Focus: Decoding the ISIS brand

Focus: Decoding the ISIS brand

Neil Serougi

The rise of Islamic State has been graphically thrust into our lives through a visual cruelty cleverly wired into western public consciousness. The numbing, gruesome spectacle of ISIS fighters dispensing summary execution serves a psychological purpose beyond its disregard for the lives of opponents. It seeks to sow the seeds of insecurity about and within Muslim communities thereby undermining the civic inclusion of a Muslim identity in western society. Its trump card is to promulgate a narrative replete with political and social constructs inimical to ideas of co-existence and plurality. In particular, it creates a distrust predicated on ‘an enemy within mentality’, which is ultimately exploited by right-wing groups in the West. In this construction, Muslim intentions are increasingly coalesced around an incompatible cultural universe characterised by a surreptitious hostility to ‘our way of life’ and a moral code that runs counter to enlightenment values.

These constructions, common to ISIS and right wing critics of Islamism alike, are misleading: they falsely reduce complex societal dynamics to a simplistic generalisation and then eschew the need to see how western interventions have shaped events that then appear to vindicate the stereotype. The stereotype is further reinforced by a persistent media focus on home grown terrorism that conflates security with loyalty and loyalty with western values, which, in turn, provides the backstory to numerous other political value judgements around civic eligibility.

A subtext of ‘ingratitude’ and ‘undeserving’ increasingly filters into the popular psyche encapsulating themes ranging from bogus migrants to benefits abuse to the ignoble failure of multi-culturalism (‘we have tried, but they proved resistant’). These ‘facts’ have proved fixed and hard to shift amidst mixed messages from politicians. David Cameron’s recent rallying call around British values provided a semiological masterclass in threading the Muslim loyalty question into an assimilation template where civic belonging is heavily nuanced by subscription to modernity as understood through a neo-liberal economic and social narrative.

Frequently juxtaposed within a binary opposition, Muslim communities are cast as, at best, ambivalent, wherethe Umma prevails over the bonds of the indigenous society. Islamic brotherhood trumps Britishness.

This view reflects to some extent an unease with the innate conservatism of some of Islam’s belief structures that have come to dominate its representations across the political and social landscape. The relationship of religious fealty to social practice is a fault line on which the ‘private lives’ versus societal rights debate has grown. The position of women, the teaching of science and gay rights all have resonance in Western political culture that challenges conservative Islamic thinking. Although it’s a tension not unique to Islam (similar issues arise in strands of both Judaic and Christian theology) the impact is greater as domestic intelligibility is fractured by uncompromising images of life in the Middle East. Expectations about Western Muslim identity have been weakened by events in Iraq, Syria and now Libya. Its effect has been to initiate an anxious re-evaluation of the possibility of true assimilation.

ISIS has not been slow to take advantage. The clever representations by militant Islamists of an unwilling host that corrupts Islam plays into a wider discourse of dishonest Western ambitions both at home and in the Middle East. Its goal is to simultaneously engender feelings of guilt and resentment, but offer empowerment, replace common aspirations with those of separate identities and invoke in the young especially, an inner contradiction that for some has meant Jihad.

So Islam, one of the great monotheistic religions of the world now faces one of its greatest challenges; Its existential power as a ‘force for good’ faces a very tangible threat from a movement that celebrates brutal waste of life, defaces the extraordinary cultural heritage of the peoples of the Middle East and wilfully vandalises the lives of the young through a deceitful rhetorical power.

So how did it come to pass that a relatively small number of Islamic extremists with a philosophy equating to the worst excesses of a medieval ‘nihilism’ have acquired a prominence beyond anything their size warrants? The truth is size doesn’t matter. History shows that good organisation and an invincible self-belief can prevail against the odds and ISIS have shown an unerring ability to successfully mobilise committed fighters against larger forces. Their military successes have been instrumental in constructing a fearsome reputation augmented by an undiscriminating ‘fear factor’. The predilection of ISIS fighters for ‘Shahid’ (martyrdom) means they show no quarter: mercy is anathema and to show compassion amounts to a betrayal of a higher spiritual motive. Faced with this fanaticism, those who encounter them on the battlefield have for the most part been defeated psychologically before any real military exchange takes place.

The effect in the West has been to create a distorting voyeurism as large swathes of territory falls under ISIS control, amidst the symbolism of a highly choreographed campaign. Demolishing Palmyra was more than a cultural atrocity – it acted as a military spectacle that challenged western power through its disregard for international opinion. For youngsters especially the appeal of the combatants as ‘warriors’ can open the way to an accommodation of its worst excesses.

The attraction of its military success only partially explains its growing influence though. Another plausible reason is the ideological challenge ISIS poses to the civic face of Islam within western societies. This has resonated strongly with a Muslim disaffection borne out of a dissonance between real life chances and the West’s vision of equality, multi-culturalism and integration. Opportunity has turned out to be selective and Muslim youth have consistently found themselves disadvantaged. It feels a long way from the optimism embodied in the politics of empowerment and co-existence that once imagined a consensus across communities and cultural lines.

If this wasn’t bad enough, the ‘fall out’ from western foreign policy has added ‘fuel to the fire’ reshaping attitudes in a way that has undermined this ideal both within and outside of Islamic communities. In both cases the dissonance between theory and practice strikes a prescient note of discord. It’s a dynamic that ISIS has not been slow to exploit.

The consequent challenges have been experienced differently. For western societies the response has focussed on security and de-radicalisation. For Muslim communities though, the encounter is much more fraught with contradictions and carries the dilemma of appearing to side with the West against fellow Muslims with profound implications for the charge of ambivalence.

The impact of ISIS on Western perceptions is instructive in another way, too, revealing a continued struggle to understand the Middle East beyond for example, the cultural analysis of a tribal Afghanistan or Pakistan. The former occupies a different framework of reference that has partly defined our reactions. The Taliban are rendered intelligible through the perception of the regions as ungovernable and backward. This ‘feeling’ hasn’t generally applied to the Middle East.

Situated on the geo political fault lines that have defined its political history, the region has been characterised in Western political thought by what it imagined was a growing consensus about its place in the jigsaw of globalisation and modernity. Coalesced around an ideological template in which modernity is interchangeable with economic liberalisation, the western prescription for development in the Middle East proved a blunt and unwieldy instrument. Spectacular in its failure to recognise the depth of its cultural and religious fissures, it pushed a societal model imbued with a market mentality that would find empathy amongst the urban elites but offered little to the majority.

Despite the uncomfortable polarities between extreme wealth and poverty, the Middle East was from the 1990s seen as ‘open’ in ways that reflected Western values about social progress and economic opportunity. Deceptively as it turns out. Instead, the West’s approach lent itself to a colossal misjudgement about the nature of change and the inexorable benefits of globalisation. As ever with visions bestowed with such certainty, it was a small step to the self-delusion that introduced the flawed logic of interventionism. Implicit was a belief that the necessary conditions for success had to be expedited if the momentum for reform was to be sustained. With a blueprint founded on notions of democratic redesign as defined in the neo conservative lexicon of political change conducive to free markets and growth, government strategists became attuned increasingly to the need to force the issue. Interventionist paradigms became a normative feature of political discourse in Washington, consigning dissent to the margins.

The removal of established dictators and the sheer popular exuberance and dynamism that was the Arab Spring served to further create a pyrrhic confidence in Western diplomatic circles. In those policy environs that modelled the future in a rarefied climate of economic teleology, what lay ahead was inordinately self-assured, optimistic and ultimately hopelessly wrong. In reality the predicted prosperity owed much to a model that was alien and rooted in an ideological caveat that the fast track to political stability was economic liberalisation. The coda was one of ‘peoples’ waiting and desperate to be more like the West. It didn’t matter that the envisaged ‘benefits for all’ was a tenuous assertion incongruous in a region where existing hierarchies prospered most. Instead of stability, it produced the most combustible of combinations: failed expectations, poorly crafted investments that favoured western corporate interests and a redesign template that impoverished disempowered sections of society. It was only a matter of time before resistance to both the symbols as well as the material consequences of this modernity template, began to find fertile ground amidst a coalition of disillusioned and marginalised groups.

The outcome is that ISIS has taken the opportunity to operate rather counterintuitively as a liberation theology counterposing the failures of modernity and western enlightenment with the ‘freedom’ that strict obedience to Islam can provide. In doing so it cleverly inverts the idea of ‘fighting injustice’ into its own oppressive jurisprudence, selectively referencing hadiths and the Koran to legitimate repression. The emphasis on the purity of Islam is contrasted strongly with the superficial lifestyles and ‘decadence’ of secularism. The incompatibility of the two are a key theme in the ISIS vocabulary. There is however a paradox at the heart of this calculus and it is this; Islamic State as with other militant Islamic movements have far from eschewed the western modus operandi.

Rather their approach has been Janus faced, deploying precisely the values and instruments of secular modernity that it deems inimical to the true Islamic lifestyle. It’s an accommodation which they unapologetically embrace in order to achieve specific ends. Its expedient tendency to separate the theory from practice has meant the adoption of methods more typical of a corporation and the commodification of its ideas.

‘Selling the brand’, however incongruous it may seem, has been a central part of the ISIS communications strategy and its ‘marketing’ ethos, owes much to the very values it purports to despise. The resulting ISIS narrative occupies a ‘dualism’ that at one and the same time uses but rejects the western ‘way of life’. It is a contradiction that should undermine its attraction to potential recruits if only by the transparency of its flawed logic. This doesn’t appear to be the case, not even as its quest for power has assailed some of the core inviolable tenets of the Islamic cause.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the predicament that faced Palestinian refugees in Yarmouk. The plight of the Palestinians has been for Muslims the focal point of western hypocrisy, the incendiary from which the fires of Islamic anger have burned fiercely. Yet the ISIS approach to the fate of Palestinian refugees has been as callous and cruel as with other communities and religions.

The conundrum is that this lack of consistency has seemingly made little impact on its recruitment. So what amidst the carnage, contradictions and chaos of the ISIS project has made it attractive to sections of western Muslims in particular?

Islamic State has acquired a following amongst younger western Muslims who fit a very different demographic profile from indigenous Middle Eastern recruits. More than 700 UK citizens have left to join a ‘cause’ that for at least a significant number cannot be explained through religious fealty or common experience with those fighting on the ground.

For these recruits, an altogether different set of variables is at play from a wish to react against the re-emergence of stereotypes actively shaping western societal responses and a susceptibility to the formative power of new digital technologies in developing ‘allegiance and identification’.

ISIS has skilfully exploited these propensities in two particular aspects of its ‘engagement’ strategy.

The first deploys a direct challenge to the idea of plurality implicit in the western idea of society. Its subtext is the need to destroy rather than accommodate contested spaces whether they be geographical or intellectual. Plurality as a political concept underpins beliefs about tolerance, co-existence and equality. Whilst it is of course a rule with many exceptions (especially in our colonial history), it is at the same time indelibly correlated to western cultural practice. By visually and graphically showcasing its extreme intolerance, ISIS challenges this notion through a ruthlessness that ultimately plays into a stereotypical fear of the Arab ‘mentality’. It is no accident. The intention is to undermine any progressive counter-narrative that situates the Middle East and Islam within a context of equality, rights and freedoms. These values are existentially anathema to the ISIS doctrine and their actions are calculated to elicit a hostile reaction and counter reaction; to reinforce an imagery and caricature that reignites the Orientalism that Edward Said so eloquently exposed as destructive of the rights of ‘the other’. The beheading and immolation of prisoners , its justification of child marriage and even the creation of a caliphate as an authoritative political and legal entity, all play into a stereotype that interlocks religious intolerance, cultural backwardness and political immaturity into western perspectives.

The assumptions implicit in the orientalist perceptions it seeks to reignite are central to the ISIS project to reverse engineer Islam back to an ‘imagined’ existence akin to the 7th century. By itself the religiosity of the ISIS message is insufficient to reframe the psychology of those who end up travelling as Jihadists. The likelihood that they have heard ‘the message’ and acted though undiluted spiritual motivation would be the exception rather than the rule. In truth, most of the potential adherents in the West would be unable to align to, let alone empathise with religious strictures that are radically unfamiliar and incongruent with their everyday lives. So if religion doesn’t operate as the primary catalyst, what motivates the current army of willing western recruits? In truth it’s a different hook. By seeking through its actions to resurrect the pernicious stereotypes that formerly defined the region and re-characterise its peoples within a discourse of barbarity, ISIS has in effect created a new polarity which it aims to relentlessly exploit.

Different cultural values may play a part in Jihadism but not uniquely; a cursory look at the backgrounds of some of its western adherents and their continued subscription to commodity values, shows that the prime motivation of those who have travelled to Iraq and Syria hasn’t involved the wholesale rejection of previous lifestyles. Rather the disaffection is constructed by the tension in the vacuum that defines the actions of and reactions to ISIS that reinforce a generalised hostile view of Islam within a renewed Orientalist discourse.

This is not to be underestimated. Many who adopt the IS vision are radicalised by their self-definition as the ‘other’ or the ‘outsider’ amidst these reactive hostile stereotypes. The emphasis by ISIS on irreconcilable difference as the defining characteristic of Islamic ‘observance’, exploits this mood and strikes out those commonalities of beliefs and ethics that might encourage inter-faith and communal tolerance. It inserts in its place an imagined community that appears to offer solidarity of a different kind to that predicated on multi-culturalism and plurality. It’s a solidarity based upon a counterfactual; a reference to a collective experience of a ‘state of existence’ redolent of the past and contrary to the ‘states of being’ and identity that exists in the present.

So a key element of this strategy articulates for a precise purpose a narrative of threat and isolation designed to elicit civic defensiveness in Muslim communities. Amidst the response and counter response, it creates a political dynamic that increases the tensions which it then cites as evidence of innate incompatibility. At one and the same time it’s a dynamic that strengthens ‘difference and cultural insularity’ and in doing so, provides a climate in which the ISIS logic can for some makes incontrovertible sense.

The second aspect of the engagement strategy is more subtle.

Brutality and savagery isn’t the preserve of Islamic State. History is littered with examples of unspeakable cruelty. But what does set IS apart is its recourse to a ‘digital populism’ which they pursue using the very tools and methods most associated with a western culture. The scope and scale of this approach is instructive: it demonstrates that the IS project is well attuned to the power of technology as not merely a communication tool or information source but as a means of appending their creed to identities that rely on technology to develop feelings of attachment.

The potency lies in the power of new digital technologies to create intelligibility amidst the addictive power of imagined environments and interactions. The digital encounter invites an imaginary control that creates a powerful identification without encountering the need to directly confront moral or practical realities. The latter is crucial in the quest of ISIS for impact with young recruits.

As with most engagement projects, the primacy of technology has become instrumental in the art of influencing not least by the way the medium adds its own value to the communication. Would the ISIS message and the actual Islamic archaism it represents achieve any traction in those constituencies it seeks to ‘speak to’ if it was presented via the conventions of preaching normally associated with traditional religious proselytization? It’s doubtful and in this context technology acts an ideological tool as much as a mode of communication, introducing a ‘digital charisma’ that deliver those cognitive rewards that not unlike the excitement of a personality cult.

How many young adherents who experience the magnetism of an Islamic State Imam would feel the same ‘pull’ outside of the technical mediums which ground it in music, imagery and an emotional proximity that gives the appearance of mutuality. It carries with it the opportunity to excite and fulfil a youthful narcissism creating an effervescence that Durkheim associated with the development of a collective consciousness. Ideas rooted in an outdated form of Islamic revivalism by themselves would not work but recalibrated through the charisma of ‘the technological’, the feelings about the message if not the message itself are intensified in an emotional response that conflates the nature of the message with the power of its delivery.

Acts of callous and gratuitous violence that would normally attract repugnance and moral rejection are recomputed to become acceptable in much the way a gaming encounter dislocates the ethics and consequences of its rules from the real world. Typified by the potency of an imagined community where different rules come into play, they move, interact and operate in situations shaped by a different epistemology. Powerlessness and marginalisation is replaced by control and status accessed through a command of technological diversity and aptitude.

It raises important questions about how technology can ‘acclimatise’ our cognitive as well as emotional responses to unimaginable cruelties. It also highlights the way ISIS has sought to exploit its brand of Islamic revivalism with the tools of modernity using to full effect the art of technological inculcation to refashion its deeds within a framework akin to product placement. In the reimagined world that it presents to its target audience, it contextualises the new identities ‘on offer’ through presentation techniques that wouldn’t be out of place in modern corporations seeking to exploit unique selling points (USPs).

As with the best and most exciting marketing campaigns, it offers opportunities to experience something outside the immediate lifestyle parameters of the ‘customer’. Social media and other digital applications are pivotal in this respect inviting through clever technological utopias, the chance to buy into an array of resistance identities and personal validations unavailable in mainstream Muslim communities. It is particularly attractive in that it gives the impression of fighting back and assertively demonstrating an aggressive defiance against Western stereotypes.

ISIS have understood what it can achieve by developing digital platforms and virtual communities where for younger generations especially, the ‘idealised image’ impacts powerfully through attractive personas and adopted identities. No matter that its techniques owe more to a western modernity than an Islamic lifestyle; its ubiquitous use of technology has fulsomely exploited a modus operandi dependent on methods more characteristic of western cultural practice and engagement.

Notwithstanding this, a note of caution is required for when all is said and done, vastly more Muslims choose not to join the ranks of ISIS than do so. To believe in a Svengali factor invites a crude technological determinism that suggests that those attracted by the ISIS message are singularly afflicted by the absence of a moral compass. Clearly in their own terms this is not always the case. Much of what is perceived as Western hypocrisy whether it be about Israel and Palestine or friendly autocratic Arab regimes favoured on the altar of commerce, is founded on very clear moral premises about double standards.

In this respect, the impact of technology needs to be understood as a formative component of a wider discourse that correlates the domestic disaffection expressed in the political and personal goals of Muslim youths with a radical Islamist discourse that feels like empowerment.

Fighting back will be difficult, but central must be delivering new routes to self-validation for young Muslims within a world that is not imagined but is current, real and enabling. Crucially, whether it be in Baghdad or Birmingham, it will need to offers something other than the images of a Middle East in meltdown and the reluctant western responses to desperate refugees dying on an escape to a ‘better life’.


Neil Serougi  is an independent author. He has worked at a Board level in the NHS for 10 years, primarily focusing on ICT implementation, and was previously a Probation Officer and held office as Secretary of West Midlands Association of Probation Officers. He has also worked on the West Bank and Gaza as a volunteer with UNRWA.