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.