By Ellen Finch
The videos of U.S. journalist James Foley’s alleged execution by ISIS fighters went viral in August. Followed by the beheadings of Steven Sotloff and David Haines, ISIS have furthered the militant Islamist ideology of leaders like Osama bin Laden to the point where al-Qaeda have cut all ties with the group due to their brutality. ISIS’s threat stems not least from the use of an apparently British militant carrying out the executions, which begs the question: if they have the power and ability to reach the ‘desperate and disaffected youth’, as quoted by The Guardian, just how dangerous are they to the reputation of Islam, and to the safety of the world?
ISIS has a decade-long history of activity spanning Iraq, Syria and Turkey, but it is their recent actions that have brought the group to the attention of our media. They have advanced beyond suicide and car bombings to focus specifically on targeting the U.S. and Britain, reaching a more personal means of attack by targeting individuals, and therefore their families and communities.
Their use of the internet in perpetrating these crimes demonstrates their understanding of its power: they know that people are, by nature, strangely fascinated by the violent and macabre, and therefore their disturbing videos will circulate swiftly. And even when people refuse to watch the videos – by principal, or because they are affected by the nature of the murders – they still make the headlines of world media. ISIS has proved quite clearly that it can make an impact on the world extremely quickly.
By placing a British figure at the forefront of their videos, ISIS also demonstrate the ease with which they can ‘radicalise’ Westerners. This decision has more purpose than to shock viewers: it means we can no longer easily dehumanise perpetrators of terrorist acts and dismiss them as ‘others’. We have to recognise that young people from our own countries are capable of the acts many cultures deem ‘barbaric’ – and with this, we must question why young people are joining ISIS in the first place.
By using social media to reach out to more people than has previously been possible, ISIS can use recruitment techniques reminiscent of military campaigns through time – the depiction of an idealised Jihadist to which future fighters should aspire, coupled with promises of glory, money and women – to communicate their ideology to young Muslims who may sympathise with their cause. They draw upon instances of western or Christian crimes against Muslims that are rarely or never discussed in our media, and remind recruits of the often tendentious depiction of Islamic militants in comparison to violent groups of other religions and cultures.
By reversing the language often used by our media, ISIS has effectively created an opportunity for young Muslims to break away from western values and fight for a cause not previously open to them. And their propaganda is effective – over 500 British Muslims have travelled overseas to join ISIS in the last year, and 250 more have returned as converted Jihadists.
ISIS’s claim to be ‘an Islamic army accepted by a large number of Muslims worldwide’ is damaging enough to the reputation of the Islamic faith. Whilst ISIS justifies its actions with a retaliatory argument, it has encountered criticism from Islamic groups around the world. A recent letter to David Cameron, signed by representatives of the Islamic Society of Britain and the Association of Muslim Lawyers, asserted that ‘[ISIS] is neither Islamic, nor is it a state. The group has no standing with faithful Muslims’.
The issue is that years of poor media coverage and poor education around religious issues have led to a widespread ignorance amongst the public as to the difference between the peaceful teachings of Islam and the extremist views of groups such as ISIS. Efforts to solve this problem are wasted when politicians and the media continue to use language that implies that ISIS has any ties with mainstream Islamic values, such as their persistent referring to ISIS as ‘Islamic State’, which somewhat reinforces ISIS’s claim to be a true ‘Islamic army’.
Whilst the west works to fight ISIS and its collaborators, efforts should be made in our own communities to prevent ISIS from further threatening the reputation of Islam, and to dissuade young Muslims from joining the group. We should work to counter the claims of ISIS as a ‘widely-accepted’ Islamic army by educating people about the difference between Islam’s teachings and extremists’ actions. ISIS’s online presence should be challenged by anti-ISIS efforts on our part – although the U.S. has recently attempted this with its ‘Think Again, Turn Away’ mock ISIS recruitment video. A movement that crosses the boundaries of its predecessors, occupying social media as well as territorial space, needs more than gunfire and airstrikes to defeat it.
Photograph – wikipedia