War of words: Salazar’s work on ISIS rhetoric wins UCT Book Award

20 December 2021 | Story Helen Swingler. Photo Getty Images Read time 5 min.
Dist Prof Philippe-Joseph Salazar has won the 2021 UCT Book Award.
Dist Prof Philippe-Joseph Salazar has won the 2021 UCT Book Award.

Philippe-Joseph Salazar, Distinguished Professor of Rhetoric in the Faculty of Law at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and past director in Rhetoric and Democracy at the Collège International de Philosophie in Paris, has won the 2021 UCT Book Award for his work, Words are Weapons: Inside ISIS’s Rhetoric of Terror.

The work first appeared in French in 2015 and has since been widely translated. In 2017 it was published in English. A 2017 ResearchGate synopsis of the English translation describes the book as the first to offer “a rigorous, sophisticated analysis of ISIS’s rhetoric and why it is so persuasive”. The UCT Book Award recognises outstanding publications by UCT.

Published works in any category – including monographs, textbooks, novels, collections and popular writing – are eligible for consideration by the Book Award Committee. Members of the university community may also nominate UCT books.

This annual award has a R30 000 prize.

War of words

In 2008 Distinguished Professor Salazar received the Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Award, the top prize for research on the African continent. In 2015 he received the Prix Bristol des Lumières award for the French edition of the book.

The ResearchGate synopsis reads, “ISIS wages war not only on the battlefield but also online and in the media”.


“Salazar contends that Western discourse has undergone a ‘rhetorical disarmament’.”

“Through a close examination of the words and images ISIS uses, with particular attention to the ‘digital caliphate’ on the web, Philippe-Joseph Salazar theorizes an aesthetic of ISIS and its self-presentation. As a philosopher and historian of ideas, well versed in both the Western and the Islamic traditions, Salazar posits an interpretation of Islam that places speech – the profession of faith – at the centre of devotion and argues that evocation of the simple yet profound utterance of faith is what gives power to the rhetoric that ISIS and others employ.

“At the same time, Salazar contends that Western discourse has undergone a ‘rhetorical disarmament’. To win the fight against ISIS and Islamic extremism, Western democracies, their media, politicians, and counter-terrorism agencies must consider radically changing their approach to Islamic extremism.”

Salazar spent over 18 months analysing ISIS propaganda and noted that that the attraction is “far more intellectual than frequently assumed”. Over the past 70 years of relative peace in the Western world, particularly Europe, rhetoric had lost its powers of persuasiveness. In the book he notes the poverty of the West’s ‘discursive community’.

He added, “Not only does it leave us linguistically unarmed, it also leaves us open to linguistic subversion. In our linguistic panic, we have let ISIS control the terms of the debate and even take hold within our own discursive community.”

Cool voice of reason

A 2016 article published by UCT News places the book in the context of the wave of terrorism that struck Europe in 2015 and in the following years. It reads, “A couple of weeks before the Paris terrorist attacks in November last year, Philippe-Joseph Salazar, Distinguished Professor of Rhetoric at UCT, published a book [in French] examining the persuasive power of contemporary jihadist arguments … It won France’s prestigious Prix Bristol des Lumières award on 12 November 2015, just one day before the attacks occurred.

“In the wake of the terror attacks, the book has been praised for its rationality and rigour, and Salazar has been characterised as a cool voice of reason amid often hysterical reactions from political, religious and media figures. Its Italian publication, in January, met with overwhelming praise in the Peninsula’s print and television media (Parole Armate, Bompiani).

“Salazar takes no pleasure in his prescience. In his view, Western governments and societies need to acknowledge the Islamic State – or as he would have it called, the Caliphate – as an organised, intelligent entity, capable of rational conviction; rather than as a chaotic, radical aberration, as he believes it is mostly characterised in Western media.”

As Robert Hariman, Professor of Rhetoric at Northwestern, Chicago, said in his review of the book, “Instead of using the usual clichés about civilization and barbarism, [Salazar] argues for understanding, and replaces certitude with discernment.”

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