How Trump Misunderstands Islam
Trump continues to use fear appeals and scare tactics when it comes to Muslims and terror. And while he is minimally effective – and getting less so every day – his supporters are sympathetic others who are increasingly misinformed about terror and Islam. A piece of video footage showing Trump supporters at a rally had one fellow screaming at another that Islam was an “ideology.” The point was that Islam is a nefarious set of beliefs and practices designed to manipulate you into its belief system.
The dilemma here is that defining Islam as violent justifies an armed response when, in fact, the only response that will be effective is a long-term war of ideas pitting *Islamist extremism against liberal democracies. As Gutmann and Thompson have claimed in their highly recommended book Democracy and Disagreement,“of the challenges that American democracy faces today, none is more formidable than the problem of moral disagreement.” In other words, those who have sacred values and are what Scott Atran calls “devoted actors” rather than “rational actors” pose the biggest challenge to liberal democracies because conflicts over fundamental values are so resistant to resolution. You cannot simply subject the moral disagreement to the rational calculations of the marketplace.
But if wanton murder of men, women, and children is so fundamental to Islam why is it such a recent phenomenon on the world stage? Why doesn’t “jihadism” as it has come to be known have long history? Typically, Islamist terror is first associated with the 1979 Iranian revolution. But even the Iranian revolution can be analyzed as a clash of political ideologies where Islamists attach themselves to religious sounding terminology (“infidels,” “holy wars,” “party of God”) in order to give themselves religious justification.
It is true enough that Islamism is really a totalitarian movement that has hijacked some religious terminology in an effort to alter traditional Islam and challenge Western democracies. But Boroumand and Boroumand writing in the Journal of Democracy make the following emphatic statement and I quote in full:
“There is in the history of Islam no precedent for the utterly unrestrained violence of Al Qaeda or Hezbollah… To kill oneself while wantonly murdering women, children, and people of all religions and descriptions… has nothing to do with Islam and one does not have to be a learned theologian to see this… The truth is that contemporary Islamist terror is an eminently modern practice thoroughly at odds with Islamic traditions and ethics” (p.6).
I don’t mean to imply that traditional Islamic religious teachings hold an inclusive democratic vision for the world or that it resonates with contemporary ideas about liberal democracies and human rights. But the long view of any religious evolution has it moving toward a widening circle of inclusion and dignity for others. As of now, there are more than a few Islamic countries that are pluralistic but have no political concept of “pluralism.” For this reason they define rigid group boundaries and more nascent forms of control.
But as with most of the issues in this election, Trump is not the answer to anything.
*Terminology note: I use “Islamist” or “Islamism” to refer to those extreme groups or ideologies that justify violence and cherry pick the Koran to give their ideology a religious sounding façade. The term “Islamic” refers to the long political, religious, and scholarly tradition of institutional Islam.
Language and its Power
Language certainly has the power to direct you towards pre-selected portions of reality. It makes it possible for false comparisons and confusion over categories of meaning. For example, there is a common statement that circulates in the public that is not only a facile generality but dangerous. If you actually believe this statement, if you are ensnared by its rhetorical trickery and literally accept the two propositions as being equal, then it reveals you as a less than rigorous thinker who cannot recognize or make important distinctions. If you accept the equivalence of the two propositions you are likely to put yourself and others in danger by being paralyzed with an inability to act and justify definitional clarity that allows for clear decision-making. The dangerous cliché I’m talking about is:
One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.
If you believe this then Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda are the same as what might be considered a defensible national liberation movement. The semantic foundation of the cliché implies that nothing matters except perspective. It’s a cliché championed by terrorists because they want to present their own causes as positive and justified. And the logical extension of this thinking is that no violent act can be too odious because it is all in the service of national liberation. Terrorists love this phrase because it blurs the distinction between goals and the means to achieve the goals, when in fact no political movement can serve as a justification for terrorism.
This issue has emerged again given the events in Paris. And interestingly, ISIS is so extreme there has been very little political justification for their violence.
This cliché cannot stand and we need more political leaders and public intellectuals to condemn it. There needs to be public discussion and argument. Freedom fighters who are truly struggling against oppression do not kill innocent people and sow panic and confusion – murderers do. Why would the democracies and liberal political regimes around the world allow the word “freedom” to be used in this way? ISIS does not bring freedom they carry fear and oppression. The best reading on this is by Boaz Ganor and can be found here. It is crucial to make the distinction between terrorism and national liberation.
Let’s try to be a little clearer about terrorism. As Ganor describes, terror is (1) violent. Peaceful protests and demonstrations are not terrorism. Terrorism is (2) political. Violence without politics is simply criminal behavior. And (3) terrorism is against civilians with the goal of creating fear and confusion. It mixes with the media to produce anxiety. So what is not terrorism? Terrorism is not accidental collateral damage when the original target is military. Using citizens as shields places the onus of responsibility on those manipulating the citizenry, not those who initiated the attack if it was against a military target. It is also important to recognize those situations where targets of violence are clearly military and uniformed soldiers. Using guerrilla tactics does not necessarily mean terrorism.
It is important, too, that motives be taken into consideration. The real thorny problem is the idea that any form of national liberation – believed sincerely by a presumably oppressed group – justifies violence that is not considered terrorism. This perpetuates the dangerous relativism of the cliché. The hard mental work of distinguishing terrorism from other forms of violence is important if we are going to pass legislation to protect the public, have effective international cooperation, and assist those states struggling with terrorism.
If enough people genuinely accept this relativist cliché then all bets are off. Any sort of violence can be justified and the international community will have a collective shrug of its shoulders essentially saying, “who cares” because someone considers the violent group “freedom fighters” wrapped in vacuous rhetoric designed to justify violence. As difficult as it is to fashion a precise definition of terrorism, it is equally as difficult to imagine accepting ISIS and jihadist attacks against the French as the work of “freedom fighters.”
Note: This post was first published December 23, 2013
The Sin of Sanctity
Below is a video of Obama’s comments at the prayer breakfast where he compared the Crusades to the religious extremism of ISIS. It was a clumsy comparison and I probably would have counseled him to find another way to make the point. But he was speaking casually. Still, he was not wrong. The general principle that any exclusivist claim to truth – whether it be religious or secular – creates a psychology of sanctity and sets into motion extreme justifications is defensible.
The sense that a group or an idea is larger than us and we identify with it is basic to our evolutionary psychology. Group and ideational identification has a survival value and it is deeply set in our consciousness. That’s why people identify so strongly with political groups, national entities, belief systems of various types (communism, socialism, capitalism, Stalinism), and of course religions. But it remains true, as others have quipped before, that you will die for your ethnic or religious group but not for your golf club. You might belong to a book group and acquire some group identity as a result, but you cannot imagine dying for your book group in the same way you would for your country or your religious group. The difference is sanctity or the belief that your national or religious group and its actions have divine reality. Nobody believes their book group is divine.
In the most extreme cases death and an afterlife become a truer reality for believers. One Muslim extremist group commented after a bombing that they “chose death as a path to life” a sentiment that on its face makes no sense but upon reflection refers to a truer and higher reality yet to come. They seek and believe in a divine reality that transcends individuals and requires integration. Violence in the service of this higher divine reality is simply a tool. The Rev. Paul Hill, who killed a doctor at a women’s clinic, spent his days in jail exclaiming that “the Lord had done great things through him.”
When something is sacred it takes precedence over everything else. In the heart of the true believer nothing stands in the way of duty to God, sacred land, or artifacts. Yet it remains worth asking the question why some resort to such vicious violence and others do not. Some Christians, Jewish religious settlers, and Hindus (BJP) have all engaged in violence, and have a strong sense of the sacred, but not on the scale of ISIS. One explanation is the centrality and intensity of sanctity along with the politics that requires purification. The more this world is considered “unclean” and the next world is “more real than this reality” then moral and ethical frameworks that soften judgments of others begin to melt away.
Acting in the name of a nation or the simple politics and power of resource acquisition is a mundane concern that has pragmatic value only. But when a territory or an idea is sacred boundaries close in and walls go up with almost no room for interpretive latitude. Moreover, the actions of an individual or group hold no value when they are simply pragmatic and consequently it is easier to perpetrate violence against them. And one reason managing conflict with the sanctity motivated is so difficult is that the very act of changing your behavior either for others or because of secular incentives is understood as a violation of the sacred. It becomes proof that the “true path” is being violated.
So, it is nothing doctrinal about Christianity, or Judaism, or Islam that supports greater violence; rather, it is the intensity of the sacred.
How New Digital Technology Encourages Terrorism and Threatens Democracy
There was a time when surveillance and security concerns did not trample on the rights of individuals or democratic principles because the entire matter was too difficult and cumbersome. In the old days when the threat was only ideological (e.g. communism) security issues were far less immediate and gathering information was a slow and lumbering process. But now there is a marriage of violence and digital technology. It is no accident that the correlation between terrorism and media presence and sophistication is strong and positive. As digital technology has advanced, along with the ease and availability of violence, so has terrorist activity and the technology and security requirements necessary to control it.
The threat to individual rights and democratic processes is always easy to defend when faced with rank violence. Of course we cannot let extremist ideologies and easy violent behavior dictates the political environment. But digital technology allows nonstate actors as well as other participants to engage in violence with ease by historical standards. Again, during the relatively simple period of security issues during the Cold War if an individual were a potential threat to the United States he could be detained or we could even enlist the help of others and subject the individual to legal processes. In the modern digital age the means and techniques of interrogating individuals and gathering information are less compatible with legal principles and offer more options – some of them unpleasant and questionable legally and morally.
In the Cold War if we wanted to learn secrets about somebody someone could be assigned to “tail them” and see what they could learn. This was slow, unreliable, and not a very productive use of resources. It was impossible to have enough people assigned to potential sources of information. Searching your person or your property required legal permission. New digital media can gather vast amounts of information from your cell phone, websites, credit card purchases, etc. The state has the legal right to gather information from organizations and it can all be done by a few people in a single place. Moreover, all of the electronic data about you is potentially more informative and revealing than any information obtainable from a coworker or close friend. Purely human information is fallible; people are not paying attention to what you’re doing, or you forget what you did at a certain time and place. But your cell phone and computer don’t forget. It’s all there in simple searchable form.
In the Cold War there was no technology available for massive data-gathering like collecting phone messages from entire communities. Today, the technology is available along with the software sophistication for massive meta-data collection. In fact, Facebook does the equivalent every day.
The security issues in the modern era are serious because of the easy availability of violence and technology. The security sector of the state measures itself by its ability to prevent incidents and is thus motivated to do more and more, regardless of how far the edges of acceptability are pushed, to ensure that there are no more 9/11s. These conditions threaten our democracy as they push the pendulum more towards the security side of the continuum. Still, surveillance and security are part of any state and targeting an opponent of the state capable of violence is legitimate.
Practical limits and approval from proper chains of authority are the only answer to maintain the balance between security and democracy. But new challenges and interesting questions still are on the horizon. Google and Apple, for example, are planning on encryption devices in new versions of cell phones. Security forces are legitimately concerned that this will make important information even more difficult to obtain. But such devices will strike a blow for privacy and individual rights while maintaining the tension between security and democracy.
How to Create a Terrorist – Criminal Justice or War
The newspapers are full of stories about how these Jihadies get created. The typical headline reads “The Journey to Extremism,” or “The Radicalization of Mohammed,” or “From Amateur to Slaughter.” The “from-to” structure is apparent as the story always tells a tale of the evolution (or should we say devolution) of the terrorist’s political consciousness and radicalization.
The fact is that we know quite a bit about this process. Terrorism has been the subject of study for some time with an accepted enough definition regarding the use of violence against noncombatants for the purpose of political goals. The problem is that the distinction between combatants and noncombatants has been getting fuzzier for some years. The US killed lots of innocent people during the bombing of Serbia and even during World War II.
The Western, and shall we say more developed world, continues to be chagrined at the creation and presence of terrorists because our first reaction is that they must be psychologically damaged or “crazy.” But we have known for some time that psychopathologies are no more likely among terrorist than non-terrorists. In fact, if terrorists were truly crazy and psychopathological it would be easier to track them and prevent their destructive ways. So, how does it happen? Does a terrorist just decide one day to be a terrorist?
First, from the work of Horowitz and McCauley we know that terrorists kill for a combination of ideology and group dynamics. They are attached to a cause that is worth dying for but more importantly the cause and the ideology are seen as greater than the individual even leading perhaps to immortality. The most normal person believes in something greater than himself (a religious group, a political party, the social ideology).
Secondly, the group dynamics become even more important as death or violence becomes nearer because the group membership gives it meaning. The group becomes the same as a family or culture allowing members to embrace its values. And any set of important values will do. The common refrain is that religion accounts for so much death but secular ideology (Maoists, Shining Path, Red Brigade, Baader Meinhof, communism, Stalinism) accounts for and justifies more death than religion. Although these secular ideologies have met their match in jihadist Islam.
Third, there are few conditions more potent than a collection of highly focused intense like-minded people who reinforce one another. We all belong to lots of groups but when one group becomes dominant and foregrounded in our consciousness with respect to identity the group becomes particularly powerful. Other members of the group become like family with intense interpersonal commitments fueled by a belief in a just cause. The psychology of extremist behavior is normal psychology but just intensified.
Criminal Justice or War
How do we handle the French terrorists or the Boston Marathon bombers? Are they criminals engaged in illegal activity in which we must provide evidence of illegal behavior, or is this a war? For starters, describing something as a war moves it away from individual responsibility toward group responsibility. But this just feeds into terrorist goals which are to convince you that their individual behavior represents the will of large groups. It is true enough that we should always examine foreign policy to see how we might be contributing to discontent, but this is certainly no excuse for the typical violence associated with terrorism. When we call for a “war” on the terrorists we are using language that justifies broader military operations and of course different legal implications.
It is time to move beyond simple questions about where these terrorists come from and how they are created. We know a lot about the development of violent behavior and under the right conditions most people are capable of it. We need, instead, a concerted effort to understand how we might defuse these conditions. This would include a more systematic defense of liberal values by Western leaders as well as efforts by group leaders (e.g. mainstream Muslims) to direct grievances away from violence.
Do You Want to Stop Extremist Groups? Don’t Change Messages, Change the Receivers for These Messages
Communication perspectives have a long history of trying to teach people which particular message produces which affects, as if the message were a bullet traveling through space that simply needed to be aimed properly. I’m just as guilty as anyone else of thinking about communication as an instrumentality that is constantly looking to push the right button to achieve a predetermined desired effect. So, for example, my own work in dialogue and deliberation still often – not always – reads as if success is simply finding the optimal input conditions that lead to some output.
But there is another way of thinking about how to achieve particular effects. Rather than thinking of the receiver of a message as a passive mechanism with an absorptive sponge for a brain, and then spending your time trying to find the right message that will be absorbed as you designate, change the receiver rather than the message. Make new receivers that will be more or less poised to receive particular messages. Let me explain.
The U. S. is currently struggling to defeat extremist groups such as the Islamic State, Hezbollah, Hamas, Al Qaeda, and a host of other radical groups. Most of the news about our efforts to degrade these extremist groups is pretty bad. Terrorist and violent groups are successfully recruiting new members, winning their share of battles, raising money, and generally prospering. Our military, mighty as it is, will not defeat the Islamic State and no informed counselor to the president believes military force is the only answer – important as it is. So what are we to do?
One answer is to change the terrorists and make them less interested in violence. A more traditional approach consistent with the silver bullet metaphor above is to “lecture” terrorists on democracy, and pluralism, and liberalism, and all those good things and assume that if we can only find the right words with the right pedagogical strategy then these ideas will “take” and we will turn them all into liberal democrats. Well as a popular quip goes, “good luck with that.”
But a second way to approach the problem is to change social structures and business arrangements such that they foster capitalist enterprises and market economies. Don’t try to change people, change social systems and the people will follow. Hernando De Soto wrote about this some months ago in the Wall Street Journal. The idea is to raise living standards and inject the cultures with some imagination and capital especially for the poor. And interestingly, turns out that the poor in many cultures, both Latin American and Middle Eastern, are not poor because of simple unemployment as conventional wisdom would hold. Rather, they are small businessmen and women operating “off the books” in an underground and informal economy.
If economic leaders and advisers in Middle Eastern states would eliminate regulation, and bureaucratic extremes including recognizing the importance of property rights, they would create customers for businesses and leave extremist groups with fewer customers. This is consistent with the goal of leaving groups like ISIS without constituencies, which is currently the goal in Iraq after the deposition of Malaki. On the political front of the strategy is to bring Sunnis into the political system including official bodies of governance on the assumption that they will not turn their attention to outside extremist groups. The same logic can work on an economic basis. The perceptions of these communities must change so they are seen as future vibrant markets rather than training grounds for violence. There is some history, according to De Soto, of these capitalist strategies working in Peru, China, Botswana, and others. And finally, it’s fairly well established that businesses rationalize human relationships. Former intergroup enemies can be interdependent on the basis of a commercial exchange. And if you change the relationship you can change attitudes and values.
I’m naïve you say? Maybe.
Try Communication, Torture Doesn’t Work
It sounds a little benign, but the issues surrounding torture are very much communication issues. I don’t consider pure torture to be communicative in the proper sense of the term but a decision not to torture is certainly communicative because it means information will be extracted and processed through the communication process. There is nothing wrong with interrogating someone purely through the interactional process with the goal of trying to get information, as long as this process remains fully symbolic. But of course any process that is fully symbolic and “interactive” in the most straightforward sense of the term is subject to wide latitudes of interpretation, pragmatic complexities, and semantic confusions. Prevarication is always part of a pure human symbolic activity not to mention time constraints, speed of information acquisition, and other practical limitations.
People start to justify torture when the information is considered crucial and must be obtained quickly. Moreover, the moral argument is typically overcome by the principle of the “greater good.” In other words, the potential to save lives or do good outweighs the opportunity to maintain moral purity. Security and intelligence specialists feel responsible for protecting the lives of others and thus acquiring information from an enemy is vital. Torture becomes justified by an appeal to a “higher” good.
There remains the question of simply whether or not torture works. In other words if a political system institutes a program of torture is it the case that inputting torture leads to an output of truth. Arrigo posits three potential theoretical suggestions for how torture leads to truth. These are the animal instinct model, the cognitive failure model, and the data processing model. Each has complexities and strengths and weaknesses that are beyond our concern here but all share an “informational” quality in terms of predictions about whether or not the model leads to the truth it seeks.
Briefly, the animal instinct model is simply that in order to avoid pain or death one will meet the demands of the torturer and utter the truth. The problem with this model is that it requires considerable brutality and subjects will say anything to avoid the pain. A second model is the cognitive failure model and it holds that torture creates incompetence in the subject and it is impossible for him to maintain any deceptions. This process is lengthy which makes information less valuable over time of and often the subject can’t distinguish between true statements and erroneous ones. The third model is the data processing model and it poses the theoretical position that extracts bits and pieces of both true and false information from subjects and then uses that with other information to complete a comprehensive analysis. This is the most common model and approximates the way interrogation specialists whether they inflict pain or not actually operate. They defend the information value of their work by defending the notion of accumulating small bits of information that finally amounts to something.
In the end, torture just doesn’t work very well. Of course appeals to morality and democratic liberties are potent arguments that must be respected. But the arguments for enhanced interrogation or torture by any definition always include the pleas for speed and the “ticking bomb” argument that some disaster must be prevented immediately. More than a few studies have reported the ill consequences of coercive interrogation which are serious societal moral objections, false evidence, manipulated evidence, corrosive corruption and secrecy, and even the involvement of organized crime. Arrigo reports that changes in information value when torture is permitted are negligible.
When the public feels threatened it resorts quickly to extreme means to solve problems and identify dangers. The public support for torture varies as a function of its perception of threat. Managing these threats through communicative and political means will eliminate the conditions that nourish the demand for coercive interrogation, and eliminate the time pressure that justifies such interrogations.
The Klinghoffer Opera and History
We have become so committed to the fluid and malleable sense of history that the existence of facts or truth has lost its moorings and, more than that, you are considered unreconstructed if you believe in such things. This is especially true in academia where the “social construction of reality” rules the day. History is considered to be the result of myths, subjective narratives, flawed memory, social construction, or written by the victors with all of their self-serving perspective.
I’m thinking in particular about the Klinghoffer Opera currently being staged at the Metropolitan in New York. This is a controversial opera by John Adams called “The Death of Klinghoffer” which has generated protests in New York and demonstrations in front of the Met. These protesters take serious objection to the portrayal of the Palestinian terrorists who killed Leon Klinghoffer on the cruise ship Achilles Lauro. Note: I have not seen the Klinghoffer Opera but I’m not writing about it as if I had. You can read some background on the controversy here.
Very briefly, in 1985 Palestinian terrorists hijacked the cruise ship Achilles Lauro and singled out Jewish passengers. One passenger was a wheelchair bound Jew by the name of Leon Klinghoffer. The terrorists shot Klinghoffer in the head and threw him and his wheelchair overboard. It has always been considered a vicious act of murder, terrorism, and anti-Semitism.
The opera “The Death of Klinghoffer first appeared in 1991 and it was accused of sanctioning blatant murder and rationalizing and legitimizing the terrorism that took place on the Achilles Lauro. The play apparently was sympathetic or at least asked the audience to consider its sympathies for the Palestinians. The opera has since been edited with scenes removed and is being re-staged at the Metropolitan Opera. John Adams, the composer of the opera, and the librettist Alice Goodman have been accused of portraying false moral equivalence between the historical plight of Jews and that of the Palestinians. Adams talks about his work in the opera here.
The Klinghoffer daughters stated that the opera “perverts the terrorist murder of our father and attempts to romanticize, rationalize, legitimize and explain it. The political approach of the composer and librettist is evident with the opera’s disingenuous and dangerous juxtaposition of the plight of the Palestinian people with the coldblooded, terrorist murder of an innocent disabled American Jew.” The arts are central to the full expression and comprehension of political issues, but the Klinghoffer Opera does not critically examine world events; rather, it rationalizes violence and manipulates the historical truths that make up the Palestinian narrative.
History As a Lump of Clay
History can be changed and molded and even if it isn’t particularly easy, over time, and with systematic efforts, what was once true can now be false. The campaign against Israel and the redefinition of Zionism and the historical plight of the Jews is relentless. Even the Holocaust, which is associated with Jewish particularity and the primary stimulus for the creation of the state of Israel, of which there is reams of evidence, is chipped away at, challenged, denied, and ultimately turned back on the Jews. The Palestinians now blatantly claim that they were put in internment camps by Israelis and suffered the same Holocaust.
These issues remain difficult because a committed group of people can always be relied on to daze and confuse others. And they will always be successful with at least some group of people. Part of the answer is to become more rigorous about language. We must continue to try and recognize the distinction between narrative and flagrant manipulation. Of course, the hell of it is that we will never be completely successful at such a distinction. But we must try.
The Semiotics of Beheadings
Everyone has seen the images of the poor fellow on his knees with the hooded executioner standing over him. The imminent death of the captive is sufficient existential horror, as we all have a momentary absorptive identification with what it must be like, that moment, but the real focus of our identification is the violence made visible by the idea of a severed head. There are many quick and efficient ways to kill somebody, especially in the modern era. Then why behead someone? ISIS and like extremist groups are skillful users of media and savvy about manipulating images so they know that beheadings have a long history and carry a symbolism that resonates not only with Islamic traditions but captures the attention of the audience. The beheadings may be part of Islamic true believer’s traditions – of which I will say more about below – but they also hold a special horror in the West and have a long tradition of literary and artistic representation. Since beheadings are not the most rational or simplest way to kill somebody, they must carry extra social significance. Moreover, “ritual” beheadings are particularly symbolic and infused with cultural symbols. Beheadings, in fact, constitute a system of meanings that serve strategic as well as internal group purposes. It is always is difficult to draw a line from religious and cultural precepts to contemporary events. But it also is a mistake to pretend that these things don’t matter.
Perlmutter, in her explication of honor killings and ritual murder, begins with a basic Islamist tribal code originally designed to recognize proper social values, establish differences between right and wrong, and bind the community together. These evolved into Sharia law and have maintained their tribal commitments to ancestry worship, solidarity, purity, and powerful ingroup-outgroup mentalities.
It is purity that is most associated with the evolution of the moral code and this is true in most fundamental religions including Orthodox Judaism and Christianity as well as Islam. But Islamism in particular observes moral and purification rights by establishing prohibitions and practices on everything from dietary laws to sexual behavior. Ritualization inculcates these principles into the social unit and assists with learning and repetition. When an individual is afforded status or respect in the group it is because he or she is representing honor and adherence to the code. Dishonor and humiliation are to be avoided and when they are present in an individual or the community, then restoration in the form of vengeance is called for. Beheadings are form of vengeance and restoration.
As Perlmutter explains, ritualized killing of enemies is even more barbaric than honor killings because the enemy represents the threat of eradication. A beheading is a masculine response that restores honor because it is particularly vile but represents the group as brave, powerful, and heroic. Westerners may not recognize it, but the hooded fellow standing over the debilitated and restrained victim is experiencing an orgiastic sense of power, status, and honor.
In a symposium on violence, terrorism and Islam, participants made regular reference to “shame” cultures and the honor-shame continuum. Shame is associated with feminine qualities of weakness, defeat, acquiescence, and the loss of masculine identity. Shame requires a culture to move it more toward the honor end of the continuum and the shame is redressed by restoring masculine qualities such as violence. Shame resides in two places – the sexual organs and the face. One results in “honor” killings, and the other in the killing of enemies. The face is the focal point of human interaction and the location on the body that carries meaning, insights, and communicative expression. Beheadings, then, represent a strike at the core of one’s humanity and a form of mutilation that robs the other of manhood.
In her book titled Losing Our Heads, Beheadings in Literature and Culture, Janes identifies five types of severed heads: venerated, trophy, presentation, sacrificial, and judicial, corresponding to five types of traditionally authorized beheadings in human culture. There is the ancestral head, removed after death; the trophy head, taken in warfare or raid; the sacrificial head taken from a living person by decapitation in the performance of a religious rite; the presentation head, taken in a political struggle to remove a contender or rival; and the public execution, proceeding from a legal decision.
Beheadings, thus, are infused with meanings. They are the visible signs of deep cultural meanings and make manifest the inner workings of the culture. Knowledge of such workings is a crucial first step toward some sort of reconciliation, if not transformation.
The Media Literate Terrorist
The media in general, and new media in particular, are increasingly effective tools used by extremist in Syria or ISIS. Even their extraordinary brutality is no match for the skill in which they are using new media to attract new recruits, send propaganda messages, scare the enemy, and promote their goals of a single Muslim state. ISIS is now one of the more sophisticated users of technology and they are intent on strutting their stuff to show the world what they can do. You can read more by Gabriel Wiemann on new technology and terrorism here and here.
First, ISIS begins with a historical frame or a brand if you will that marks them as epochal and steeped in the language of historic Islam and religious triumphalism. This brand frame is consistent and deftly designed for particular audiences. Hence, they refer to the current organization of states in the Arab world as “colonial” or “Crusader” partitions. They use video messages to challenge the arrangement of states and call for a single Muslim nation under the protective covering umbrella of Islam. Like all ethnopolitical groups, they claim to have been oppressed, mistreated, and brutalized such that they are justified in righting an ancient wrong. They frame messages designed for young recruits on the basis of ancient injustices and deep threats to their primordial claims of truth and geography. These messages must be working well enough because recruitment is up along with supplies and weapons.
You have to give ISIS their due with respect to rhetorical sensitivity and their ability to adapt to technology and message strategy. With just about the same skill as any Hollywood producer, ISIS creates a sense of importance, urgency, and participation in something greater than yourself. Messages are crafted differently for Westerners then Arabs (the Westerners get a softer less violent sell). Long boring speeches by Osama bin Laden on video sent to Al Jazeera were replaced by jihadists who were familiar with colloquial English and could speak to American youth about liking their next-door neighbor because you borrow their lawnmower, but how that neighbor was really an enemy of Islam. Now ISIS has mastered twitter, Facebook, and has many messages translated into various languages. They send images through Instagram and travel with a camera person who takes video of battles and dramatic moments to be used later in the other images.
The website ask.fm (you need to logon and get an account) has a section where you can ask questions about how to travel to a particular location and join ISIS including suggestions on what to bring. There are instant messaging programs designed for communication that can be kept secret and are not made public.
Terrorist and extremist groups have been using social media for some time now but the effectiveness of these media will only grow. These new communication technologies are cheap, accessible, and highly interactive. They promote more individualized contact as well as coherent yet dispersed communities. Combating these new forms of connectivity is increasingly more interesting and challenging than understanding how ISIS are other groups use them.