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ISIS: World-Class Evangelists

Do you feel lost and adrift in a world without justice, order, and righteousness? ISIS has a story for you

Writing in the New Statesman, Helen Lewis says we in the West are missing the real picture of ISIS if we only focus on head-chopping videos. She quotes Prof. Shahira Fahmy, who researches ISIS, saying that the violent videos we in the West consider to be characteristic of the terror organization are only a tiny fraction of their propaganda:

Research by the Quilliam Foundation, an anti-extremism think tank, supports this view. A recent report found that the propaganda Isis distributes in the Middle East often shows the group “administering its civilian population, cleaning the streets, fitting electricity pylons, fixing sewage systems, purifying water, collecting blood donations, providing health care and education”.
In other words, the same kind of thing your local council probably pushes through your letter box on a leaflet – and with the same aim: reassuring people that they are living under a plausible, functional authority. Don’t worry, Isis will unclog your drains. Isis will collect your rubbish.

Like the concept of jihadi sub-editors, this all seems very incongruous to us in the West. Our media depictions of terrorists almost always depict them as inhuman monsters, as nihilists, as members of a death cult; not the kind of people who would be interested in civil infrastructure. But part of the modernity of Isis is its high level of media literacy. Terror is only part of the movement’s communications strategy: it knows it must offer hope, too. Fahmy points to images showing serenity and repentance – “suggesting that any individual will always be embraced by the organisation and forgiven for past affiliations upon joining the ‘caliphate’” – alongside others promoting the idea of victimisation by the West, such as graphic photographs of children killed by drone strikes. Like British newspapers, the group also seized on the image of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian boy on the beach – as an illustration of the dangers of emigrating.

Fahmy notes that very little utopian Isis propaganda is seen in the West. Might we understand the group better if it was? The past few days have been filled with questions over Western media bias – for instance, the relative lack of attention given to bombings in Beirut – predicated on an acknowledgement of how much the media shape and reinforce public opinion.

Charles Featherstone, a former convert to radical Islam, understands this well from the inside:

Meaning, belonging, and purpose — I write a lot about these things in my book. That was the appeal of Islam for me, and it was the appeal of Revolutionary Islam for the few years I flirted with it. Secular modernity has done very poorly for some — misfits and castoffs and otherwise marginalized people for whom there is no room in a society that won’t tolerate alternative forms of meaning to modernity’s search for comfort, security, and pleasure. Or for whom there is no space in or with the moralizing cohorts of the progressive left, which demands inclusion in a world I’m honestly not sure is worth being included in and which simply doesn’t include us in their idea of inclusion anyway. (Yes, I am still something of a frustrated revolutionary. I really do wish I had a revolution I could fight and die for, worth fighting and dying for…)


So, I get the appeal of [ISIS], and were I younger, I think it’s something I could join. I would have found beheadings distasteful, but honestly, it’s about building a better world. So I could have lived with them and justified them. After all, no sacrifice is too small for a better tomorrow — George W. Bush set fire to all of Iraq with the promise of a better tomorrow — so Americans aren’t all that different. Save that our means are mechanical, bureaucratic, and impersonal. We don’t get our hands so terribly bloody when we kill.

Featherstone says there is a word for ISIS’s outreach to the disaffected: “ministry”. Read the whole thing. 

I’m now reading a good short novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer, called The PenitentSet in 1969, it’s a long monologue by Joseph Shapiro, a Holocaust survivor and immigrant to New York, about how and why he burned out on his life of debauched secular success, moved to Jerusalem, and embraced ultra-Orthodox Judaism. Shapiro is a fanatic, no question, but there is enough truth in what he says to understand why a morally sensitive, questing person would find relief and salvation in extreme religion. Take this passage, in which the narrator talks about how, in a moment of extreme personal crisis, he wandered into an impoverished shul on the Lower East Side, and was asked to join a minyan:

I prayed and saw to my amazement that this was far from comedy and sham. I thanked the Creator for directing me to this room among true Jews, who still sought a minyan while the outside world swarmed with hate and evil theories. Here, old age was no disgrace Here, no one boasted of his sexual prowess or his ability to hold liquor. Here, the elderly were treated with respect and pious humility. No one here dyed his hair, claimed to be “eighty years young,” or used the other banalities heard among the worldly aged.

Up to that day I had been a reader of books, magazines, and newspapers. I had often felt that what I was reading was a deadly poison. All it evoked within me was bitterness, fear, and a feeling of helplessness. Everything that I read followed the same theme — the world was and will always be ruled by might and falsehood, and there was nothing to be done about it. Modern literature used different words to say the same thing: “We live in a slaughterhouse and a house of shame. That’s how it was and that’s how it’s going to be forever.” Suddenly I heard myself reciting words filled with holy optimism. Instead of starting the day with tales of theft and murder, lust and rape, obscenity ad revenge, I had started the day with words about justice, sanctity, a God who had granted men understanding and who will revive the dead and reward the just. I had discovered that I didn’t have to start the day by swallowing venom.

Singer makes you feel in your bones the appeal of this kind of piety to a certain personality type. All the things that most people in secular Western society, rich in material goods and liberties, accept as good things are precisely the things that Joseph Shapiro wants to get away from. Eventually his quest for purity, and his disgust with the grossness and vanity of the world, becomes so overwhelming that he removes himself to the Meah Sharim quarter of Jerusalem, with the ultra-Orthodox live. He was a broken man, and expected them to reject him because he lacked their piety, and didn’t look like them. He got the opposite: love and acceptance. And so he became one of them.

Understand, I’m not saying that Hasidic Judaism is equivalent to the barbaric form of Islam practiced by ISIS. It isn’t. I’m simply pointing out that radical religion speaks to a hunger, a need, an idealism that’s already there — and that can be a sign of what is most decent in us.