Fear of a Black Flag: The Islamic State’s Propaganda and Future
Every country has its own propaganda stuff: its currency, passports, internet sites, and media to communicate its ideology. The Islamic State (IS or ISIS) is sort of a state: they think they are a “Caliphate” (which is slightly different), they control territory and like all states enforce their administration with a monopoly of violence within their borders. Analysts and scholars write about their ideology, today we examine their propaganda.
Currently IS is failing in a physical sense. Its biggest city Mosul, Iraq, its spiritual center of Dabiq, and soon its administrative capital of Raqqa have fallen or are teetering on the edge of violent ruin. Mosul fell this week. The Russians claimed to have killed its charismatic leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi. But before we relegate IS to the trash can let’s understand that even if the physicality of IS is destroyed, it will remain a potent force in the same way Al Qaida, who never held an inch of ground, managed to terrorize us for decades.
IS’s most memorable visual is its flag with the Shahada in Arabic, Islam’s most sacred creed: “There is no God but God and Muhammed is His Prophet.” The world’s only black national flag is based on a Koranic prophesy: the “black banners of Khorosan will prevail over the kuffr (unbelievers).” Although designed on a computer it looks home spun in pre-printing press scrawled handwriting, giving it an ancient dynamic: which is the point. Khorosan, by the way, is broadly the Afghanistan-Pakistan area. Islam has its own year counting system (2017 is 1438), and Islamic traditionalists have their own geographic reality which is separate from actual national borders. For example there’s Hejaz and Nejd (within Saudi Arabia), Maghreb (North Africa), Misr (Egypt, separate from Sinai), Sham (the Levant: Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel), Hadramaut (Yemen-Oman) Andalus (Spain/Portugal) and so on. This redefining of dates and geography is emblematic of the differences between our cultures beyond mere language and religion.
Their other image is the American style orange prison uniforms used for televised executions, a media genre they invented, which says: ”We imprison you.”
As well as the flag, I.S. pretends to be a real “state” by issuing money, so far just proofs of gold coins like those in the 7th Century, with none in actual circulation, and photo-shopped mock-ups of passports. Theologically speaking IS can’t even issue passports, or hold diplomatic relations because the Caliphate must be ever expanding. They’ll suffer no compromises, fixed borders, or even interactions with anybody on the other side of the front lines beyond brief truces. For IS to open or accept an embassy or recognize a border would imperil its ideology and very raison d’etre from a Koranic standpoint.
IS is tech-savvy. The Hollywood-style propaganda snuff films you can catch with a little clicking around serve as the emotional propaganda for ISIS, but Dabiq/Rumiya is the intellectual heart and face of ISIS. The magazine, not something you’d pick up at the dentist’s, was originally called “Dabiq,” named after the Syrian backwater where the final apocalyptic battle is prophesied between “Rome” (the West) and the Caliphate. Then….oops!… the few mud houses and a goat of a forsaken dusty nowhere town of Dabiq was actually re-taken by the Syrian army. Talk about embarrassed! So they re-named the magazine Rumiya and it’s where we turn our attention to today.
Republished by theclarionproject.org, Rumiya is hard and dull reading, though excellently put together journalistically. Terrorists and revolutionaries are often on top of new technology because they are usually young and thus familiar with it, like social media. It’s written in perfect English and translated into many languages, with most articles resembling the following:
“Then, When You Have Inflicted a Massacre, Secure Their Bonds… If we know that the blood of the Christians is permissible to shed, we know that taking them as slaves is also permissible, and likewise ransoming them….”, “So when you meet those who disbelieve [in battle], strike [their] necks until, when you have inflicted slaughter upon them…” “We will conquer your Rome [the West], break your crosses, and enslave your women, by the permission of Allah, the Exalted….”
But it’s not all neck hacking and this is where IS goes deep. It’s aspirational, promising the young men Rumiya is pitched at a wife, slaves, money, a gun, and a loyal community: meaning. All this is interspersed with magical religious fairy tales and scriptural justification. Most signups have troubled lives in their own countries and few prospects so it’s a tempting promise. In an article last year Rumiya profiled a female Finnish emigrant, the covered-cover girl if you will.
Finland has about the highest standard of living on earth and is one of the happiest and kindest of societies. It’s for this reason Umm Khalid al-Finlandia’s defection to IS, a poor, violent failed pseudo-state in Syria has such resonance to potential recruits. It’s worth noting that while the locals in Iraq and Syria are often either press-ganged or forced by poverty into signing up for (now $100 monthly) salaries, tens of thousands of Westerners have moved there voluntarily. Their Western passports, burnt on arrival, are something ordinary Syrians die at sea trying to acquire which adds a deeper level of disgust to the whole situation.
Miss Finland is probably fictional: the “voice” of her autobiography is suspiciously like another writer at Dabiq, and there are other “tells.” Whether she’s real or not matters little, “she” and little son welcome martyrdom: she’s happy when he’s killed. After trashing Finland, the joys and purity of the IS community, the wholesomeness of martyrdom are all central to her tale. It’s a search for fulfillment for people lacking it: the majority of those who join IS.
Al Qaida’s dull Osama-lectures in Arabic never had the pizazz of IS’s sleek magazines and certainly not the charisma of their reality-tv snuff films. Their gruesome short films are filmically excellent, often looking like Hollywood slasher movies except the violence and killing are real.
As a physical and administrative state, IS is dying. Its arid slithers of Syria and Iraq shrink daily. Its jihadis will be overrun and immediately executed by the Syrian Army, Kurds, or Iranians. All sides play for keeps there but only IS publicizes their executions. Or they’ll be mowed down by Russian MIGS, or drone- dispatched from above. IS’s dream though, its poisonous ideology – as we see voiced by their propaganda and social media above – will remain long after the last square inch of defensible sand disappears.
David Anderson is an Australian-American attorney in NYC who studied Middle East politics at Melbourne and Georgetown Universities and Arabic at the New School in NYC. He also contributes to Forbes, counterpunch.org and democracychroinicles.org
Sources, further reading.
TheClarionProject.org – reproductions of all Dabiq/Rumaya editions
Memri.org – Israeli website which translates Arab media, school textbooks, etc.
Patrick Cockburn, The Rise of the Islamic State, 2015
F. Gerges: A History of Isis, 2016
Graeme Wood: The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State, 2017
graphic: by Yo – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45781807