It’s held aloft by devoted employees, worn on T-shirts and waved gleefully by children. It spearheads franchising efforts. And it’s been the constant in a video-led media offensive, opening news bulletins all over the world and captivating new recruits.
The ‘Black Standard’ of Islamic State (IS) has helped build global brand awareness in record time. Scarcely a day goes by when it doesn’t loom into view on our screens or newspaper pages, flying from an armoured car, stamped on hijacked food aid parcels or draped behind another unbelievable act of barbarity. The jihadists have got this branding business down to a tee.
It’s not just their flag, of course, that has brought the Sunni militants worldwide infamy. We know IS by its actions. The flag itself, with its slapdash Arabic script and white circle, means nothing to most of us. With all successful brands, it is the associations we attach to them that lend their symbols power. The IS flag is no different. To someone with no knowledge of what IS does, the flag would convey none of the menace and revulsion that it carries for the rest of us. To assume the flag carries no inherent meaning, though, would be a great oversight. Every element of it is significant for IS recruits and its followers.
What the standard does is hijack words and symbols that are sacred to all Muslims and repurpose them for the IS cause. The script across the top is the first half of the shahada, Islam’s first statement of faith: ‘There is no god but God, Muhammad is the messenger of God’. It’s the same statement that appears on the Saudi flag. The standard’s moon-like circle containing the words, ‘ God Messenger Muhammad’, represents the Seal of Muhammad, supposedly used by the prophet to seal letters to foreign leaders, asking for their support. The seal’s authenticity has been debated, but its use by IS is regarded as a bid to be seen as modern fighters for Muhammad.
Many Muslims are highly conflicted about the Black Standard. Its words, which lie at the core of their belief, have been co-opted by extremists and murderers. The presence of the sacred word ‘Allah’ on the flag makes any desecration of it sacrilegious. The #BurnISIS Flag-Challenge that went viral on YouTube last autumn stirred up divisions in the Arab world, as young Lebanese Muslims sought to separate IS from the religion it claims to serve.
Finally, the lack of colour is also rooted in the earliest days of Islam. Muhammad is believed to have spread his teachings and gone to war under a black banner.
But there’s an apocalyptic dimension to the black, as well. In Islamic beliefs about the final events of history, the Mahdi is the redeemer who will establish an Islamic state and rid the world of evil before the Day of Judgment. For Sunni Muslims, the Mahdi is Muhammad’s successor and his coming will be heralded by Black Standards.
It’s not hard to see where IS sees its destiny. This is an organisation with a clear mission and a brand that, to some young Muslims, is irresistible. For the rest of us, understanding why that is begins with the flag we’re seeing so much of. 1