Islamic State: media and identity

The influence of the so-called Islamic State and its ideology reaches far beyond the physical territory of the self-declared caliphate in Syria and Iraq. Under a variety of names the terrorist organization infiltrated every media diet at some point and compelled many countries to take action in the form of military intervention. Both sides employ antagonistic notions: IS attacks the West, in words as well as in deeds in European cities and elsewhere, and Western countries respond much in the same way, with speeches and airstrikes. It has brought back to the fore a particular “us versus them” discourse with a long history.

At the same time, IS has a world-wide positive appeal: tens of thousands of men and women from around the world have left their countries for a life or certain death in the new ‘state.’ IS owes much of its success in creating and reaching both supporters and enemies to a smart and extensive use of media: its propaganda apparatus and outreach is unprecedented in the history of terrorist groups. A closer look will reveal how the conflict with the West is formulated by the side of “them,” and that IS brands itself quite differently than we might think.

I. Historical background
II. IS’ use of media
III. IS’ self-definition
IV. Conclusion

I. Historical background
The term ‘the West’ is a historical and linguistic construct that originally came to be defined in contrast to what it was not, the Other: initially Islam and later, from the Age of Discovery, the entire rest of the world. European identity has in this sense always been constructed around a negative principle. In confrontation with others, the Europeans were white, Christian, civilized and Enlightened. The resulting binary was ‘the West and the Rest’, as famously described by Stuart Hall.1 This became a powerful discourse, providing a language to represent, talk or think about the world. Crucial is that it had real effects: the discourse produced ‘knowledge’ that shaped perceptions and practices, and thus the descriptions became ‘true.’

The first time that Europe as such was established as a unity was in the encounter with Islam. Faced with this Other, Europe was Christianity. This antithesis has, as Edward Said famously described, led to the discourse of Orientalism. He criticized how Western scholars constructed the Islamic world as irrational, conservative and dogmatic, using it as a mirror reflecting the West’s superiority. This age-old dichotomy has recently risen to prominence again in the context of the refugee crisis and terrorist attacks claimed by IS.

Although global Western hegemony is waning, the often-described Western bias of dominant media and discourses is persistent. Not only is history mostly told from the viewpoint of Europe or the West, also current events are channeled through a Western-oriented international media system. The frameworks described by Stuart Hall and Edward Said continue to shape our way of looking at the world. As they reflect structures of power relations, the use of these frameworks (even, and especially, unconsciously) affirms and maintains this hierarchy. For Westerners and non-Westerners alike, Hall says, “if we use the discourse of ‘the West and the Rest,’ we will necessarily find ourselves speaking from a position that holds that the West is a superior civilization.”

In the case of the Middle East, some argue that the encounter with the West has led to a sense of secondariness in modern Arab and Islamic identity.2 What is IS’ position in or towards this historically constructed inferiority? How does it face both the technological possibilities and the ongoing hegemonic limitations of modern communication? How does IS define itself in relation to Europe’s identity which has itself for a large part of its history been hinging on an opposition to Islam? Does IS adopt the dichotomy of superiority and inferiority to their own advantage playing on the victim role? An analysis of IS’ use of media will reveal surprising answers, as their self-identification is very different from what we might expect.

II. IS’ use of media
“Terrorism is a combination of violence and propaganda,” says terrorism expert Alex P. Schmid, and “the direct victims of terrorism are not its main aim.”3 A late Al-Qaeda leader, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, reportedly wrote that “we are in a battle, and more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media.”4 IS takes this very seriously: it has its own media arm, called Al-Hayat, which produces propaganda on a larger scale than any terrorist group before.5 A number of well-coordinated media offices in different countries release material that includes an online magazine6 and high quality videos in a range of languages.7 Its target audiences are both their self-declared enemies (the usual aims of terrorism) and their supporters, including, crucially, potential new recruits.8

IS’ enemies are reached by producing shocking imagery that is being picked up by international media. This relationship between representer and represented can become the stage of Foucauldian power dynamics. In this case, the Western media obviously represents IS negatively: portraying it as the evil Other. However, as a terrorist group pursuing spreading fear, this is exactly what IS wants and is thus not negatively affected by the dominant Western views of the media. Furthermore, IS is not entirely dependent on the selection-bias of the media that decide what is shown or ignored: IS also produces its own content and spreads it through its own media outlets and via social media (often prompting Twitter to suspend accounts of IS fighters9). In this sense, they do not fall victim to the West’s long-exercised control over the world’s media systems: they both use and circumvent that reality.

III. IS’ self-definition
The propaganda of IS has a double function: it simultaneously scares enemies and attracts supporters, who can have their own readings of the same words and images. How does IS through media construct its self-definition? A first analysis of how IS defines itself vis-à-vis the West leads to the, maybe surprising, finding that IS never uses the very words ‘the West’ or ‘Western.’ Instead, deployed are terms like ‘Crusaders’, ‘infidels’, ‘alliance against the Islamic State’ and specific names of countries or continents. For example, IS’ official lead spokesman Abu Muhammad Al-Adnani (who has been killed in August 2016 by airstrikes) said in September 2014:

“If you can kill a disbelieving American or European – especially the spiteful and filthy French – or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner or way however it may be (…)”10

One research named this quote ‘a landmark call for attacks in the West,’11 while some Western media have paraphrased the aim of the threats as ‘Westerners,’12 ‘Western disbelievers’13 or ‘Western civilians.’14 In May 2016, Al-Adnani made a comparable call to Muslims around the world to kill during the month of Ramadan, which was similarly picked up by Western media as ‘calls for attacks on the West,’15 whereas the words used in the actual message are ‘Crusaders,’ ‘non-believers’ and ‘Europe and America.’ ‘The West’ seems a term employed by the West itself; IS never uses it, possibly to avoid affirming the power relation that comes with the use of the term.

Furthermore, IS has declared war to a wide range of enemies beyond what we call the West. To quote IS’ online magazine Dabiq:

“[IS] will continue to wage war against the apostates until they repent from apostasy. It will continue to wage war against the pagans until they accept Islam. It will continue to wage war against the Jewish state until the Jews hide behind their gharqad trees [hadith reference]. And it will continue to wage war against the Christians until the truce decreed sometime before the Malhamah.”16

IS’ enemy is thus not just the West but extends to all non-Muslims, broadly defined as anyone not strictly following IS’ particular theology. ‘The apostates,’ then, also refers to Shia Muslims and the leaders of other MENA countries, including the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, who are considered traitors against Islam. Fighting them is in fact more important to IS than fighting the ‘Crusaders.’17 In one research,18 videos with threats to Western countries made up only about one percent of the total video collection that was analyzed, and the contents of the magazine Dabiq were shown to give less column space to threats to the West than threats to IS’ local enemies.

From the European or Western perspective, IS is attacking the West. But it is targeting much more than that. Indeed, Muslims account for the greatest number of victims of IS so far.19 ‘The West’ is degraded to a place among others in IS’ own ‘the Rest,’ which covers all non-Muslims, constituting the fundamental binary in their discourse. IS aims to polarize by eradicating the ‘grey zone’ between the two sides. This is important for their recruitment strategy, which forces Muslims living in Europe to choose a camp.20 Current IS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi said in July 2014 in one of his few public statements:

“The world today has been divided into two camps (…) the camp of the Muslims and the mujahidin [jihadist fighters] everywhere, and the camp of the Jews, the crusaders, their allies, and with them the rest of the nations and religions of kufr [unbelievers] (…)”21

One of the key claims of IS is that Muslims all over the world are being persecuted and killed by the global ‘war on Islam’ and that IS offers the solution: to fight back. The ‘victimhood’ or ‘persecution’ narrative plays a crucial role for justifying war and brutal acts, the portrayal of which constitutes, in one research,22 more than a third of all IS propaganda in a given month. IS fights both on defensive and offensive fronts, and whereas images of the former (showing dead and injured civilians after coalition airstrikes, particularly children) are used to reinforce the victimhood account, it is the latter that receives the most coverage.23 Justified by the enemy’s deeds, IS’ propaganda is a triumphant winner’s message: ‘victory’ has been identified as another one of IS’ main themes,24 portraying an exaggerated version of its strength and success.

IS does not dwell in self-pity, as maybe expected by certain commentators of Edward Said who have criticized him for establishing a dichotomy of Western guilt and Eastern victimhood.25 Neither does IS’ self-definition hinge on the contrast to Europe or the West – instead, it has created its own ‘the Rest.’ What is more: one cannot reduce the image IS presents of itself to that of the terrorist, confirming the stereotype that the West has from the dangerous and violent Other. In fact, the previously mentioned research of IS’ propaganda in one month showed that over half of the output communicated a very different narrative: the theme of ‘utopianism.’26 This consists in showing an ordered state with successful institutions, depicting peaceful civilian life in its territories, including pictures and footage of playing children, people distributing food or brotherly breaking the fast in Ramadan.

IS’ propaganda thus balances between two seemingly contradictory images: sometimes the caliphate is portrayed as peaceful, idyllic and almost paradisiacal; other times the emphasis is on the violence preparing for the approaching apocalypse. It reflects the divided audience of their media content that includes both supporters and enemies. And this is not just rhetoric: IS reportedly spends most of its money on state-building.27 It is more than just a terrorist group, it is an ambitious state. And even more important than that, now that IS is rapidly losing territory: it is a powerful idea.

This challenges the ready-made Western categories. In Western understanding, war and peace are contradictory, if not mutually exclusive. But according to IS, Islamic law does not allow for long-term peace and fixed borders: it requires the more or less continuous waging of war in order to keep expanding the caliphate.28 In the West, war is seen as a temporary situation opposed to stability; for IS, war is constant. War and peaceful civilian daily life are thus just two sides of the same coin. This again illustrates how none of the Western-formed oppositions (like war and peace and the West and the Rest) serve to properly understand a non-Western phenomenon like IS. In this sense, IS escapes Western discourses: it doesn’t see ‘the West’ as its Other in the way Europe has done that for centuries.

IV. Conclusion
In a context of Western media and information hegemony, IS makes use of modern communication technologies to construct its self-image. Trying to understand IS’ ideas from dominant Western frameworks is susceptible for misunderstandings, because IS has created its own discourse and thereby forged its own reality, which successfully has convinced many to give as much as their life for the caliphate. IS’ positioning in relation to Western countries (both as victim and attacker) is just a very small part of its self-definition, in spite of the different impression one might get from its representation in Western media. This doesn’t make IS a victim of the bias of international media: on the contrary, as a terrorist group, its very goal is to frighten people with its violent reputation. The only thing IS’ own discourse has in common with discourses as they emerged in Europe, as it seems, is the construction of a binary and hierarchical world view (in which they themselves are superior). This way of thinking however is likely to be, as anthropologist Lévi-Strauss has argued, a fundamental human inclination, not something adopted from the West.

Stuart Hall and Edward Said have pointed out that the West has violated the entire non-Western world by squeezing it into self-centered categories and dualisms. Although we cannot deny the role of history and geopolitics, which created the situation in which IS gained momentum, thinking of IS as a product of or a reaction to Western policies and discourse (as opposed to the ‘Orientalist’ simplification that IS is all about Islam, which can also only partly be denied) is practicing just another form of Orientalism in that it still defines IS in relation to the West. Both ideas are skewed. As this essay has shown, IS cannot be approached through the lens of Western discourses and European identity, however dominant these might be, because it does not play by those rules. Such a view is serving rather than harming IS and it’s impairing the West’s ability to understand and fight terrorism. After all, you might kill people, but you won’t kill an idea.

This is adapted from a paper I wrote for a university course. I removed some of the original (academic) references. Do not hesitate to contact me for clarifications. 

The picture is taken from IS’ online magazine Dabiq (number 15). 










Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. “The West and the Rest: Discourse and Power,” chapter 6 in the book Formations of Modernity, PDF online here.
  2. See, for example Morley, D., & Robins, K. (1995). Spaces of Identity: Global Media. Electronic Landscapes and Cultural Boundaries, London and New York: Routledge.
  3. Source
  4. Source
  5. Source
  6. Previously Dabiq, replaced by Rumiyah; issues can be downloaded on this website.
  7. Source
  8. Source
  9. Source
  10. Source
  11. Source
  12. Source
  13. Source
  14. Source
  15. For example this article, this article, this article, and this article
  16. Dabiq, issue 12, page 46
  17. A former IS leader, Abu Umar al-Baghdadi, said that “the rulers of Muslim lands are traitors, un-believers, sinners, liars, deceivers, and criminals”, pointing out in a later statement (2007) that “fighting them is of greater necessity than fighting the occupying Crusader.” Source
  18. Source
  19. Source
  20. Source
  21. Source
  22. Source
  23. Source
  24. Source
  25. For example this article.
  26. The main themes this research found in all IS’ propaganda in one given month were distributed as follows: 52.57% was dedicated to “utopia”, 37.12% to “war”, and 6.84% to “victimhood”. Source
  27. Source
  28. As explained in this very influential analysis of the Islamic State.