I recently got curious about Islamic State (IS). I always read about them in the mainstream news, about the strategy to push them out of Mosul, etc., but news sites do not give much detail into exactly what IS is and how such an organization could come to be. At their peak they held (and still hold) large swaths of land in Iraq, Syria and Libia. How are they so militarily strong? And how could they exist right in the midst of legitimate nation states?
These really are the compelling questions of the day, aren’t they? But most of all I’m curious about what kind of organization IS is. To understand this I started to research them. My first destination was of course Wikipedia, which is always good for an overview of what you’re looking into. Eventually I came to a section about IS’s social media and propaganda, which experts say is surprisingly sleek and advanced for a terrorist organization. This is undoubtedly the reason for their ability to attract support from people all around the world. I paused in my research to go further into this topic, as propaganda seems to be the factor that sets IS apart from Al-Qaeda and other similar groups. The second reason is because I was curious to see how IS portrayed themselves. The only other source of information I have on IS is the mainstream media and this provides secondary information, not first-hand sources.
So, I researched and hunted for IS’s periodical magazines to see what they were like. I found download links for two publications. One is named Rumiyah, meaning “Rome,” after a statement allegedly made by Muhammad that Rome was an eventual target for Muslim conquest. The other is named Dabiq after the city at which the final battle against the anti-Christ is prophesied to be fought during the end of days. Here is the website: http://www.clarionproject.org/news/islamic-state-isis-isil-propaganda-magazine-dabiq I read the second issue of Rumiyah and the fifteenth issue of Dabiq. Below are my thoughts.
Treatment of Non-believers
According to the magazines, IS has two targets: non-Muslims and incorrect Muslims. The first thing that struck me is the language. Westerners are usually referred to as Crusaders, while “murtad” is the term for Muslims who are not practicing IS’s brand of Islam, which they see as true Islam. IS attacks both groups, which I’ll refer to as “non-believers,” indiscriminately.
The use of the word Crusaders is interesting, because it shows the history behind IS’s perception of the Muslim victimization. It also shows that IS believes that nothing has changed since the Crusades and that Muslims are in the midst of a centuries long ongoing war with the “Christian world.” This war has not ended, because non-believer groups still exist on earth, and it will not end until everyone is either (1) a Muslim following IS’s brand of Islam or (2) recognizing the rule of, and paying tribute to, global Islamic Caliphate led by IS. One can see the low status IS attributes to non-believers in the page taken from Rumiyah above, which lists the number of people killed/injured and what non-believer groups they come from. It is as if IS is merely hunting game, and non-believers are nothing more than animals — an accurate summary of their perception of non-believers. IS does not think their use of violence is strange, because they believe their behavior is sanctioned by the Quran and rewarded by God. They portray and view themselves as a tightly knit brotherhood fighting for the honor of God. This charismatic portrayal has doubtless been an important factor in their ability to attract people to their cause. The picture below (from Rumiyah) of IS fighters smiling warmly above a narration of a gruesome attack is a perfect example of this.
The way they treat non-believers and themselves in the magazines presents some contradictions. First, they paint a negative picture of the Western world by referring them as “Crusaders”, which denotes the meanings of “imperialists,” “colonists,” or “invaders.” However, it is clear that IS is an imperialistic movement itself (or wannabe imperialist movement, depending on whether they can be defined as a state), and one with much greater colonizing ambitions than Christian Crusaders ever had. The characteristics of IS’s status as an imperialist/crusader movement are: (1) IS is a religious brotherhood, (2) They are waging a holy war, (3) Their goal is world domination (i.e. imperialism).
The second contradiction arises between their use of the term “Crusader,” with all its implications of invasion, and their statement that the past invasion of Muslim lands by non-Muslims is actually only a minor reason for their “hate” towards non-believers. In the Dabiq issue, they give a very helpful list of six reasons why they hate non-believers in order of priority, and invasion of Muslim lands is listed sixth. If Christian imperialism and invasion (such as the Crusades) is such a minor issue, then why use the term “Crusaders” at all? The reason is clearly that the word is useful for a propaganda purpose in that it brings to mind a long history of Muslim victimization, even though it (supposedly) does not represent IS’s true raison d’etre. No matter what their stated “true reason” is, historical grievances such as the Crusades are crucial to convincing their audience of the existence of the epic and timeless war in which they must fight. In doing so, they will of course be become a modern-day mirror image of the brutality and imperialism they look back on with disdain.