Modern islamophobia often takes the form of assumptions that Islam is a uniquely violent religion and therefore Muslims themselves are uniquely violent. It is claimed by islamophobes that the Quran and Sunnah, rather than social, economic and psychological factors, is the cause of jihadist ideology. But violent exhortations to kill unbelievers, misogynistic diatribes and laws which encourage the segregation of believers from the ‘infidel’ occur in most religious texts.
Several prophetic books in the bible describe the Jewish people as like a ‘whore’ or a ‘disobedient wife’ and devote great detail to how it will be ‘defiled’. All religions teach about the theory of a ‘just war’ to ‘defend the faith’. In Thailand and Burma, Buddhist fundamentalists have murdered Muslims with government support in the name of holy war. Christian militias in the Central African Republic have burned, raped and decapitated Muslims as part of a gruesome civil conflict. In one recent interview a French hostage claimed that ISIS torturers did not have copies of the Quran, and nor did they want to encourage the hostages to read it.
What is unique about jihadism is not the fact that Islam is an especially intolerant religion. Many Muslims are motivated by their beliefs and faith in God to help others and create a decent society. What is unique about it is the extent to which jihadi ideas have gained a global appeal thanks to worldwide communications, migration and the catastrophic and short-sighted policies of western governments which enabled these networks to grow and created the conditions for them to gain a mass following. These were assisted by the deliberate policies of states such as Saudi Arabia as well as non-state organisations.
The idea of a worldwide movement of workers to defeat capital has always been regarded as intrinsic to the socialist project. The abolition of nationalism and withering away of the nation state has been regarded as an inherently progressive project. Yet dreams of a borderless world ushering in the end of capitalism and a communist utopia so far seem to be misplaced. The rise of technology and mass communications, coupled with the phenomenon of mass migration and trade, created ideal conditions for the growth of reactionary ideologies with a global base.
For example, the so-called ‘counter-jihad’ movement, which claims to be defending ‘western civilisation’ against Muslim barbarians, has enabled European far-righters to forge links with Zionists, Hindu nationalists and African militias in a common islamophobic ‘struggle.’ Even Nazism has had to rebrand itself as ‘white nationalism’ and promote ideas of the ‘white race’ which is threatened worldwide by Jews and immigration. The notion of ‘white pride worldwide’ has replaced German racial superiority for today’s Nazis.
Jihadism is arguably one of the most successful of these deterritorialised reactionary movements.Since 9/11 it has seared itself into worldwide consciousness. It kills around five thousand people every month, the overwhelming majority Muslim civilians in poor countries. It appeals to the religious identity of the ‘ummah’ in order to promote the concept of a global apocalyptic struggle between Muslims and everyone else. So it is a kind of ‘Muslim nationalism’ which has grown due to global media and the increasing sense of a common experience worldwide. The Afghanistan and Bosnian conflicts, taking place in a time when images could be quickly seen around the world, fuelled the rise of jihadism. Unprecedented numbers of fighters from overseas participated in these conflicts and were ignored and given ideological and financial support by western states, all too happy for assistance against the Soviet Union and later the Serbs.
The sight of helpless people slaughtered by Serb nationalists in Bosnia motivated many to fight from overseas. While the majority were not convinced jihadists for a significant number their experiences cemented beliefs in religious warfare. The international links made between fighters were to be significant in the growth of global jihadi networks. These networks were largely ignored by western security services as they fitted with foreign policy objectives. Margaret Thatcher gave a speech praising mujihadeen fighters in 1981 and there is even footage of her joining in the ‘takbir‘.
Jihadis from everywhere in the world participated in what was seen as one front in a global battleground. Yet when they returned home they were usually ignored because it was assumed they had no motive for waging jihad anywhere else. But the Gulf war and the Israel-Palestine conflict, as well as the inaction of the west during atrocities like Srebrenica, fuelled the growing sympathy for religious warfare against non-Muslim countries and America in particular. Osama bin Laden, for example, was enraged at the Saudi state allowing its territory to be used as a base for US troops.
Incidents like the Salman Rushdie affair and later, the horrific scenes in Bosnia in the 1990s meant that such views were able to gain a wider following in the west. People with experience of jihad overseas returned to their native countries and were able to inform their friends and families of their views and show them videos of what had happened, and purchase largely unregulated material by jihadi preachers. They were able to put across their ideas by talking to people that they knew. The spread of the internet and global telecommunications meant they could stay in contact with other ‘mujihadeen’ in a way unimaginable previously.
The attacks on the World Trade Centre on 9/11 changed the political climate in western countries irrevocably. Whereas western islamophobia had usually taken the form of prejudices about immigration, this changed on 9/11. The sight of the planes crashing into the towers and the murder of almost three thousand people in the world’s richest country on a single day meant that to many Islam itself could be deemed as a threat. Islamophobic views and far right rhetoric began to grow in acceptability. Despite the denials of politicians that the ‘war on terror’ was a war on Islam their actions appeared to many Muslims – and non-Muslims – to show otherwise. As one man put it in a BBC documentary last year, many Muslims feel ‘under the microscope‘.
The illegal invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were justified by the concept of security. The ‘war on terror’ led to people being held without charge in Guantanamo and other sites operating in dubious legal terrain. Vladimir Putin began his presidency by conducting a horrific war in Chechnya and installing Ramzan Kadyrov, a corrupt, brutal warlord as its leader. Arab regimes close to western allies used the excuse of terrorism for vicious attacks on dissent; the Saudi government has even equated atheism with terrorism.
Saudi Arabia has been promoting its form of hardline salafism across the world for decades as a form of ‘soft power‘ to build influence in Muslim communities overseas. Saudi government agencies have exported material promoting antisemitic, anti-Shia, and hardline fundamentalist views to mosques and religious schools in the UK, US and other countries. Some Saudi-funded schools in the UK were shut down when they were found to teach extremist material. Its brand of sharia law mandates punishments similar to ISIS, such as public beheadings, flogging and amputations. It is officially forbidden to practice another religion in Saudi Arabia and the death penalty is in force for apostacy.
While the case for the Saudi state’s role in jihadism can be overstated, it has contributed to the growth of such movements with discrimination against Shia Muslims, repeated sectarian statements by state-funded religious figures and the government’s promotion of fundamentalism overseas. With the help of Saudi Arabian foreign policy, a fundamentalist form of Islam has assumed a position of prominence in countries like the UK which it did not previously have. Salafist doctrine is used as justification for destroying many of Islam’s holiest sites and historical heritage – many of them particularly sacred to Shia – and replacing them with monuments to capital. Religious police interfere with the prayers of Muslims on Hajj pilgrimages to ensure they are worshipping ‘properly’.
As the Saudi state is a useful ally in the Middle East – it is the UK’s biggest arms customer – these excesses have been largely ignored. When King Abdullah died the flag was flown half mast on British government buildings. Yet the Saudi regime is also a source of rage for jihadis angry at its repression of anti government groups and selective accommodation with non-Muslim allies. ISIS sharply criticise the Saudi Arabian authorities for relaxing sex segregation and promoting scholarships to ‘infidel’ countries for Saudi students.
In the UK a repressive state apparatus has been used against Muslims and other parts of the community, with people being arrested for talking about riots on Facebook, or for writing poems online. Yet the current and previous British governments have encouraged the growth of religious fundamentalism. Faith schools and the outsourcing of social services to religious organisations encourage sectarianism and unchallenged hardline religious views. Schools are able to impose rules such as compulsory modest dress codes. Beth Dins in Haredi Jewish communities and shariah courts, which deal with divorce and inheritance rights, have emerged as a parallel legal system. Many using them are unaware of their rights under secular law.
Religious groups’ increasing role in providing social welfare such as support for homeless people or assistance for people living in poverty means that they become hard to challenge, since they fulfil needs which are not met by the state or by “secular” community organisations. They fill a vacuum left by the collapse of community organisations and often appear to be pure and non corruptible. In Coventry, the contract for homeless services was awarded to the Salvation Army, which discriminates against LGBT people and believes homosexual activity is a sin. In London and Manchester, Haredi Jews have their own ‘faith based’ police service, the shomrim.
The authorities guiding these groups often oppose community engagement with the secular world or anything that could cause ‘dirty linen’ to be aired in public. A Channel 4 documentary showed Haredi Jewish victims of child abuse being instructed not to tell the police as it was allegedly a sin to inform gentile authorities on other Jews. Religious leaders are able to bolster their own power by promoting fear of the outside world. These parallel structures are given state approval. They provide a way for the state to cut provisions and take responsibility out of its hands.
The role of charities and ‘faith based’ outreach groups in recruiting people for religious warfare should not be understated. In 2011, the Charity Commission said that the most deadly problem it faced was the use of charity funds for Islamist extremism. The Muslim community is far from alone here. Young Hindu boys attending HSS youth camps are told that Christians have a ‘secret conspiracy’ to ‘destroy Hindu history’ and that Islam is the worst religion in the world. The neo-Nazi far right have used their charitable status to set up ‘English community groups’ which promote burning down mosques.
Some charities and religious groups encourage immigration to Israel and membership of its military, which last summer killed over 2500 people in fifty days, the overwhelming majority civilians. There are countless agencies offering programmes that aim to create a sense of loyalty to Israel. The popular ‘Birthright’ trips aim to foster young Jews’ loyalty to Israel by allowing young people to travel there for free. The Israeli military have held ‘question and answer’ sessions at synagogues for those wishing to fight for the IDF.
State and political party encouragement for ‘community leaders’ and an increased drive towards religious segregation in education and social provision, and a largely unregulated sector of private religious schools, has created a fertile ground for religious fundamentalism to flourish. Politicians are often able to use endorsements by religious leaders in order to get votes. Religious fundamentalists are thus able to gain important positions in mosques, churches and other institutions. Support to ‘soft’ Islamists such as those in the Muslim Council of Britain, toleration of practices such as gender discrimination in family law if it is religiously based, are paradoxically coupled with islamophobic dog whistle attacks by politicians. As the state has no legitimacy this means that religious figures are able to develop their own. As Egerton writes, almost all those involved in jihadi terrorist plots in the west had prior contact with fundamentalist preachers. According to one study, two preachers are followed by 60% of foreign ISIS members using social media accounts.
The recent massacre by jihadis of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in Paris has been used by the French government as an excuse to clamp down on anti government criticism. The idea of laicite (secularism) is applied unequally, with many French public schools holding Masses and serving fish on Fridays. Churches built before 1905 have access to state funds, whereas mosques do not. Children and parents in France will soon have to sign a pledge to support its so-called secularism. This ‘secularism’ is used against some religions, but not others, such as Catholicism. In the name of supposedly promoting free speech and ‘western values’, European states such as France resemble their counterparts in the Muslim world for whom religion is a weapon of state control.
In Muslim countries, punishments for blasphemy go hand in hand with insulting government policy. In Morocco, you can be jailed for insulting Islam, insulting the king, and for saying that occupied Western Sahara is not part of Morocco. Other Muslim states have used Islamist gangs to break strikes and terrorise workers’ movements.
In Azerbaijan, the fight against “terrorism” has taken on an ethnic dimension with the majority of government raids against “salafis” taking place against minority groups in the north of the country. They are far from the only ones. In Burma, violent islamophobia, promoted by Buddhist organisations with the complicity and support of the state, is combined with the aggressive enforcement of blasphemy laws. In the UK people who have bought Charlie Hebdo magazines have had their details taken down by police. There are growing calls for blasphemy laws based on ‘civility‘ to Prophet Mohammed and other sacred figures.
The parameters of acceptable political debate are becoming increasingly narrowly defined across Europe with restrictions on free speech covering an ever widening range of subjects. This is not purely driven by the state but increasingly lobbying and activist groups trying to silence people they disagree with and corporations silencing criticism by workers. The recent proposals to ban antisemites (but not islamophobes) from social media will not persuade people convinced of a Jewish conspiracy that it does not exist. They will do the exact opposite.
Meanwhile stories such as the firebombing of a synagogue going unpunished because the attackers want to “raise awareness of Gaza” only feed resentment among non-Muslim populations. The far right are increasingly perceived to be the only ones willing to discuss these issues. Many young Muslims also report that due to fear or lack of knowledge, these issues are not discussed in mosques at all. Imams and others often have few ideas of the issues affecting young people and may be little help to someone already speaking to jihadis. These developments coupled with the rise of religious fundamentalism and state violence create a dangerous atmosphere, polarising public opinion based on religious identification and alienating people from each other.
Government austerity measures in the UK, increasing prices and falling living standards have particularly affected women and members of minority communities. The number of women murdered by their partners has sharply risen. Last year 19 police forces reported a rise in homophobic attacks. Despite the advances made such as gay marriage and improved employment rights, there are increasingly few places for gay people to socialise, especially outside London, and employment protections are rendered meaningless for many with the introduction of fees for tribunals.
As people from a particular ‘community’ are lumped together it makes dissent within that community harder. ‘Apostates’ and those who take progressive stances on creationism, women, LGBT issues and the actions of particular states are increasingly pressured to keep their mouth shut. Shia Muslims in the UK often go to Sunni mosques when there is no Shia mosque available, but this is rapidly becoming more difficult. This is not helped by hypocritical calls for ‘integration’ and attacks from outside the religious community. It is not helped by the devastating results of western foreign policy towards the iddle east, which are apparent to all and can be viewed instantly online.
Muslims have often borne the brunt of austerity measures in the UK and Europe. They are more likely than any other group to be out of work or in low-paid jobs. They are more likely to be in substandard housing. This situation has worsened in the last ten years. A third of social housing tenants, for example, say their standard of living has worsened in the last two years. Prisons in the west have also been breeding grounds for ‘gangster jihadis’, many of whom were not originally from Muslim backgrounds. Rather than a period of regular Muslim belief before being radicalised, people are converting directly to jihadi ideology. Many are attracted by the discipline and routine of this lifestyle and the sense of global community it offers.
Disaffected young people who do not identify with their parents’ culture, which is often perceived as old fashioned, patriarchal and restrictive, or the ‘values’ of the state may turn instead to religiously based ideas. This serves to cause increased fractures of society on religious and sectarian lines, particularly when ‘charities’ and states such as Saudi Arabia – or Israel – use their influence within minority communities to promulgate their views. At the same time the fact that religion, so heavily promoted in ‘faith based’ initiatives is coopted by the state is not lost on those who turn to fundamentalists who sell out less easily.
Much has been made of the fact that ISIS were so violent that they were kicked out of al-Qaeda. Not least by al-Qaeda themselves, who are using their rivals’ brutality to reposition themselves as more ‘principled’. A Jordanian al-Qaeda cleric was released following the recent murder of Muath al-Kasasbeh. He went on national television to say that ISIS’s actions had nothing to do with Islam, which was quoted approvingly on Twitter by the US state department.
The US government even attempted to use him to reason with ISIS clerics. The catastrophic policy of encouraging jihadi groups in order to stave off what is seen as a greater danger, whether it is ISIS or ‘reds under the bed’ threatens to repeat itself. In fact al-Qaeda’s leadership were always acutely aware of the danger of alienating ‘soft’ support in the Muslim world. Zarqawi’s relentless bombing of Shia targets was seen as a distraction from the main jihad.
But the exit from al-Qaeda left the organisation free to concentrate on ‘remaining and expanding’. Rather than building a caliphate at some point in the future, they could take advantage of the chaos in Iraq and start building one now. ISIS leaders such as al-Baghdadi were imprisoned by the Americans in Camp Bucca, but continued building the organisation in jail right under their noses. Prisoners’ experiences of places such as Camp Bucca and the notorious Abu Ghraib, and being constantly surrounded by jihadist ideas and the likes of al-Baghdadi who prisoners were expected to show “respect” to, helped ISIS to gain many followers inside, unchallenged.
The extreme violence ISIS uses has to some extent become normalised in many parts of the Middle East, and part of many people’s everyday reality. There is still significant sympathy for the organisation in Jordan, particularly in poorer towns.
The years since 9/11, and the years since the global economic crisis began especially, have seen a catastrophic decline in the living standards of millions across the world. We live in a world where people are increasingly disconnected from each other, which makes it difficult to empathise or understand each other’s lives. Capitalism has taught many people that human life is worthless and given sadists and the power hungry the ability to control life and death.
As one Kurdish organisation warned, ISIS’s twisted version of Islam can appeal to those whose lives are out of control and are “looking for a leader“. The attraction of this ideology is no longer purely based on religious fundamentalism, if it ever was. The strict rules and righteous anger of jihadi organisations, based on an identity that unites people across the world, that transcends racial and class barriers, that seems to fight injustice, can seem an attractive alternative to the hypocrisy and violence of modern capitalism. We should not assume this is a purely Islamic issue. It affects everyone.
Note: For more on deterritorialism and jihadism please read Frazer Egerton’s book ‘Jihad and the West’. I also used the book ‘Eurojihad: Patterns of Islamist Radicalisation and Terrorism in Europe’ to research this piece.
The unspeakable, bestial savagery of the so-called ‘Islamic State’ reached new depths this week as they released a slickly produced video of a Jordanian pilot burned to death, a punishment which is almost universally regarded as haram, or forbidden in Islam. The sickening cruelty of ISIS members standing back and watching the flames has enraged the world. After footage of the pilot’s death was shown, Jordanians took to the streets shouting ‘death, death to Daesh’ and calling for the execution of jihadi prisoners. That should be a slap in the face to islamophobic western ideologues and ISIS sympathisers, both of whom like to claim that ISIS’s obscene barbarity represents an authentic version of Islam sympathised by the overwhelming majority of Muslims. ISIS have even executed imams for criticising the murder of the pilot, which was shown on huge screens in areas it controls such as Raqqa. In an echo of nightmarish regimes such as North Korea, children were apparently forced to watch. Much has been written by media hacks about the ‘production values’ of ISIS snuff movies. ‘Yes, it’s disgusting, but it could have been made in Hollywood!’ This is 2015, the days of grainy videos of speeches by old men hiding in a cave are gone. It is thus hardly surprising that they are using modern media techniques to propagate their message.
That said, ISIS and its supporters are startlingly good at using propaganda and portraying very different messages to different audiences. ISIS’s snuff movies are designed, among other reasons, to provoke a brutal response from coalition forces as well as others opposing them. They also force ISIS fighters who may be having doubts or thinking of defecting to stay with the group for fear they will be killed, either by fellow fighters or by a world which despises them. They force them to fight to the death. Air strikes against ISIS which cause civilian casualties will look to the already brutalised population living in the areas ruled by the ‘Caliphate’ – and many outside it – like a straightforward indiscriminate attack on them and their community. People whose relatives are killed in coalition air strikes are not going to care too much about victims of ISIS PR stunts. Revenge attacks on Sunni civilians – equated with ISIS by militias will have a similar effect. In what ISIS terms ‘infidel’ or ‘apostate’ regimes, state surveillance, restrictions on dress, increased stopping and searching, clampdowns on freedom of speech and workers’ rights, combined with growing suspicion and hatred by Shia or non-Muslim populations, all combine to create fertile ground for jihadists to operate.
I believe that in this context the films serve several functions.
Firstly, they are designed to create a spectacle of terror among opponents of ISIS, depleting morale and creating a climate in which anyone may be under suspicion. The destruction of the World Trade Center on 9/11 and the images of planes crashing into buildings created such a spectacle. Highly emotive images of dead babies killed by the west and iconic images of the ‘brave’ ‘mujahideen’ are a staple of jihadism. The group which became ISIS, at that time led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, further developed such an approach in 2004 with the beheading of Nick Berg and other western hostages. Secondly, they create an impression of unstoppable momentum which is frequently not matched by events on the ground. It is no coincidence that the latest film was released when ISIS is being routed from Kobane, which it had poured a huge number of resources into attacking. They give the impression that there is nothing holding them back, that they can do anything they want and don’t give a fuck. Footage like the burning of the pilot is shown in territory held by the group to crush dissent and opposition, terrorising the people of Raqqa and Mosul into silence.
Thirdly, they distract attention from the incompetence, expropriation, thievery, misogyny and everyday violence perpetrated against occupied populations by ISIS. They also create an atmosphere of scepticism. Some of the stories circulated about ISIS seem almost too horrific to be true, and ISIS’s emphasis elsewhere on heroism, ‘women’s rights’ and the like put across a very different message to that of the burning cage. Fourthly, they serve the geostrategic aims of ISIS in promoting fractures within regional elites and rival militant groups which assist its project of a caliphate. The UAE, for example, has pulled out of the coalition against ISIS out of concern for its pilots’ safety. Selective murders of prisoners from Lebanon have helped to reignite the religious conflict.
Lastly, these pornographic images form part of a very specific recruitment strategy aimed at recruiting a demographic of people, mostly in the West, who are attracted to and turned on by violence. This is far from being their only recruitment strategy. They aim to attract a broad range of people from disillusioned ex Baathist bureaucrats to devout young women living in Saudi Arabia. The global jihadi movement would not have survived for as long or be nearly as deadly – killing over five thousand people worldwide in a single month in 2014 – were it purely attracting sociopaths or be purely about an obsession with archaic religious rules.
The fact that a group as despicable as ISIS enjoys any significant support in Iraq and Syria among locals is partially due to the brutality of Western (and Russian and Iranian) backed regimes such as Bashar Assad and Nouri al-Maliki, and the chaos in those countries. By backing Sadrist militia groups which terrorise Sunni civilians Iraq’s government fuels sympathy for ISIS. In a reversal of their position from a year ago coalition forces are now discussing helping Assad, a dictator that has killed more people than ISIS but who takes care to keep his crimes hidden rather than revel in them. Even the Jabhat al Nusra front, a jihadist group affiliated with al-Qaeda, are increasingly seen as a more ‘moderate’ option.
This week a document was translated by the Quilliam Foundation which described the ideal ‘functions’ of women under ISIS rule. It is specifically aimed at women in the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, and was not translated into English. The document tries to portray ISIS’s ‘humane’ side. It presents an image of a tranquil, ‘sedentary’ existence where women are hidden from view. It specifically attacks Saudi Arabia’s hypocrisy in forbidding women from driving, while permitting women and men to associate in universities and workplaces. ISIS talks about setting up old age homes, ending corruption, and how its sharia courts are ‘listening’ to women’s issues:
We believe that there were few truly just courts before the establishment of the Caliphate, for two reasons: 1) Because the tyrants who administered the courts blocked the Shariah, instead ruling by human constitutions based on injustice. 2) On the administrative side of things, the Shiite junta did not rule with Sunni rulings in mind, especially regarding women. In addition to this, many women lost their rights due to rampant corruption. Now, courts that rule by that which God decreed have been established, judges have been appointed long periods within which they can consult with the people on matters of marriage and divorce and inheritance, which concern women a lot. The divisions concerned with these issues were applied without delay, as much as was possible. Women now go to courts and openly talk of their issues. They find that they are listened to and their issues are dealt with, without a need for bargaining or bribery – indeed some researchers have even suggested that the level of corruption within Islamic State is zero. If a Christian women comes to the state courts to declare their conversion to Islam, then they enjoy full protection from any harm or abuse, whether it is paternal or something else, just at the Copts who become Muslim in Egypt, where they suffer torture and imprisonment, or the sisters that face the same situation in Lebanon.
ISIS describes in emotive terms the hardship which existed for women under the threat of Shiite militias and other gangs in the days before its takeover of parts of Iraq and Syria. It contrasts this with an idealised picture of life under authentic Islamic rule. ISIS repeatedly stress that they are not against women’s education and they want to allow women to become doctors and teachers (although education should stop after the age of fifteen). ISIS stress how much they are against nationalism – borne out in the ‘breaking the borders’ campaign where they demolished the Sykes-Picot line. In their words, ‘Syria is no longer for the Syrians and Iraq is no longer for the Iraqis.’ They describe a community where settlers from all parts of the world live side by side. Some of the ‘case studies’ presented could have come from the pages of an Amnesty International report:
R.‘A., a teacher from Riyadh, told me her story. She is a divorced woman with three girls. Her government put her in a position, after more than 7 years of waiting during which she was forced to work in difficult places, in an undignified manner. She worked in a travel office where she met men and received from them what women have to when faced with men. Then, she was appointed a teacher in the village of Ras Shamikh in the south of the Gulf, far from her people. She moved there and lived in a house with several other women in the same situation. The village was not safe – it was full of drug addicts and criminals. She was transported to and from the school on top of the mountain with the other female teachers by a driver who, it was later discovered, dealt drugs. The sister continued to suffer there with no one looking into her case or trying to solve her problem. Many women are in the same situation. They need a livelihood. Others have even died because of it, in what have become known among Jazrawis as “teachers’ accidents.”
What is striking here is the difference in this message, inviting conservative women from Muslim countries to join ISIS, and the message sent to, for example, young western women, for whom joining and marrying a ‘mujahideen’ is heavily romanticised and presented as an act of adventurism. Notions that women could or should fight are refuted, with ISIS denouncing the ‘confusions’ that have taken hold as a result of ‘shoddy-minded’ feminist ideas. Women are told they should stay in their houses. It is even further away from the Call of Duty-style videos and stunts with which ISIS attempt to recruit young Western men. ISIS is hardly unique in playing different messages to different audiences. It is also not unique in shoving its sadism in people’s faces – videos created by Mexican drugs cartels display similar qualities. The social media campaigns by supporters of the Israeli state and the Israeli army itself often have a similar pornographic quality.Last year right wing Zionists relaxed on hills overlooking the border, taking selfies of themselves on Instagram while they watched the bombing of Gaza. Israeli soldiers uploaded videos to Youtube destroying mosques and dedicating the explosion to dead fighters. The Israeli state, and individual Zionists attempting to bolster support for Israel pose its propaganda message on multiple levels – as ‘the only safe place to be a Jew’, as a tolerant multicultural society, as a LGBT haven – messages that contradict the open celebration of violence all too apparent in many of Israel’s supporters.
Both Zionism and salafist jihadism attract young, ideologically committed supporters who are adept at using the social media and display an adept knowledge of postmodern culture. By contrast, the anti terrorist websites set up by western states appear hopelessly out of date and are easily parodied and ridiculed, such as the ‘stop-djihadisme‘ campaign in France which appears to show that not eating baguettes is a sign of becoming a terrorist. The lies and deceptions of western governments on everything from the Iraq war to child abuse scandals help to create a sense of scepticism that ISIS could really be this bad.
More than past jihadi movements, ISIS taps into depoliticised, nihilistic, reactionary violence. It appeals to many of the same kind of people who in a different setting would have become neo-Nazis or Zionist ‘lone soldiers’ who travel to Israel from the west to join the army. It is no surprise that ISIS recruiters target people who play games such as ‘Call of Duty’ and that some of their productions, such as ‘Clanging of the Swords 4‘ are designed to resemble such games. Graphics created by ISIS members include such slogans as ‘YODO. YOU ONLY DIE ONCE – WHY NOT MAKE IT MARTYRDOM.’ One jihadist described being a member of ISIS as like a real life version of Call of Duty.
A disturbing example of this nihilism is the series of videos taken of the British hostage John Cantlie. Cantlie is filmed in the style of a TV presenter giving an analysis, depicting the ISIS position as if he is presenting a news discussion. In later videos he is shown in Kobane giving a breakdown of ISIS positions (prior to their defeat). In the most recent video he rides around Mosul on a motorbike with armed fighters guarding him as if he is presenting a travel programme. In the process of these videos he makes sarcastic comments about the West’s strategy towards ISIS, such as ‘people are starting to lose their heads.’ I hope that he is making such remarks as an attempt to keep himself sane. But some of the comments beneath the video praise ISIS for ‘a top class bit of trolling’.
In a world where we are more isolated and atomised than ever, such cynicism has become the order of the day. People who sincerely believe in ISIS’s message, attracted by the rhetoric of building a religious utopia and helping oppressed people, are potentially as dangerous as Jihadi John. One film, Eid Greetings from the Land of Khilafah, shows ISIS fighters handing out sweets surrounded by smiling children. Jihadist groups are masters in using the power of images and exploiting the suffering caused by neoliberal capitalism to recruit. The 7/7 bombers claimed to be motivated by the suffering of Muslims in Iraq and Palestine and saturated themselves with such images in order to dispel any doubts.
As I will discuss in the follow up to this piece, the years after 9/11 have seen an intense rise in islamophobia in the west, and a growing suspicion of Muslims, politically motivated laws such as headscarf bans in Europe, and an intense focus on the community in terms of security and surveillance. This is one of the factors which has driven the growth of religious fundamentalism and an apocalyptic jihadist ideology. There is a growing expectation that Muslims prove their loyalty to the country as with the demands for poppy hijabs. A poll in 2014 showed 63% of French people believe Islam is not compatible with the country’s values.
These are frightening statistics. And on the surface they show that the polarisation strategy that ISIS shares with the far right and elements of the state is partially working, with religious hate proving powerful enough to erode bonds of solidarity between neighbours and workmates.
It is hardly surprising that such a climate has fuelled support in some circles for ISIS, although nowhere near the mass support that is often thought. ISIS’s meticulously choreographed image conceals the fact that many people in Raqqa, Mosul and other areas despise their rule despite the bombings by coalition forces and years of polarisation and sectarianism. People are risking their lives, to film scenes of life in Raqqa and the aspects of life that ISIS does not want people to see. Harassment by armed men, scenes of people being held down and beheaded in the street, and anything that does not fit the view ISIS wants to present to the world. Divisions within the ranks, with locals and those forced to fight frequently despising ideologically fixated and brutal foreign fighters who carry out a form of settler colonialism for ‘all the world’s Muslims’, the wage freezes, the confiscation of salaries, mean that it could all fall apart very very quickly. A recent series of military defeats demonstrates that the group are in no way as powerful or as unstoppable as they claim. It is no coincidence that the most horrifying of their media stunts was released shortly after Kobane, where they were pushed back by a women’s militia. ISIS is attempting to portray themselves as invincible and to make themselves invincible through fear, but this will not work indefinitely.
In the ferocious response from Jordan and the coalition states following the events of this week ISIS are getting what they want, at least in the short term. ISIS’s stunts obscure the fact their support is increasingly fractured, and their military might is not what it appears. In the mean time however, the group will continue to attract sadists, ‘gangster jihadis’ and religious fanatics, as well as people who believe they can protect them from sectarianism and government attacks in Iraq and Syria.
ISIS has been propelled into a position it does not deserve by the actions of local elites, international and regional powers, and by its ability to use propaganda on a global scale which differs so widely depending which audience it is addressing. It is in the vanguard of a movement which is internationalist, against racism and the nation state but at the same time reactionary, nihilistic and devoted to violence for its own sake and the sake of religious fundamentalism. ISIS is poisoning relationships between communities in Iraq and Syria and will continue to do so for a long time to come. It will provide an excuse for states to tighten restrictions on the population in the name of security. For the sake of all those who have to deal with this it is important that we inform ourselves and offer what solidarity we can to people such as those in Raqqa who have risked their lives to oppose them.