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Radical Islamism and Jihad ( 7 Feb 2016, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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What ISIS Wants You to See: A So-Called ‘Idealistic Caliphate’

By Shahira Fahmy

7 Feb 2016

On the first day of Ramadan in summer 2014, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (also known as Daesh) declared itself the new Caliphate.

A few days later it put out, in print and on-line, its first issue of Dabiq, a glossy magazine, as its mouthpiece to the English-speaking public. Similar magazines were also issued in Russian, Turkish, French and other languages. Dabiq continues to publish, with 13 issues over 19 months so far, averaging 60 pages in an issue.

Dabiq and its cousins are slickly done – extremely polished and professional productions, prepared in an informative and engaging style. Much of its content is presented through pictures. It has been said that if ISIS were an airline, Dabiq would be its in-flight magazine.

As an Egyptian-born authority on visual framing by the media – how the images they select shape public perception – I recently analysed Dabiq’s pictures for NATO’s Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence in Riga, Latvia, to try and unlock the puzzle of what the evil geniuses behind them are up to. It had never been done before.

And they are up to whole lot, it turns out.

I looked at a sample of 528 pictures from the first Dabiq issue in July 2014 through the November 2015 issue. Each picture was coded to identify what it intended to portray, from three dimensions: its theme – war, brutality, mercy, victimhood, belonging or utopianism; its purpose – to inform, frighten, unite or solicit support from the viewers; and the nature of its message – political (nation-building), religious or social. I analysed the results over time, matching them to events that could have influenced the visual content of the magazine.

The results:

- More than half of the pictures – 53% – portrayed the theme of war – military parades and gains; tanks and guns. About one-fourth, or 23.9%, showed utopianism – teaching children the Quran; caring for orphans; healthcare; establishing Sharia court; implementing punishments, or belonging – fighters relaxing; camaraderie and brotherhood. Brutality – death, killing and torture – which our news is fixated on, was featured in only 13.8%, or slightly more than one-tenth of all images analysed.

Analysing the visual content by purpose against a timeline of events showed a pattern explaining when an issue emphasised “unite” – such as in October 2014 when the US-led “Operation Inherent Resolve” (the Combined Joint Task Force) was formed, or “frighten” – such as in January 2015 when it claimed to smuggle 4,000 militants into the EU.

Over time, however, and as ISIS doubled the size of its territory, the percentage of visuals intending to “inform” increased, rising from 25% in the first issue in summer 2014 to 75% in the fall 2015 issue. The pattern is one of a state increasingly confident of its permanence.

- Regarding core messages, fully 86% of pictures projected the power of ISIS – either political (49%) or religious (37%), promoting the creation of a new homeland for Muslims. Social messages (quality of life), at 14%, were the least used.

What can these numbers tell us about ISIS’s propaganda machine?

First, the images produced by ISIS follow a narrative central to the organisation’s strategic communications: being a so-called ‘Idealistic Caliphate’. They typically project the sense of belonging and contentment that living in the Caliphate brings.

Al-Walaa Wal-Baraa”, Arabic for “loyalty and disavowal", refers to the Islamic concept of friendship toward fellow Muslims – and compares it to racism in America. Come live with us in the Caliphate, they say, and you will experience Utopia on earth.

Second, Dabiq, through its pictures, is more than a recruitment tool. It is making the world aware of this aspiring “new nation-state”: strong and confident, based on a foundation of strict Muslim societal norms – and giving readers the impression that the Caliphate is ready to join the world as a rule-based, righteous and responsible nation.

Think of the ruggedly handsome, rosy-cheeked peasants of the Russian and Chinese collective farms of the 1950s, exalting the joys of living under Communism.

But third, notice that the brutality so quickly jumped on by the Western media, pundits and politicians is only a tenth of the images portrayed.

I am speculating here, but it is almost as if the pictures glorifying brutality are there to throw them off the trail, and to let the much larger message directed at the disaffected Muslims in the West get through.

Like a coded message, the siren song – Join us in Utopia! – is hidden in plain sight from those who are blinded by those images of savagery.

And it is working. While the rest of us are bewildered at how such a barbaric and backward-facing movement can somehow survive in this modern world created as “Western Civilisation”, and that it surely will eventually succumb to reason and force, ISIS shows no signs of withering away.

Maybe this is because the message of living in a welcoming, nurturing, rule-based society is reaching those young people facing empty futures as unwelcome outsiders in an individualistic, materialist-driven culture. Plus they can trade their anomie for the glory and heroism of living and dying for a higher cause.

To counter the ISIS narrative, the data here offer another strategic clue. Almost 90% of the visual messages are projecting power – political and religious – as opposed to social values.

Certainly Christianity-based societies should protect themselves from radical political Islam emanating from the Middle East and the current ISIS threat.

However, it should be recalled that for centuries, Christianity was mainly a religion of Middle Easterners, who then converted Europeans. In that instance, the process was also driven by the promise of a better life.

Perhaps it is time for the Western policy-makers to consider transcending political/religious power narratives that ISIS’s propaganda wizards are using as bait.

Instead, they would do well to re-examine the underlying issues of social harmony and address the integration and racial narratives that ISIS is currently exploiting.

Shahira Fahmy is a professor at the University of Arizona and was a recent fellow at NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence, Riga, Latvia. She has a PhD from the Missouri School of Journalism and is the first female Arab-American tenured journalism faculty member at a research university in the United States.




Total Comments (1)

  • 1 .
    Khilafat is a very important concept in Islam. It has important implications in the political system of Islam. Many important groups have made it a part of their programme to establish Khilafat.
    It is therefore necessary to be clear about the concept of Khilafat has three important dimensions. In the moral and spiritual sense, Khilafat means that all human beings are 'Khalifa of Allah' or representatives of Allah on earth. This is the purport of the verse "Surely, we are going to place our representatives (Khalifa) on earth" [verse 30 : Sura Baqara]. All human beings are khalifa of Allah though many of them commit sins and do not act like khalifa. (Ref. : Quran - 6:165; 27:62 and 35:39). This is the spiritual khilafat in Islam.
    Khilafat also means the political system of Islam. This is the most mentioned dimension of Khilafat. Khilafat, as a system of politics and management of state was established by the companions of Prophet (SM). The main points of khilafat or political system of Islam are as follows :
    a. Sovereignty of Allah which means supremacy of Shariah (Quran and Sunnah). The basic law of the state shall be based on the Quran and the Sunnah. The detailed subsidiary law is obtained by Ijtihad carried out by individual or groups of scholars or made by the Parliament in the present day world with the aid of the Ulama or scholars of Islam.
    b. Government established by the free choice of the people. This is the majority view. In the present world, this means government elected by the people. There is agreement on this among the Ulama of Islam. There is hardly any major difference. This is the system accepted in the Islamic constitutions in force in the Muslim world.
    c. Fundamental rights : All citizens should have human rights irrespective of gender or creed. The Islamic Constitutions of the world have a chapter on the Fundamental rights or Rights of the people which are available to all the citizens in the state. These rights have been agreed to or confirmed by Ulama after long debates in the light of the Quran and Sunnah.
    d. Rule of Law and Independence of Judiciary are important points of Islamic political system.
    e. Shura or consultation with the people and among the persons in the Government through various forum including Parliament is an important element in Islamic political theory. This is the basis of democracy in Islam.Large number of scholars feel that the term democracy can be used in Islamic framework. (Ref. : Preamble of Islamic constitution of Pakistan which says that the state shall strive to observe "democracy as enunciated by Islam". Ulama accepted this phrase. )
    These are the various elements of Islamic political system which go to make Khilafat (Ref. : Khilafat and Mulukiat by Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi, other books on Islamic Political thought and Islamic Constitutions of Iran and Pakistan).
    The third dimension of Khilafat is that it means the form of Government in Islam. The Ulama have now agreed by and large that in the framework of overall Islamic political theory, both Presidential and Parliamentary Governments of to-day are consistent with Islam (Ref. : Islamic Constitution of Iran and Pakistan, Islamic Law and Constitution by Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi,).
    In the present circumstances, it is our duty to try to run our respective states on the basis of Islamic principles or the principles of Khilafat as outlined above. In fact almost all major Islamic parties are working in this direction which is the right political course in the present circumstances.
    In conclusion, we can say that Khilafat does not only mean that the President should be called Khalifa, it is much more than that. It is in essence the political system of Islam.
    By shah abdul hannan 09/02/2016 06:43:00