The Islamic State through the looking-glass

They will say, “Our eyes have been deceived. We have been bewitched.”

Surat al-Hijr (15:15)

ONE OF THE PARTICULARITIES of the movement calling itself the Islamic State is its investment in the phantasmagorical. It has an instinctive understanding of the value of taking its struggle to the realm of the imagination as the best way to compensate for its real-world limits. Even as it faces setbacks on the battlefield, it has made forays into our collective psyche, where its brutality and taste for gory spectacle is a force multiplier. Perhaps more than merely evil, the Islamic State is diabolical: like the Satan of scripture, it is a creature that is many things to many people, enjoys a disconcerting allure, and ultimately tricks us in to believing that we are doing the right thing when we are actually destroying ourselves.

This may explain, in part, how it is increasingly resorting to crimes that are not just horrific but spectacularly staged, such as the immolation of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kassasbeh or the mise-en-scène of the beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts on a Libyan beach. The Islamic State is at its most dangerous in its interaction with the psyche, the fantasies, the frustrations and the fears of others, from the converts it attracts to policy-makers and analysts.

The semantics deployed in response to it are telling: each party projects its own national traumas and anxieties. In the West, the threat posed by Islamic State has been equated with anything from Auschwitz to the genocide in Rwanda to the siege of Sarajevo, even though none of these precedents has much in common with the phenomenon at hand. Among Muslims, the comparisons tend to point to Islam’s early traumas – Sunnis refer to the Khawarij, Islam’s first radicals, while Shias draw comparison with the Umayyads, the Sunni dynasty whose rise the partisans of Ali opposed. These sectarian-tinged views duel with the Islamic State’s own depiction of itself as the embodiment of pious, brave, ruthless and egalitarian comradeship – a utopian image of early, conquering and united Islam that it cultivates meticulously (and which works all the better the less versed in Islamic culture its audience actually is).

This is a sign of the times we are living in, not just in the region but beyond. We are emerging from a relatively well-defined, intelligible world into a moment of chaotic change and reinvention. Out of fear of the unknown and a need to categorise what is happening, we use flawed parallels and historic references. One day it is the end of Sykes-Picot borders; the next the Cold War is being revived. Iranian officials like to view current events through the lens of the 1980s, when they fought a heroic and traumatic war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and his backers.

In the West, rather than naming things that trouble us, we tend to use vocabulary that is designed to be reassuring rather than true. It doesn’t take much to see a “national unity government” in Baghdad instead of a profoundly unbalanced and dysfunctional cabinet; we say “Iraqi army” for what in reality is a worn-down collection of abused and often corrupt men who fled as the Islamic State advanced and left most of the fighting to Shia militias. We posit “ceasefires” in Syria to refer to surrenders under the regime’s bombardment, siege and starvation; a “Free Syrian Army” or more recently “moderate rebels” to describe unruly militias fighting Assad. The worst things get, the more we seem willing to describe things as we wish they might be rather than as they are.

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Originally published, with Sarah Birke, in The Arabist, 3 March 2015

Illustration credit: Hieronymus Bosch The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things by Wikipedia / licensed by CC. 

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