The Iconography of Terror: How ISIS Taps into Our Fears

For some time, I have been convinced that ISIS is tapping in to Western fears, using an intimate knowledge of our history, art and myth to stir night terrors for an entire civilization.

ISISSquadThis first occurred to me when I saw this picture, which I and many compared to the einsatzgrupen on the Eastern Front. The helpless victims with their backs to death, the collective nature of the method of of executions so all the killer share equally in the act tie the two scenes  together across time.

Gruppen                                                                 Contrast this to Goya’s rendering of a similar scene. The Spaniards in this painting will all surely die, but they face their killers and defy them. They have not been robbed of all agency. They die, but we know others will live. Beyond the horror is hope. It is if Goya could look across more than a century and see liberty arise from a sea of corpses. Whereas, the equally iconic picture of the the German killers presents no hope, only hopelessness, and shame at that helplessness. We have long thought -or hoped – that Goya’s was, in the end, the clearer vision.

"Third of May"  Francisco Goya.  Napoleon's troops shoot civilians. An archetype for countless atrocities over the next century and a half.

“Third of May” Francisco Goya. Napoleon’s troops shoot civilians. An archetype for countless atrocities over the next century and a half.

ISIS has been described as “sophisticated” in their media output, but the latest from Libya, is in my view, brilliant. Lets have a look at this still from the video of the mass murder of 21 Copts on a Libya shore.

LONSHOTBEACCH

21 Copts murdered. New reports of 21 captives held in cages. A reference to a 21 gun salute? I wouldn’t put it past this bunch.

First we see a line of obviously cowed, despairing men in orange jumpsuits, each escorted by a masked figure who towers above his captive. The use of orange jump suits in beheading videos goes back to at least Nick Berg, and is in part a riposte for the humiliations visited to some prisoners in Abu Ghraib. Beyond that, it is a mockery of our Western notions of justice. Unlike western prisoners, like those you sometimes see out clearing verges along highways, these men will have no lawyers, no work release, no parole. Only death. And this is as decreed in a multitude of Islamic sources. Allah’s law prevails, and the statutes of Pharaoh, Caesar and Parliament are as nothing. Note how the line recedes form the foreground into the distance. No matter how many  “Crusaders” there are, there is a limitless supply of executioners. The setting along the shore is no accident. The shore in question is the southern Mediterranean, a Latin term meaning at the center of the earth, the sea that bound the Roman world together, Mare Nostrum, Our Sea. A sea that Islam cleft in twain for more than a millennium. This is to let us know that the sea is ours no longer, and will once again be theirs.

A shore is the limit of the human inhabited earth, a dead end.  There are no waiting ships, and no escape. Only a brooding sky over an iron sea. A storm is coming.

axeman It is the back cloaked figures who tap most deeply in to our subconscious. The axeman is a familiar archetype. For how many centuries did Europeans live under rulers who could at a whim, send their subjects to the block, where a masked man in black would send them to eternity? In fact, beheading was reserved for the nobility, while the common man was more likely to go via the rope. Certainly, the hangman’s noose, remains a symbol of death, while the hangman is remembered in folklore, but who we see in our nightmares, is the axeman, perhaps because he figured in the last moments of so many famous historical figures. ISIS and others use knives, not axes. This is the tool of halal slaughter, a clear message that the victims are as beasts.

grey

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey. Paul de la Roche, 1834

In this painting of the execution of Lady Jane Gray one sees a similar sort of obscene intimacy as that in the lSIS Libyan video, where the executioners each guide their victims with a hand on the shoulder. They proceed in step, both part of the choreography.( Surely this was rehearsed.) While I’m not a cinematography nerd, as a long time consumer of horror movies, the technique in the ISIS short seems familiar. There are a couple of tricks I’m sure I’ve seen in the kind of second tier scare flicks you see on Thirll TV.

Open on an empty beach. Which quickly rushes up to the viewer, then back again, a kind of whiplash view accompanied by  reptilian chattering. Same again, but the line of men is now on the beach. Again, and the beach is empty. Then the men return and the narrative becomes more conventional There is a declaration, the usual tale of victimization and retributive aggression.

See Video: ISIS executes 21 Egyptian Copts in Libya

We are given time to learn their faces, so that we will recognize them in death.

The camera lingers briefly over each face that we will remember them. When the moment comes, the men are shoved on to the sand in a wave action beginning at the far end of the line. Continuity disappears. There is a brief montage of violence, blood, body parts ,screams and exultant shouts. I have seen this before. The violence is such that we comprehend its nature, but so brief that a gag reflex isn’t triggered.  The dialogue may well sound better in Arabic and perhaps a more competent translator might have given it greater power. Nevertheless, it bares examination as some of it has been much in the news.

The beheaded Copts are referred to as Crusaders, which may be read as any Christian in Muslim lands. In this instance,and many others, pundits have referred to the enduring wounds of the Crusades, which is utterly nonsensical. Islam won the Crusades and they were of little import until anti-Catholic historians made much of them and their victimization of idealism Islamic societies, beginning with Edward Gibbon. Another Edward, Edward Said, was notable among many others in the last century who recast the Crusades as the first assault of Western Colonialism upon non-Western peoples.

Equally laughable is the speculation of some that the Jihadi pointing his knife towards Rome is an attempt to enlist Libyan nationalists resentful of Italian domination. The Italians have been gone from Libya since Montgomery kicked them out in 1943. Indeed, the knife wielder makes a point of his geographic proximity to today’s Rome, but Islam has a long history with both the city,and the idea of Rome. Islam arose in th 7th Century decades after the official end of the Western empire, but the City of Constantine, the New Rome, endured until 1453. Beyond, the city, Rum, the polity, and Rumi, the people were for Islam the entire West.

The speaker says that they will take Rome, and Jesus will return to “overthrow the cross.” This demented eschatology is orthodox in Islam. In 1984, Orwell` posited an end to history in which a boot stamped a human face, forever. With Islam, it is a knife to a human neck.

This short film thus uses Western mass communication techniques to at once feed on our ancient terrors and to rally Islam to an interrupted conquest, with the aid of anti-colonial Marxist derived tropes perpetuated by the West itself.

Brilliant.

Koran 3.151

Soon shall We cast terror into the hearts of the Unbelievers, for that they joined companions with Allah, for which He had sent no authority: their abode will be the Fire: And evil is the home of the wrong-doers!seventhSeal

Encounters With Islam: Half a Century of Connection, and a Final Separation (Part 2: 1961-65)

(Read Part One here)

We landed in Talang Betutu Airport, Palembang, South Sumatra, on a fine day. Scatter ranks of towering cumulo-nimbus at the edge of a cobalt sky promised rain later on. A company van took us to the ferry where we would cross the Musi River to Sungai Gerong, the refinery site. We made our way along a barely macadam-ed road, threading our way through pedestrians, bicyclists and bullock carts. Rice fields stretched out the horizon either side. In the small ramshackle villages now and then, the onion dome of a mosque, fabricated from sheet metal, blazed reflected sunlight. I noted to myself that just has I had seen other exotic sights on the way out – The Buddha of Kamakura, a water buffalo, the fantastic entwined idols at a Hindu temple in Singapore –  now I was seeing mosques. It gave me a small glow of satisfaction to add one more sight to my globetrotter resume.

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Supri, our housekeeper. Her dress is typical of Indonesian Muslim women at the time. Photo: Thomas J. Strei

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Wayang Golek, ca 1965. The performers are Muslim, the puppets and stories, Hindu. Photo: Thomas J. Strei

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Traditional Malay wedding, Palembang, ca. 1964. The groom may be dressed up as Ibn Saud, but the floral tributes come from Hindu tradition. Photo: Thomas J. Strei

My father worked there for more than five years. Islam was present, but barely more than background noise. I went to seventh and eighth grade there, and returned for two summers while away at boarding school. Looking back, admittedly from a post 9/11 vantage, it is astonishing how little Islam, in the world’s most populous Muslim nation, touched our lives. When it did, it was simply one more exotic attribute of our surroundings, and could at times be amusing.  I remember one cook, terrified of coming in contact with pork, attempting to open a can of Spam holding it with a pair of pliers, and working the key with another. She herself wore her hair uncovered,and dressed in a kebaya, a lacy blouse with a fair amount of cleavage, and a sarong, which while concealing flesh, emphasized curves. . The household staff came from Central Java, and while nominally Muslim, were really adherents of traditional Javanese beliefs, a mixture of vestigial Hinduism and mystical practices. Most seemed to pray only in the evening.  If they performed all the five daily prayers, they did so discreetly. Never was one absent for religious observance. I can remember the butler taking his leave, saying he wished to “sembhayang,” an Indonesian word derived from the Sanskrit for meditation, but meaning any one of the five mandatory prayers. Today, Indonesian Muslims use the Arabicc, salaat.

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1965. At the time only haji wore these caps, but many non haji do now as a sign of piety. Photo: Thomas J. Strei

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Pilgrim ship, Musi River, ca. 1964. Photo: Thomas J. Strei

The exoticism was there. My father had pictures of a wedding where the groom rides in an open car dressed as a Hijazi prince, and older men, hajis, with skull caps. He took those shots because even there in that land of Islam, at that time those people stood out. President Obama famously said that there is nothing so lovely as the evening Muslim call to prayer. There was no mosque our compound, but on evenings, people gathered along the riverside at sunset, and from across the river from the village on the other bank, came that cal, and it was indeed lovely. Every year, around a month before the annual haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, a fleet of passenger ships would arrive and stand off for days as they waited for the faithful from the hinterlands to board.  Then they sailed, and may weeks later returned.  The markets filled with dates and Arab spices for a while. Muslim boys are circumcised around age thirteen, and the expatriate employers of Javanese domestic workers customarily would pay for the ceremony. The imam flashed his his blade, and Koranic recital was very brief. Then all night long, shadow puppet plays, the Javanese Wayang Kulit, based on ancient Hindu epics, enthralled the crowd.

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Fully veiled women, Aden 1963. Photo: Thomas J. Strei

After two years in Indonesia it was time for home leave, and we went to Europe by sea. The ship touched at Aden, still a British crown colony, albeit tottering as rebels attacked the outskirts of town, but we were assured it was safe in the center city. This was a heat unlike any  I had felt since living in the Mojave as a small boy. The streets were bustling with British soldiers, Indians, Arabs, and Europeans. And then I started to notice them: Women completely draped in black, even their eyes covered by dark gauzy stuff. Wow! I didn’t think of Islam, or misogyny, but only that once again I was thrilled at seeing something I had only known from geography books.

Two years later, while at school, in 1965, and shortly before my parents left Sungai Gerong in 1965,  I read with great interest my mother’s account of how the events that overthrew Indonesian strong man Sukarno reverberated in our oil town. There were rumors of death lists drawn up by the communists, and pits in the waste ground beyond the perimeter fence, ready for the Reds’ victims. In the event it was the communists who lost, and the whole series of events is still debated. What my mother did see with her own eyes, out walking the dog, was groups of Indonesian men, prominent in the company, dressed as if going to the mosque – checkered sarongs and the black felt caps called songkok, converging at the home of one high level company official, on a number of nights, some weeks before the coup/counter coup. Among them were men who had privately expressed their anti-communist and pro-American views to her and my father, even as they denounced them in public. She speculated that they were organizing resistance. Mom was convinced of the Communists’ guilt. The Army “martyrs,” (generals and a lieutenant who were first kidnapped, and then killed, it was said by the women’s cadre – had according to the official account, their genitals hacked off and placed in their mouths. “Muslims don’t do such things,” she wrote. I do not know on what she based this belief, but it did reflect her generally good opinion of Muslims, one that I shared for many years.

My mother died in 2008, some years before jihadi beheading and torture videos were so widely available on the Internet. Our geopolitical view -that Muslims would be valuable allies in the struggle with communism – was something that had long had a place in diplomatic and intelligence circles in Washington, and would see its fullest implementation in Afghanistan.

End Part Two