Words Are Weapons

Inside ISIS's Rhetoric of Terror

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Philippe Joseph Salazar
Dorna Khazeni
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , September
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In a highly digitalized and information overloaded world, it is not surprising that most people are greatly influenced by popular media like social networking sites and television shows, including news channels and newspapers, on issues of concern like terrorism. Our understanding about the growing challenge of ISIS and its heinous acts are limited to first level information to which we are being continuously exposed from all available sources. Consequently, our viewpoint resonates more with the sources that have the most control, presence, and reach, however false or distorted they may be. The puzzle is that although democratic states are the core agents controlling this exposure of information, there seems to be no end to people ready to join terrorist groups like ISIS. This puzzle is addressed brilliantly by Philippe Joseph Salazar in his book Words Are Weapons: Inside ISIS’s Rhetoric of Terror, which gives arguments that rupture the conventional understanding of ISIS. He does this by analyzing the rhetoric that is being propagated by ISIS in the form of short video clips, pictures, text, and speech. 

Salazar’s central concern is the unthinkable power and complexity of the rhetoric used by ISIS and its agents to influence and convert ordinary people around the world. Salazar observes that the Islamic language that is being used by ISIS is “Arabesque,” interlaced with poetry and based on the logic of analogy, something the West discarded long ago. He warns that the rhetoric of ISIS has almost controlled the narrative, definition, and discourse of terrorism and that unless the West starts working on a counter-rhetoric that is equally attractive and effective, the problem of ISIS may not be solved anytime soon. 

For Salazar, the problem of caliphate terrorism is not ordinary; it is extraordinary. Raising the concern that the problem of terrorism is being treated like any other social issue by Western democratic states, Salazar points out that the mediatized world has supported terrorists by spreading their propaganda and by restricting free deliberation on terrorist acts. Not surprisingly, scholars, especially those from critical terrorism studies, have already agreed that the popular counterterrorism policies of democratic states are counterproductive. Fortunately, in this book, Salazar rescues the democratic Western states from this muddle by directing them to first acknowledge that there is a problem in their own rhetoric on terrorism and secondly that this rhetoric needs to be changed. 

The book has thirteen chapters excluding a prologue and epilogue. From the rise of the caliphate in the city of Mosul, Iraq in 2014, to its acts of terror in Western democratic states, especially France, the book captures how, with the help of words, the caliphate terrorists have been able to justify their deeds to existing sympathizers and attract new ones. The chapter on the digital caliphate reveals that existing digital counterpropaganda by Western states is poor, ineffective, and counterproductive. Salazar continuously references the example of a video released by ISIS that featured a person’s throat being slit to support his arguments. 

Viewing Islam as the Other, Salazar has mainly analyzed the issue of ISIS terrorism based on ideology. This Otherness can be a concern when it is viewed as a binary. However, this may be necessary, considering the immediate threat ISIS is currently posing to the Western democratic states on the pretext of Islam. Having said this, one should not hesitate to appreciate that Salazar is very critical of the Western states for their failure to address the issue of caliphate terrorism. Words Are Weapons highlights many incidents where Western states’ counter-rhetoric has been a complete disaster. This book is a wakeup call for the Western states to practice introspection and change their rhetoric on terrorism when it comes to ISIS. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Stanzin Lhaskyabs is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for International Politics, Organization, and Disarmament in the School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India.

Date of Review: 
August 29, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Philippe-Joseph Salazar is distinguished professor of rhetoric in the faculty of law at the University of Cape Town and past director in rhetoric and democracy at the Collège International de Philosophie in Paris. In 2008 he received the Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Award, the top prize for research on the African continent. In 2015 he received the Prix Bristol des Lumières for the French edition of this book.

Dorna Khazeni was a finalist for the PEN USA Translation Award. She has published her translations from French in Vanity FairHarper’sZoetrope AllStoryThe Believer, and elsewhere.


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