To defeat ISIS, we need something more than a military strategy. A large part of the terrorists’ success lies in their skill at propaganda.
ISIS propaganda aids in its successes by doing at least two things: the first, however improbable it may seem, is that it convinces some credulous people to believe that they must join ISIS to wage war against a Western world that has supposedly been on a “crusade” against Islam since its foundation in the 7th century. Thus ISIS manages the neat trick of appearing to play defence, and in so doing achieves a second success: exploiting both massive Western ignorance of our own history and Christian guilt about the bloodier parts of the same to achieve a sense of justification for its atrocities. ISIS is always the victim; the West always the aggressor.
ISIS’s main English-language magazine, Dabiq, is a masterpiece of slickly produced, professionally written propaganda of the purest sort – as is a newer and shorter magazine, Rumiyah. Reading these publications, one comes across myths about Christian history, culture and theology. Demolishing these is one crucial task on which governments and the Church can collaborate.
I remember watching the first ISIS video to garner mass attention, of a Jordanian air force pilot captured by ISIS before being displayed in a cage and then set on fire. The video justified this slaughter by calling the Muslim pilot and his Muslim country “Crusaders”. Since then, this language of the Crusades (and cognate phrases) has become absolutely rampant. Every issue of Dabiq carries scores, sometimes hundreds, of justificatory references to the Crusades in a few dozen pages. The Crusades and “Crusader armies” are standard shorthand in ISIS propaganda for not just historic European powers such as England or France, but for all governments, including those that did not exist at the time of the Crusades. The term includes, most strikingly, other Muslim governments not sufficiently in accord with the ideological vision of ISIS.
Accusing Japan or Jordan, or the United States or Russia, of being Crusaders in the historical sense is anachronistic, and ISIS surely know this. They are not really interested in the historical Crusades, because Muslim historians, ancient and modern, have never been seriously interested in or perturbed by the original Crusades. No history of the Crusades in Arabic was even written until 1865, and that was by a Christian author. Indeed, no specific term in Arabic for the Crusades was even coined until the same time, also by Arab Christians.
What, then, are ISIS doing with these hundreds of references? In analysing this propaganda, I realised that we were and are in the realm of what the psychoanalyst Vamik Volkan has aptly called “chosen trauma”, or what his fellow psychoanalyst Charles Strozier has referred to as “constructed humiliation”. In other words, ISIS chooses to use the Crusades as a cipher focused on the politics of the Middle East, going back to the wars of 1991 and 2003 – conflicts which ISIS (not entirely unreasonably) sees as being “crusades” of a new sort to impose Western ideology and democracy.
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