The long essay below was contributed by friends of the blog Peter Harling and Sarah Birke. A previous essay from a year ago can be read here.
They will say, “Our eyes have been deceived. We have been bewitched.”
Surat al-Hijr (15:15)
One of the particularities of the movement calling itself the Islamic State is its investment in the phantasmagorical. It has an instinctive understanding of the value of taking its struggle to the realm of the imagination as the best way to compensate for its real-world limits. Even as it faces setbacks on the battlefield, it has made forays into our collective psyche, where its brutality and taste for gory spectacle is a force multiplier. Perhaps more than merely evil, the Islamic State is diabolical: like the Satan of scripture, it is a creature that is many things to many people, enjoys a disconcerting allure, and ultimately tricks us in to believing that we are doing the right thing when we are actually destroying ourselves.
This may explain, in part, how it is increasingly resorting to crimes that are not just horrific but spectacularly staged, such as the immolation of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kassasbeh or the mise-en-scène of the beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts on a Libyan beach. The Islamic State is at its most dangerous in its interaction with the psyche, the fantasies, the frustrations and the fears of others, from the converts it attracts to policy-makers and analysts.
The semantics deployed in response to it are telling: each party projects its own national traumas and anxieties. In the West, the threat posed by Islamic State has been equated with anything from Auschwitz to the genocide in Rwanda to the siege of Sarajevo, even though none of these precedents has much in common with the phenomenon at hand. Among Muslims, the comparisons tend to point to Islam’s early traumas – Sunnis refer to the Khawarij, Islam’s first radicals, while Shias draw comparison with the Umayyads, the Sunni dynasty whose rise the partisans of Ali opposed. These sectarian-tinged views duel with the Islamic State’s own depiction of itself as the embodiment of pious, brave, ruthless and egalitarian comradeship – a utopian image of early, conquering and united Islam that it cultivates meticulously (and which works all the better the less versed in Islamic culture its audience actually is).