Why the black Shahada flag doesn't belong to Islamic State militants

ISIS supporters wave the Shahada flag. Source: AFP

When a black flag, often seen used by Islamic State militants, was auctioned off at a western Sydney mosque, it sparked controversy and anger. But what does this Shahada flag actually represent, and what is its significance?

When a black flag, often seen used by Islamic State militants, was auctioned off at a western Sydney mosque, it caused quite stir in the media, and sparked anger at both state and government levels. 

Footage of the auction was shared on Youtube on Sunday night and pictures of the event were also posted by teenagers on the photo sharing app, Instagram.

The black Shahada flag - identical to those used by Islamic State (IS) militants - was sold by Markaz Imam Ahmad (MIA) mosque in the western Sydney suburb of Liverpool for more than $2000 in July.

In a statement, the mosque denied it was supporting terrorism by auctioning the black and white flag, which it says is an "important symbol in Islam".

The mosque also insists the money raised from the sale of the flag was purely for the mosque and not to fund IS militants in Syria or Iraq.

"We reject any attempts to tarnish the good reputation of our centre and pledge to stand firm against the current wave of Islamophobia," MIA head Sheikh Abu Adnan said in a statement.

"We also believe that scapegoating and fear mongering has the serious potential of radicalising disaffected youth."

The Shahada flag contains the testimony of the Islamic creed, declaring belief in the oneness of God and the acceptance of Mohammed as God's prophet.

‘It is the Shahada that makes one a Muslim’

Dr Jan Ali, a senior lecturer in Islam and Modernity at the University of Western Sydney, said the Shahada is a foundational principle of Islam. The phrase is translated as: 'There is no god but Allah; Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.'

“Obviously it’s a very important statement – it’s what makes you a Muslim. Especially if you’re a non-Muslim who wants to enter Islam, you have to recite the Shahada, or at least believe in that.

“If you want to exit Islam, you denounce the Shahada. It is the Shahada that makes one a Muslim.”

Dr Ali added that, like other religions, the commodification of Islamic symbols is common. In that sense, the recent media spotlight on the Liverpool mosque flag auction was unnecessary.

“I think it is a very knee-jerk reaction. It is an overkill, in my view,” he said of the news reports that covered the auction, and the subsequent backlash against the mosque.  

“If someone wants to sell a flag, why not? We have many different religious items. For example, you would find the same kind of Shahada being printed on a canvas and then framed, and you will find that people sell that in shops.”

Dr Ali said drawing links between IS and the Liverpool mosque is baseless.

“[If] a connection is being made with ISIS, then I think it is a flawed connection. I don’t see any evidence of that.”

Banning the Shahada flag?

Nevertheless, the auction of the flag has sparked anger at both a state and federal government level.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has warned that anyone working with groups listed as terrorist organisations will face investigation.

"It is a serious offence under Australian law to work with terrorist organisations, to fund terrorist organisations, to fight with terrorist organisations," Mr Abbott says.

"These are serious offences under Australian law and where there is evidence that Australian law has been broken it will be dealt with severely."

New South Wales Premier Mike Baird says his government is considering banning the flag.

"It is a flag that is used by ISIS and ultimately that we have to respond to and have a zero tolerance to," he says.

"We obviously understand and appreciate and are very mindful of the tradition of Islam and this in no way goes in any way shape or form against that. This is about a terrorist organisation and you can see what they are doing across the world, and it is horrendous. And so in this country we have to have a zero tolerance approach to anything that shows support for that."

‘Hijacking our religion’

Founding member of the Christian Muslim Friendship Circle, Dr Jamal Rifi said IS had “hijacked” Islam for their own political gain.

“We have seen the barbaric state hijacking our religion for their political gain and using it as a tool at the same time for recruitment,” he told SBS.

“They not only hijack the religion itself, but also the most important aspect of the religion: the First Pillar of Islam and that is the Shahada. The second is the seal of the Prophet himself. They combine the two into that flag and they claim it as their own.

“This flag and what it represents belongs to all Muslims.”

#BurnISISFlagChallenge social media campaign

In response to IS's use of the Shahada flag, people in Lebanon recently began burning the flag to protest against the militant extremists.

“I nominate the whole world to #Burn_ISIS_Flag_Challenge. You have 24 hours. GO!!” one activist posted together with a YouTube video.

Inspired by the Ice Bucket Challenge, the hashtag #BurnISISFlagChallenge has gained momentum across the Arab world, with many posting photos and videos of themselves burning the black Shahada flag. The hashtag has since gone viral on social media. 

Dr Rifi told SBS that while people should protest against IS, burning the Shahada flag wasn't the right way to go about it.

“If there’s anyone who has a legitimate right to protest the use of this flag, it is the Muslim community itself,” he told SBS. “We are protesting against the barbaric state, and the hijacking of our religion and hijacking of the Islamic symbol.”

“[But] Muslims shouldn’t burn this flag, because this flag has important symbol and important writing on it. It’s blasphemous… and shouldn’t be done.”

What do you think of the #BurnISISFlagChallenge? How do you feel about Islamic State using the Shahada flag?

Source SBS

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