actions in 2001 have created a relatively rigid situation in both the Western and Muslim worlds. Certainly, most Americans believed that the Bush Administration was acting in good faith and pursuing the nation’s best interest to crush an “evil enemy” that intends to destabilize America’s freedom. By the same token, many Muslims in various countries believed that bin Laden’s terrorist acts against the United States were justifiable, because the United States is biased against Islam. The question is whether Americans and Muslims fully comprehended the ramifications of the picture they were painting and the rationalizations of both sides’ actions (Kun, 2002:135).

Regardless, the metaphorical descriptions of the September 11, 2001 events by the United States government encouraged an American audience to take the rhetoric seriously and support an aggressive military action in Afghanistan. The inappropriate use of religious metaphors also motivated some disgruntled Americans to assault Middle Easterners. Law enforcement officials engaged in racial profiling of people from Arab and Eastern Asian nations. Some in the Muslim world were also supporting more terrorist attacks against the United States and its allies because of how the term “jihad” was being abused. By describing the United States’ actions to bring those who carried out the attacks on Washington, DC and New York to justice as a “crusade,” the concept created an imagery that was shaped by the arrogant use of the metaphor (Kun, 2002:136).

There is no dispute the acts of September 11, 2001 were morally and legally wrong, according to Islamic Sharia law; however, if metaphors are not used appropriately, they can evoke negative images and memories. These images are then exploited by extremists to carry out more clandestine activities. Looking at the classical meanings and views of metaphors such as “crusade” and “jihad,” one would notice that they have been taken out of context; most of these metaphors are being used at a time when individuals both in the Western and the Muslim worlds were faced with a torrent of injustices. Certainly, individuals have used crisis to manipulate and persuade their audiences for their own political gains. In the event of a national crisis individual leaders must bear in mind that any inappropriate use of religious metaphors for political gains has immense consequences in society (Kun, 2002:136).

Metaphors on Ethnicity

The following discussion is based on Abdulla Ahmed Al-Khalifa’s chapter titled “Ethnic Relations” in our book, Unpeaceful Metaphors (2002), in which he tells us that ethnic relations became an important issue in the post-Cold War era because most internal conflicts, now considered to be the major form of violent conflicts around the world, are based on ethnic factors. How can these factors cause internal conflicts? (Al-Khalifa, 2002:83).

Ethnic factors can lead to internal conflicts in two ways. First, ethnic majorities exercise cultural discrimination against ethnic minorities. Cultural discrimination might include inequitable educational opportunities, legal and political constraints on the use and teaching of minority languages, and constraints on religious freedom. In some cases, draconian measures to assimilate minority populations combined with programs to bring large numbers of other ethnic groups into minority areas constitute a form of cultural genocide (Al-Khalifa, 2002:83).

The second way is the use of group histories and group perceptions of themselves and others. It is inevitable that many groups have legitimate grievances against others for crimes of one kind or another committed at some point in the distant or recent past. Some “ancient hatreds” have legitimate historical bases. However, it is also true that groups tend to whitewash and glorify their own histories, demonizing either neighbors, or rivals and adversaries (Al-Khalifa, 2002:83).

These ethnic mythologies are particularly problematic if rival groups have mirror images of each other, which is often the case. For example, on the one hand, Serbs see themselves as “heroic defenders” of Europe and Croats as “fascist, genocidal thugs.” Croats, on the other hand, see themselves as “valiant victims” of Serbian “hegemonic aggression.” When two groups in close proximity have mutually exclusive, incendiary perceptions of each other, the slightest provocation on either side confirms deeply held beliefs and provides the justification for retaliatory response. Under these conditions, conflict is hard to avoid and even harder to limit, once started (Al-Khalifa, 2002:83-84).

So many unpeaceful metaphors are used by political leaders in order to promote tensions and hatred among ethnic groups through public statements and mass media. Furthermore, these metaphors can be used in all stages of an ethnic conflict beginning with the preparation of the groups for a conflict until the stage prior to moving towards a political settlement. However, it can be said that there are three categories of unpeaceful metaphors in ethnic relations during such conflicts or disputes (Al-Khalifa, 2002:84).

Category 1 involves the use of negative terms to escalate violence and deteriorate situations in ethnic conflict. These terms can be used by parties in conflict with each other (Al-Khalifa, 2002:84):

Revenge: Revenge by group A in a conflict will lead to counter revenge by group B, and both acts of revenge might lead the two groups into an endless cycle of violence and revenge. Moreover, the acts of revenge might be for an act perpetrated by one ethnic group against another in the history of the relations between them. In the case of Kosovo, in 1989, for example, Slobodan Milosevic promised Serbs revenge against Kosovo Albanians for losing a war to a Turkish army 600 years earlier. It was evident that Milosevic used the metaphor of “revenge” to prepare Serbs for the war against Kosovo Albanians (Al-Khalifa, 2002:84).

Terrorism: The absence of a consensus on an international definition of “terrorism” gives the opportunity to ethnic groups involved in ethnic conflicts to claim that their enemies are “terrorists” and their acts of revenge a kind of “terrorism.” In the Middle East conflict, for instance, Israeli officials call Palestinian suicide bombers “terrorists,” while Palestinians consider themselves as “Mujahideen” and their act as “Jihad” against the occupying forces—Israel. On the other hand, Palestinian political and religious leaders used to say that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was a “terrorist” and that Israeli soldiers are “terrorists” (Al-Khalifa, 2002:84-85).

Insecurity: The terms “insecurity” or “lack of security” are commonly used in ethnic conflicts by ethnic groups to justify their intentions to establish their own militias at the phase of preparing for war. On March 7, 2001 Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon mentioned the term “security” eight times in his inaugural speech at the Israeli Knesset. The Palestinian people were aware that the language and terms used in the speech were for the purpose of incitement (Al-Khalifa, 2002:85).

Category 2 comprises terms that have a positive nature, but can be used in a negative way for incitement and justification of aggression (Al-Khalifa, 2002:85).

Holy sites: This is not an un-peaceful term in itself, but it can be used to achieve destructive purposes, such as, justifying acts of aggression by claiming that the objective is to protect holy sites. In 1993, a 16th-Century mosque—the Babrii Masjid—in the northern city of Ayodhya in India was destroyed by politically organized mobs of Hindu activists, who wanted to build a temple to Rama on that very spot. That outrageous event was followed by communal violence and riots across the country, in which 2,000 or more people perished—both Hindus and Muslims; however, Muslim victims far outnumbered Hindu (Al-Khalifa, 2002:85).

Self-determination and independence: The path to the freedom and independence of an ethnic group can be bloody and cost the lives of many, as was the case in East Timor. From 1975 till 1999, resistance movements in East Timor raised the slogan of self-determination and independence, costing the lives of 200,000 East Timorese (Al-Khalifa, 2002:85).

Self defense: According to Article 61 of the United Nations Charter, “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a member of the United Nations….” Hence, the United Nations Charter preserves the right of member states to self-defense against aggression by another member. Yet, despite the fact that the term is limited to use by states, it was used by Israel to justify its military operations against Palestinian territories which have yet to be recognized as a state by the international community (Al-Khalifa, 2002:85-86).

Category 3 is composed of terms that describe the destructive results of ethnic conflicts such as genocide, ethnic cleansing and hate crimes (Al-Khalifa, 2002:86).

Genocide: The United Nations defines the term as an act consisting of killing, serious assault, starvation, and measures aimed at children “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.” The first use by the United Nations was when its Secretary-General reported to the Security Council that the acts of violence in Rwanda against the Tutsi minority by the Hutu majority were considered genocide on October 1, 1994 (Al-Khalifa, 2002:86).

Ethnic Cleansing: ethnic cleansing is defined as the attempt to cleanse or purify a territory of one ethnic group by use of terror, rape, and murder in order to convince the inhabitants to leave. The term “ethnic cleansing” entered the international vocabulary in 1992 with the war in former Yugoslavia. Yet it is widely used in General Assembly and Security Council resolutions and the documents of special rapporteurs (Al-Khalifa, 2002:86). A century ago, Greece and Turkey euphemistically refereed to their tit-for-tat ethnic cleansing “population exchange.”

Hate (bias) crimes: Hate or bias crimes are behaviors defined by the state to be illegal and subject to criminal punishment, if they cause or mean to cause harm to an individual or group due to perceived differences. The hate crimes that were perpetuated by Hindus against Muslims in India can serve as a good example (Al-Khalifa, 2002:86).

In retrospect, the connection between the escalation of ethnic conflicts and the exploitation of unpeaceful metaphors can be utilized in the efforts of deterrence and conflict prevention. Consequently, the international community can benefit from monitoring the use of unpeaceful metaphors among various ethnic groups to determine the precise time to intervene in order to prevent the eruption of an ethnic conflict. For instance, in the case of Kosovo, the international community could have anticipated the clear intention of President Milosevic to perpetrate acts of violence against Kosovar Albanians in 1998 from his speech given in 1989. Certainly, in many instances, the international community could intervene long before the outbreak of a conflict and avoid the devastating and destructive results (Al-Khalifa, 2002:99).

This idea is based on three assumptions. The first is that the members of the international community act in harmony, which is not always the case. To demonstrate, in the case of Kosovo, although the UN had the desire to intervene prior to the eruption of violence, it was hindered by Russia. The second is that the major states have an interest in intervening in ethnic conflicts; this can be applied only in some cases. For example, in the case of Rwanda, lack of interest on the part of major states led to the delayed intervention of the international community in the conflict. The third is that the international community invariably intends to stop the escalation of a conflict. Yet, ironically, in some cases, the escalation of the violence precipitates a third-party’s efforts to end the conflict (Al-Khalifa, 2002:100).


From the preceding discussion, it is evident that our discourses on faith and ethnicity appear as muddled and combative landscapes. And since the beginnings of international relations, the battle lines have been indiscriminately multiplying into the intersecting web of the strife we have today. Indeed, the debates over faith and ethnicity have been divided by interests and convictions. Within our vessels, passions swell, making heads throb, vision hazy, and reason confounded. Swept in the current of antagonism, minds have conspired, tongues have cut, and hands have maimed for the sake of principles and grievances.

Democracy is supposed to harness antagonism and conflict, much like an efficient engine harnesses violent explosions into work. Evidently, there is plenty of conflict and antagonism to go around. In fact the grievances held by non-Westerners, Westerners, women, men, rich and poor, however ancient and some unsubstantiated, define our relationships to one another. What is “African” without hundreds of years of European and American oppression, repression, depression, and suppression? What is “poor” without the apathy, revile and elitism of the rich? Each group owes its position and essence to the indifference and indulgences of its antagonist.

The global economic system does much to harness our penchant for antagonism and competition into trillions of dollars of national wealth. But economic success notwithstanding, the byproducts of our economic engine are too disturbing and dangerous to ignore. Our economic system seems to literally swallow up vast social contradictions as Karl Marx would say class antagonisms with the actual or aspirant’s possession of material wealth. At the root of our problem is the fact that the fragile sense of association we do possess for one another has self‑interest as its antecedent. The basis of our social organization and our great civilization is self‑interest, where the means available to each of us is inadequate to the task of obtaining optimum self‑interest. To ensure societal harmony, the inference to be taken from this truth is that all of us should strive to need one another. But many of us would rather downplay our interdependence on one another’s talents, energy, and creativity, and rather incite the volatile embers of our varied perspectives.

History has repeatedly shown that we would rather not allow human interdependence to breach our various distinctions and bind us together as a human family. Rather than acknowledge our interdependencies, some of us have opted to coerce others into thankless submission. Long ago, enslaved Africans worked tirelessly to sow and harvest the bounty of the earth for European and American slave masters. From the needs and wants of slave owners, supported by the compelling laws, taboos, beliefs, and religion, a socioeconomic system evolved out of antagonism and oppression rather than out of a sense that people need one another.

It is only natural that a deep chasm has emerged between us, spawned by our inability to deal with one another as indispensable pieces of an organic whole. Flowing between the precipices of this chasm is a river of grievances. Perhaps not inherently powerful, but the furious tremors of fiery rhetoric and cruel denials have transformed our grievances into rushing rapids. Now a violent current drags us kicking and screaming toward a great fall.

Unable to assess the failures in our cultural and ideological antagonism, liberals, conservatives, and extremists of every dimension and quality have forced even the most peaceable and disinterested of us to take sides. Dismayed at the sheer scope and intensity of the battles erupting everywhere, even the most reasonable and composed among us find that there is no neutral ground upon which to stand. Even the clergies among us must take sides, as every citizen is coerced and conscripted into participating in the conflict.


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About the Author

Abdul Karim Bangura is a researcher-in-residence of Abrahamic Connections and Islamic Peace Studies at the Center for Global Peace in the School of International Service at American University and the director of The African Institution, all in Washington DC; an external reader of Research Methodology at the Plekhanov Russian University in Moscow; an inaugural peace professor for the International Summer School in Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Peshawar in Pakistan; and the international director and adviser of the Centro Cultural Guanin in Santo Domingo Este, Dominican Republic. He holds five PhDs in Political Science, Development Economics, Linguistics, Computer Science, and Mathematics. He is the author of 86 books and more than 600 scholarly articles. The winner of more than 50 prestigious scholarly and community service awards, among Bangura’s most recent awards are the Cecil B. Curry Book Award for his African Mathematics: From Bones to Computers, which has also been selected by the African American Success Foundation’s Book Committee as one of the 21 most significant books ever written by African Americans in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM); the Diopian Institute for Scholarly Advancement’s Miriam Ma’at Ka Re Award for his article titled “Domesticating Mathematics in the African Mother Tongue” published in the Journal of Pan-African Studies; the Special United States Congressional Award for “outstanding and invaluable service to the international community;” the International Center for Ethno-Religious Mediation’s Award for his scholarly work on ethnic and religious conflict resolution and peacebuilding, and promotion of peace and conflict resolution in conflict areas; the Moscow Government Department of Multicultural Policy and Integrational Cooperation Award for the scientific and practical nature of his work on peaceful interethnic and interreligious relations; and The Ronald E. McNair Shirt for the stellar research methodologist who has mentored the largest number of research scholars across the academic disciplines published in professionally refereed journals and books and won the most best paper awards two years in a row—2015 and 2016. Bangura is fluent in about a dozen African and six European languages, and studying to increase his proficiency in Arabic, Hebrew, and Hieroglyphics. He is also a member of many scholarly organizations, has served as President and then United Nations Ambassador of the Association of Third World Studies, and is a Special Envoy of the African Union Peace and Security Council.


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