The Power, Meaning, and Challenge of a Statement: Reflections on Steven Sotloff

By Hussein Rashid

Barak Barfi by Alexia Fodere for the New York Daily News
Barak Barfi by Alexia Fodere for the New York Daily News

For a CNN piece, Daniel Burke asked me for some quick thoughts on the statement released by American journalist Steven Sotloff’s family, after he was murdered by ISIS. The family’s statement, along with the comments made by Barak Barfi, who delivered the statement, contain many layers of meaning. It is not just a memorial for Sotloff; it is also a challenge to ISIS.

The family humanizes Steven Sotloff, giving us the details of his life, from junk food to Boy Scouts. Not only is he memorialized, but every victim of ISIS is humanized and memorialized in these words. The scale of atrocities that ISIS is perpetrating means we see numbers of dead, not lost voices and dreams. The eulogy of Mr. Sotloff continues his work of reminding us of all the voices we will not hear.

By having Barak Barfi, a scholar of Arab and Islamic Affairs and friend of Sotloff, deliver the message in Arabic, the lie that is the caliphate is laid bare. The old caliphates competed on being the best that they could. They fought wars, but warfare and slaughter were not the things to strive for. Competition was in the field of learning and arts. It is no coincidence that the oldest centers of higher learning were built by competing caliphates, or that money was spent bringing the best minds in the world to study at caliphal capitals. These were centers were meritocracy meant something and where you found Christians and Jews in the highest levels of government. This is not the “caliphate” of ISIS, and by having an Arab deliver the eulogy of a Jew, you show how hollow ISIS’s understanding of Islam truly is.

Barfi’s use of the Quran is important both for its content, and the fact that he is using it. The verse he quotes (2:190) is part of a longer section that forms just war theory in Muslim traditions. The key points in this section is that war can only be defensive, that you cannot cause unnecessary destruction, and that you may not harm non-combatants. ISIS violates every single tenet of this verse, so Barfi shows them to be ignorant. By using the Quran as the basis for debate he also demonstrates that ISIS does not actually base themselves in Muslim traditions, but in the language of hatred and rage. The debate hearkens back to the history of the early caliphates, where training swords was easy but training minds was hard. You proved your quality through debate, which ISIS cannot win.

The letter is powerful. It is painful and sorrowful, and it turns that to help remember Sotloff’s vision. It continues his work. It also lays the challenge to his murders, the murders of thousands of others, to be ready to face justice.

Hussein Rashid holds a PhD from Harvard’s Near Eastern Languages and Cultures. He is currently a faculty member at Hofstra University and Associate Editor at Religion Dispatches.