You know that a media narrative has been established when Reuters puts it into its boilerplate text.
For example, the standard reference for the Islamist faction Jabhat al-Nusra is now "the Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda linked rebel group".
Other news outlets have joined in --- or go even farther. Associated Press also uses "Al-Qaeda-linked group".
The New York Times chooses "aligned with Al Qaeda". Then, after declaring, "Nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of", it asserts: "Among the most extreme groups is the notorious Al Nusra Front, the Qaeda-aligned force declared a terrorist organization by the United States."
But what if that narrative is only part of the story, based on a repetition of a distorted interpretation of a Jabhat al-Nusra statement, which misses crucial points and nuances?
How does that affect our understanding of the Syrian conflict, and our responses to it?
While the US Government established the "extremist" label for Jabhat al-Nusra late last year when it designated the faction as a terrorist group, the "Al Qa'eda-linked" mantra was fostered last month after a statement by JAN head Abu Mohammad al-Golani.
Responding to an attempt by the Islamic State of Iraq to claim leadership of JAN, al-Golani emphasised the autonomy of the movement, stressing that it is a local faction that is working and fighting with other local groups.
However, that part of the message was lost --- at least in the Western press, who rather than analyzing the nuances of al-Golani's statement and placing those within a wider context, focussed entirely on a reference to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the head of Al Qa'eda after the death of Osama bin Laden.
However, the full text of al-Golani's statement, translated by EA, is far different from the simplistic, reductionist "allegiance to Al Qa'eda" soundbite presented and re-presented in media outlets, few (if any) of which actually read al-Golani's full statement in English, let alone Arabic.
The overarching message from al-Golani's statement is that while he recognises and is grateful for the important role played by the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in inspiring jihad, JAN is as independent as it is indebted to ISI.
While JAN undeniably shares ISI's Islamic worldview, primarily it is focused on local issues including fighting, missionary activities, and providing government services in opposition-controlled areas.
So in his statement, al-Golani --- who pseudonym identifies him as a Syrian "from the Golan" --- takes great care to stress that JAN is a local movement, even if it is inspired by that wider worldview and even if it respects and shares the ideology of those outside Syria. Despite this respect, al-Golani says JAN will decide both its future and the future of Islamic rule in Syria --- "declaring an Islamic State".
Significantly, al-Golani says JAN will do this in cooperation and in alliance with other local Islamist groups and insurgents.
Even though al-Golani makes a declaration of allegiance to his "Sheikh", al-Baghdadi, he points out --- not in passing, but as as his closing remark --- that this will not alter his strategies for how JAN operates on the ground in Syria:
The banner of the Jabhat will remain and not change, even though we are proud of the banner of the [Islamic] State [of Iraq] and those who carried it and sacrificed the blood of our brothers under the banner.
We reassure the people of as-Sham [Syria], what you saw from Jabhat in its defense of your religion, your honor and your blood, and honor and the good created with you and with fighting factions will remain as entrusted. And this declaration of allegiance will not change any of its policies.
Al-Golani makes three points:
First, he says there is no need to "declare an Islamic State" in Syria because "it is present in essence".
Second, such a state is being built in conjunction with other local groups:
...without excluding any key parties who participated in Jihad and Qital [fighting and killing physically and militarily] with us in as-Sham, from armed factions and renowned Sunni sheikhs to our brethren the Muhajareen [Brigade] -- quite apart from the leaders of Jabhat al-Nusra and its shura
Third, and perhaps most significantly, al-Golani says that no Islamic state has been declared not because JAN's fighters were weak in faith --- a point he alludes to in the Quran Surah he quotes in his statement --- but because JAN is taking into consideration the unique situation on the ground in Syria.
He says that the group is working alongside other major Islamic factions in Syria, as well as "those who support and advise us from outside the country":
The matter of postponing the announcement was not because of weakness in religion or fear on the part of the men of Jabhat, but enlightened wisdom based on Sharia and a long history and effort in understanding the Sharia politics applicable to the situation in as-Sham and agreed upon by the people of wisdom and logic in as-Sham, from the leaders of Jabhat and its students, and the leaders of other factions and their students and those who support and advise us from outside the country.
That leads to an examination of two quotes --- one Quranic, the other from a Hadith (a saying ascribed to the Prophet Mohammad) -- that Al-Golani uses.
The first is a quote from the Quran, from Surah Al-Ankabut (The Spider), Verses 1-3:Alif, Lam, Meem [These letters are one of the miracles of the Qur'an, and none but Allah (Alone) knows their meanings.] But We have certainly tried those before them, and Allah will surely make evident those who are truthful, and He will surely make evident the liars.
According to Islamic tradition, this Surah was revealed to the Prophet Mohammad at a time when Muslims were facing particularly harsh persecution from disbelievers in Mecca. Allah give the Surah to Mohammad, to encourage true believers in their faith and shame those who showed weakness. The Surah contains several stories, all of which give the message that Allah will reward true believers later, even if they are being persecuted by apostates now.
Why would al-Golani choose to quote this Surah in his response to al-Baghdadi?
First, it likely attests to the trials he believes JAN and believing Muslims are undergoing in Syria, as they fight what they see is a religious war against Assad's forces and as they strive to establish a local version of Islamic rule in Syria.
Further, through this choice of Surah, al-Golani is stressing his own faith in Islam, while reinforcing that JAN has not formally declared the establishment of an Islamic state in Syria precisely because are steadfast in their cause.
What of Al-Golani's Bai’ah -- his declaration of obedience to the Islamic State of Iraq's al-Baghdadi? The language of that Bai’ah is taken from a hadith by Ubada bin As-Samit , which talks about the Pledge of Obedience to the Rulers:
عن عبادة بن الصامت قال: بايعنا رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم على السمع والطاعة في المنشط والمكره، وأن لا ننازع الأمر أهله، وأن نقوم أو نقول بالحق حيثما كنا، لا نخاف في الله لومة لائم.
Like al-Golani's choice of Surah, the Hadith, "Afflictions and the End of the World", comes from a time of persecution of true believers:The Prophet called us and we gave him the Pledge of allegiance for Islam, and among the conditions on which he took the Pledge from us, was that we were to listen and obey (the orders) both at the time when we were active and at the time when we were tired, and at our difficult time and at our ease and to be obedient to the ruler and give him his right even if he did not give us our right, and not to fight against him unless we noticed him having open Kufr (disbelief) for which we would have a proof with us from Allah."
The Hadith's message is that Muslims must pledge obedience even when their rulers are being unjust towards them. Notably, Salafis use this same Hadith to argue that going against a leader is forbidden.
Al-Golani is saying that as a good, believing Muslim he has to pledge obedience to al-Baghdadi --- his mentor --- and to al-Zawahiri, even if he does not agree with the content of al-Baghdadi's statements and even though JAN is autonomous and operating locally.
So while al-Golani acknowledges his debt and respect to al-Baghdadi and al-Zawahiri, he makes it very clear that Jabhat al-Nusra is operating at a local level and will accordingly make its own decisions, in conjunction with other local groups unconnected with the Islamic State of Iraq, according to the unique conditions on the ground, and for the good of the local people of "as-Sham".
Reading al-Golani's statement "from the ground up" rather than imposing a simplistic "Jabhat al-Nusra are al-Qaeda" label from above allows us to take these nuances into account when assessing the threat this group could pose both locally and in the wider region.